Sanctuary and the career criminal

Some criminals wandered around the country committing felony after felony without getting caught, until finally one day it all caught up with them. One such criminal was Robert Blake, shoemaker of Bishop’s Waltham, Hants, who after fifteen years of crime finally had to take sanctuary in 1520 at his own parish church.

He confessed to the coroner that he’d been committing felonies since at least 1506, mostly highway robberies but also two homicides. It all started when he and one John Williams, ostler, robbed a stranger of 40 shillings on the bridge at Newbridge, Oxon (still extant).

The next year, they robbed a Welshman at St Kenelm in Worcestershire, stealing 26s 8d. A few weeks later in May 1507, on a hill a mile from Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, he killed a man by thrusting sheep shears through his chest (though “taking nothing from him”).

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Then in 1509 (apparently without Williams this time) Blake stole a horse near Winchester and sold it to the vicar of Stanton Harcourt.

It appears that those four crimes remained undetected and perhaps Blake went back to shoemaking in Bishop’s Waltham for a while. I like to think he had a secret identity – by day, mild-mannered shoemaker, by night, vicious highway robber. The gaps in Blake’s reported felonies might be down to periods where he had his criminal impulses under control, only to return inevitably to his life of crime.

In any case, by 1515 Blake and Williams were back at it again. In a wood called Abbas Wood, near Romsey, Hampshire, they murdered another man unknown to them and stole from him a sword, a buckler [shield], a bay horse, saddle and bridle, and £4 in money.

Then there was another break in the action until 1519, when Blake began to commit crimes in his own town – perhaps his downfall. He broke into one of his neighbour’s houses in Bishop’s Waltham and stole 26s 8d worth of silver plate. And then finally in March 1520, “at a place of ronnyng water” near Romsey, he stole 40s 8d from a stranger.

Three weeks later he took sanctuary, confessed this long list of felonies, and abjured the realm.

TNA, KB 9/482, m. 34

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