Prostitution, jurisdiction, and sanctuary

Both prostitution and sanctuary for felons thrived in situations of contested jurisdiction, but there is relatively little evidence that they flourished in the same places. This case proves this rule. In 1523, Elizabeth Troublefeld alias Vaughan, said to live in the precinct of St Martin le Grand, was arrested at the order of the local London alderman, Master Broun, for having “procured a young maiden to go to the Stews and thereupon conveyed her thither.”


The “Stews” – originally bathhouses, but by the 16th century a term for brothel – were a red-light district in Bankside (often called Stewside) on the south bank of the Thames. Due to jurisdictional liberties in the bishop of Winchester’s Clink manor, prostitution was tolerated there, though banned in London itself.


This is not the only story of “young maidens” enticed or abducted to work in these brothels: Ruth Mazo Karras quoted an especially interesting one from 1517 where the young woman prayed to the Virgin Mary to deliver her from this terrible fate.

Karras, Common Women, 58.

I’m interested in Elizabeth Troublefeld and her residence in the precinct of St Martin le Grand: was she there as a “sanctuary woman”? Likely yes: she was listed in 1525 on a census of “persons within St Martin’s sanctuary,” though no reason for her being there indicated. If she was registered as a sanctuary woman, how was she arrested? Well, if she actually did convey the young virgin over to the Stews, then obviously she left the precinct and thus was arrestable. It’s important to note here that procuring (bawdry) wasn’t a felony, but a misdemeanour.

The civic records don’t indicate the conclusion of this 1523 case against Troublefeld, though the 1525 St Martin’s sanctuary census indicates that she was still living there two years later. Penalties were usually minimal for bawdry and other similar offences so she would have been released long since anyway by 1525.

The second interesting thing about Elizabeth Troublefeld and St Martin le Grand is that though she may well have been working as a procurer for the sex trade, there is no sign that she, or anyone else, was using the jurisdictional independence of St Martin’s to run brothels there.

In addition to Stewside, there was also a node of the sex trade at another independent jurisdiction near London, St Katherine’s Hospital, right next to the Tower of London (#5 on the map below). St Katherine’s had occasional sanctuary seekers, but only very occasional. It did, however, have a vigorous sex trade, next to the Tower garrison and the Thames docks.

St Martin’s, on the other hand, seems to have been much more “respectable” and there’s no sign of an organized sex trade (though of course there were undoubtedly informal arrangements), despite its jurisdictional independence.

All these independent jurisdictions were ecclesiastical liberties – so that doesn’t explain the difference between St Martin’s and the others. (And it’s an irony both for us and for 15th- and 16th-century people that the most notorious brothels were in church-run jurisdictions.) I suspect St Martin’s was different from Stewside and St Katherine’s because its precinct was home not only to a few sanctuary seekers (12 named in that 1525 census), but most numerously to a large number of immigrant artisan households.

Liberty jurisdictions had different economic bases: the Clink and St Katherine’s had prostitution; St Martin’s drew rental income from leases to immigrant craftsmen; others had markets that rivaled the civic-controlled marketplaces. So Elizabeth Troublefeld may have lived in St Martin’s and even (most of the time) benefited from its shelter, but if her own work was procuring, then she was doing most of that outside the precinct’s boundaries.

LMA, Rep. 6, fol. 43r; TNA, SP 1/33, fol. 148 (L&P, 4/1:473). Top image source. I’ve written about liberties and the sex trade in this article if you want more on that!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: