Den of thieves

A potent criticism of sanctuary in the precincts of religious houses was that those precincts became dens of thieves. Though no doubt exaggerated as a general characterization of sanctuary precincts, it was true in some cases. Here are some who seem to have made Westminster Abbey their base for further crime.

In Oct 1520, four men – Edward Wyx, Robert Loksmyth, William Stone, and Robert Hastyngs, all of Westminster – took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey for felony. Less than two weeks later they left, having been recruited to commit another crime.


Their later indictment claimed that two men of Kingsbury, Middx (about 10 miles northwest of Westminster) – chaplain George Pepper and yeoman William Wrenche – had commissioned the four men to break into the house of another Kingsbury chaplain, John Bisshop. They stole a large range of household objects from Bisshop’s house, including a missal, two bows and arrows, and a good deal of linen and silver plate.

The implication of the indictment is that Pepper and Wrenche, for some reason resentful or envious of John Bisshop and his substantial goods, looked to a gang of likely miscreants hanging out in the Westminster Abbey precinct to break into his house and steal them.

Afterwards, the indictment continued, the four burglars were received back at Westminster by yeoman Thomas Wrexham and smith William Broun, who likely sheltered them post-crime or perhaps fenced the goods. So a large circle of men was allegedly involved in and profited from this crime – all facilitated by the handy concentration of felons loitering in the abbey precinct.

It’s not clear what happened after this to Wyx, Loksmyth, Stone, and Hastyngs, or the Kingsbury duo Pepper and Wrenche, or Westminster receiver Broun. In fact the paperwork for this case survives only because of the second of the Westminster receivers, Thomas Wrexham. When Wrexham was indicted as accessory, he himself immediately scampered into the Westminster sanctuary, but days later he was forcibly extracted by the Middlesex undersheriff. When brought before King’s Bench on his felony charge, he pleaded sanctuary.

But the crown was not as zealous as local law enforcement when it came to arresting felons in sanctuary: the king’s attorney accepted Wrexham’s claim that the breach of sanctuary had been unlawful.


The justices thus ruled that Wrexham was to be restored to his sanctuary. Had the four burglars gone back to sanctuary and similarly later been seized, their plea of sanctuary probably wouldn’t have succeeded: committing a felony post-sanctuary-taking nullified its protection. But Wrexham was presumably permitted his asylum as it was his first shot.

TNA, KB 9/483 mm. 16-18; KB 27/1040, rex m. 1

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