Seizing William Gilbank

Sometimes men of power really wanted a felon who’d fled to sanctuary – but seizing them from a church was a serious sacrilege. A 1526 letter to Cardinal Wolsey gives rare insight into the calculations in such a situation. In August 1526, felon William Gilbank took sanctuary at the house of the Crouched or Crutched Friars in Colchester. Wolsey was highly interested in Gilibank’s case (why, we don’t know) and sent his servant John Veer to deal with it.

Veer went to the house of the Crouched Friars along with local Justice of the Peace Sir Geoffrey Gates to speak to the prior. In Wolsey’s name, Veer and Gates demanded that the prior “deliver the prisoner.” But the prior said no: that would violate our sanctuary.

Veer thought about seizing Gilbank anyway, but inconveniently the felon had stationed himself in the church near the high altar. As Veer explained in his letter to Wolsey, he “durst not enterprise” to seize Gilbank from there: that would be pushing the sacrilege too far. Instead Veer set a watch to guard him from escaping and returned a day or so later, this time with several big guns, including Justice Richard Broke of the Court of Common Pleas.

They met with the prior and demanded that he show evidence of the house’s sanctuary privilege. The prior had a transcript of a papal bull that laid out his house’s liberties which he gave them, but then Veer asked: “what about royal charters?” The prior answered (and I imagine at this point he probably shrugged) that he supposed such records were held at the head house of the order: he didn’t have that paperwork.

Now, if Gilbank was seeking permanent sanctuary in the friary, then the prior might need to show a charter; but if Gilbank was only looking for forty days of asylum before he abjured before a coroner, then any church provided that. In fact perhaps the prior’s inability to show those documents persuaded Gilbank to change the type of sanctuary he was seeking: immediately after this discussion about charters with the prior, Gilbank asked for a coroner to confess and abjure.

If Gilbank thought that he could short-circuit Wolsey’s attempt to get him into custody by abjuring the realm, he thought wrong. The coroner came; he did confess; but Veer ordered the coroner in Wolsey’s name to delay the abjuration until Wolsey’s wishes were clear. Of course, in the face of orders from the second-in-command in the kingdom validated by a lord justice, the coroner did as he was told. Veer’s letter to Wolsey reporting all this asked him to send instructions on what to do next.

As we don’t have Wolsey’s reply or any other record of what happened to Gilbank, we don’t know whether this interruption of Gilbank’s abjuration was permanent or if he was ultimately allowed to foreswear the realm and go into exile.

The case does show a couple of things:

  1. The total shocker 😲 that due process was definitely subject to political interference – interference aided and abetted in this case by a royal justice. A few years ago that seemed more surprising to me than it does now, for some reason.
  2. What does now does seem more surprising is that there were limits to the political interference. The prior of a small house of friars from an obscure order could stand up to Wolsey’s man; Wolsey’s man himself hesitated to commit sacrilege.

TNA, SP 1/39, fol 41 (L&P, 4/2:1065)

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