Highway robbers in the Strand church

In January 1516, three highway robbers, Robert Dodde, Richard Couper, and Thomas Horneclyff (all described as yeomen of London), attacked two men at Bagshot, Surrey. Following the robbery, the felons fled to the church of St Mary le Strand with the stolen goods, including a horse (presumably left in the churchyard). Their case excited a lot of interest at the highest levels: maybe because the Strand church was very close to Cardinal Wolsey’s residence? maybe because the men they robbed had connections? maybe because they’d committed many other such robberies and this was the last straw? Whatever the reason, their sanctuary claim came up for discussion in the king’s council.

Cardinal Wolsey noted to the other councillors that “most of the Lordis Spirituall and temporall” thought the robbers should be denied sanctuary because they were “common and notorious” murderers (though the actual charge was robbery). “Notoriousness” had not hitherto been a factor in eligibility for sanctuary, but Wolsey was then experimenting with the courts on both civil and criminal matters. Evidently he decided to try out this notoriety argument in the courts with this case.

So despite sanctuary and confession of their felony to a coroner, the three seekers were arrested by the sheriffs of Middlesex because they were “ineligible” for sanctuary. At court they of course pleaded sanctuary, and the king’s attorney countered by making the notoriety argument.

The justices at King’s Bench responded to this sanctuary case as they never had before: they stated that the cognizance of a plea of sanctuary “belongs to the ecclesiastical forum” (that is, a church court) rather than to the competency of the court of King’s Bench. This is very odd: it must have been either a power play of some kind, or buck passing.

Image

The justices wouldn’t proceed until bishop of London, Richard Fitzjames, certified the “law of holy church” to the lord king, “so that the king will know how to proceed.” But Fitzjames wouldn’t play ball, declining to appear before the court, and for two years the case hung, waiting for a statement from the bishop that never came.

NB: bishops had very little skin in this game. They didn’t especially care about sanctuary attached to parish churches, which was not an income stream for them. It was monasteries – a different part of the church hierarchy, separate from the bishop’s line of authority – for whom sanctuary was important, as a demonstration of other privileges and jurisdictions. So it’s no surprise the bishop didn’t want to get involved: he didn’t want to piss off the king or Wolsey. He also, however, didn’t want to surrender ecclesiastical rights (a live issue on other fronts in the 1510s). So it was best to pretend he hadn’t received that demand for a statement on sanctuary.

Actual live footage of Bishop Fitzjames not hearing the request for an opinion on sanctuary

No opinion was offered by Bishop Fitzjames and no ruling was made in King’s Bench on that case or the general principle of “notoriety” and sanctuary. “Notoriety” didn’t come up again in subsequent sanctuary cases. The record is silent on what happened to Dodde, Cowper, and Horneclyff.

Though a number of cases questioning the basis for sanctuary privilege came before the king’s court in the 1510s, in the end almost all either remained undecided or endorsed the sanctuary claim, and sanctuary continued to flourish for the next couple of decades.

TNA, KB 27/1018, rex m. 11; BL, Lansdowne 639, King’s Council in Star Chamber, 1516, fols. 44v-45r. Top image source

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