Drinking at the Sanctuary Parlour

If you took sanctuary at St Martin le Grand in London, you had to be careful about the boundaries: in many places they were invisible lines running down the middle of a street or between buildings. One step over, and you could be arrested.

In the 1520s Londoners disagreed about the sanctuary status of a particular back drinking room (#4 below) of a tavern called the Bull’s Head (#5). The tavern was definitely outside the sanctuary, but the north wall of this back room marked the boundary of the precinct.


This room was known as the “sanctuary parlour,” and because its wall was on the boundary, some people argued in a 1530s court case that a sanctuary man could safely drink in there, though not in the rest of the tavern. Others said they could drink there only if they touched the back wall the whole time – so picture a line of sanctuary men with their backs against the wall, drinking their pints. To leave, they’d have to carefully hold on to the wall the whole way. Watch out! Don’t let go!

But some witnesses in the 1530s case argued that the room was not sanctuary at all – and they had a vivid example. A sanctuary man (probably the same man named elsewhere as Griffith) had taken sanctuary privilege around 1528 for theft from the Sun Tavern at Cripplegate.

One day he went to drink in the sanctuary parlour, but the London sheriffs’ men heard he was there and dragged him out to prison. When he appeared in court he pleaded sanctuary. The question of whether that parlour was sanctuary was put to a jury – and they ruled that it was not. So his sanctuary claim was rejected and he was hanged for theft. His case was an important cautionary example – the abbot of Westminster, for instance, later lectured the precinct’s sanctuary men always to stay clearly within the sanctuary boundary or face the noose themselves.

I’d guess, though, that Griffith had not been holding on to the back wall, as even after his case some neighbours (not sanctuary men themselves) continued to argue that touching walls or boundary posts that marked the limits made a sanctuary seeker safe. Griffith the Sun Tavern thief learned the peril of not keeping his hand on the base.

TNA, STAC 2/20/324, m. 8; STAC 2/20/323, mm. 26-27; C 24/3, “Abbas,” mm 2, 11

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