Shifting sands

Thomas Stathom, a London vintner, took sanctuary in 1525 in the London church of St Sepulchre, confessed to a theft, abjured, and (theoretically) went into exile. Four months later he was arrested in London, clearly not having actually left the kingdom. He thought he had other mitigations up his sleeve, but as it turned out he got caught in the shifting sands of criminal justice policy and practice in Henry VIII’s reign.

As a literate man, at trial following his recapture Stathom successfully pleaded benefit of clergy, meaning he was handed over to be imprisoned by the bishop of London rather than being hanged. The bishop put Stathom into a “convict house” he maintained for criminous clerks at Stortford, Hertfordshire. The bishop used Waytemore Castle as a prison, both for felons caught within the bishop’s liberty awaiting trial and for criminous clerks handed over to the bishop for punishment.

Though the picture above of Waytemore Castle looks desolate, the VCH tells us that the prisoners were actually kept in one of the small buildings on the larger island, a quite cozy looking cottage. (So maybe Stathom’s fate was not so bad?)

Clergy claimants were a real problem for bishops, who had to manage and finance the imprisonment of these convicted felons. In the 15th century bishops often handled this issue by quietly releasing the clergy claimants when six people vouched for them (compurgation). But from around 1500, and especially from the 1510s, there were crackdowns on this leniency, which was for obvious reasons problematic, and increasingly convicted clerks were imprisoned indefinitely. This posed another obvious problem, though – the necessity of infrastructure to provide indefinite and secure imprisonment.So when Stathom went into the convict house at Stortford he was in theory there for the rest of his life, and in fact he was there for sixteen years.

Then in 1540 – a moment when the church’s role in English criminal justice was being rethought – his case came up again. There had been a general pardon in 1540, part of the point of which was to clean out cases of benefit of clergy claimants, accused felons lingering in prisons awaiting trial, and sanctuary seekers whose status was uncertain due to the sanctuary legislation earlier that year. (See here for that sanctuary legislation.)

In the fall of 1540, the bishop of London received a mandate from the king to bring into court any convicted clerks still in his custody. Though in late 1539 there had been eleven, by 1540 only three, including Thomas Stathom, were left. The point of calling the convicted clerks up to the king’s court was to process their pardons and get them out of the system. In order to receive their pardons, however, the court needed the original records of the clergy claimants’ trials.

Stathom’s record proved a bit hard to locate, so he was put into the Marshalsea prison while they looked around for it. By January 1541, however, they’d finally found it, and so after sixteen years of imprisonment, Stathom was released. It would be really interesting to know what became of him after that.

TNA, KB 9/549, m. 58; KB 29/173, m. 33d-34, 36; KB 27/1118, rex m. 1; more on Stortford. Top image (St Sepulchre), source.

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