Prison fight

In 1515 a coroner’s inquest at the Marshalsea prison for prisoner Robert Croke found another prisoner, Thomas Tyler, had killed Croke in a knife fight. Tyler came before the justices at King’s Bench on Croke’s homicide two years later (which seems a long delay). At trial, Tyler – rather oddly – pleaded sanctuary, not because he had fled for this particular crime, but because he should not have been in prison in the first place: he said that in 1514, a year before Croke’s death, he had taken sanctuary for another felony, but had been arrested illegitimately while in sanctuary. Following that arrest, he said, he’d been brought to the Marshalsea prison, setting up the chain of events leading to Croke’s death.

This argument is a bit of a stretch, and the king’s attorney contended it was a defective plea. After considering the matter for about three months, the justices at King’s Bench agreed the sanctuary plea was invalid. Tyler then pleaded not guilty to the homicide – and was bailed pending a trial.

Bail was a very high predictor of an eventual acquittal or pardon, and it is yet another aspect of this case that seems odd: Tyler had not only Croke’s homicide but also the previous felony indictments for which he’d originally taken sanctuary. I’m not sure what was going on here. Tyler was a Southwark tallowchandler – not a high-status trade or one likely to bring a man into contact with the powerful to help attain a pardon or fix a jury, but who knows.

With Tyler out on bail, his case dragged on from term to term for six years without his coming to trial. And then in 1523, along with a number of other men with difficult pending criminal cases, Tyler was pardoned.

Henry VIII often employed his royal prerogative to cut the Gordian knot of legal conundrums; it’s not clear if this pardon was at his own initiative or something proposed by Wolsey or the justices or both. Mind you, I can’t quite see why Tyler’s case fell into that “difficult-to-decide” group as the records make it seem pretty straightforward, though as usual there may have been things those who made the decisions knew about the case that didn’t make it into the records.

TNA, KB 27/1023, rex m2d; KB 27/1047, rex m8; KB 29/149, m5. Top image British Library.

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