Sanctuary and the Hunne affair

One of the most notorious English scandals of the mid-1510s was the death in custody of Richard Hunne, a London merchant tailor in battle with his parish priest. One of the men accused in his death fled to sanctuary.

Hunne’s quarrel with his parish priest involved a customary fee for the burial of one of his children. Hunne refused to pay, accusing the priest of excessive greed in the face of his own personal tragedy. The situation escalated in the midst of a “Lollard scare” in London in these years, and Hunne was arrested for heresy for his incendiary words against the church.

Hunne was put in “Lollard’s Tower” in the St Paul’s cathedral precinct to await trial. One morning he was found dead in his cell. Ecclesiastical officials announced that he had committed suicide, but there was widespread doubt about that.

Despite his death, the bishop of London chose to go ahead with his heresy trial and he was duly pronounced guilty of heresy several weeks after his death. The London sheriff burned his corpse, a posthumous heresy execution.

But the London coroner’s inquest for Hunne found that he’d been murdered, naming William Horsey, the bishop of London’s chancellor, as the perpetrator. Charles Joseph, a summoner, was implicated also in the death and fled to sanctuary to avoid arrest. A version of the coroner’s inquest proceedings was printed in 1537 as anti-clerical propaganda detailing a notorious moment of church corruption. It noted that Joseph took sanctuary at Good Easter in Essex, a manor held by Westminster Abbey.

In testimony Richard Horsenaille, bailiff “of the sanctuary town called Good Easter,” detailed Joseph’s arrival to become “a sentuarie man.” Joseph was inscribed in the sanctuary register, Horsenaile said, confessing his implication in Hunne’s death by giving Horsey the keys to Hunne’s cell.

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Horsenaille added the detail that Joseph had paid fees for his registration both to him as bailiff and to the vicar of the parish, an interesting detail about how this sanctuary town functioned.

Joseph later went back to London and gave testimony himself to the coroner’s inquest; according to Thomas More, he wasn’t himself charged. Nothing further is known about him. The accusation against Horsey caused a great deal of controversy, but he also escaped felony charges.

The case remained a sore point for some Londoners, who resented clerical privileges and corruption. Controversy remains about how widespread this resentment was and the role it played in later receptiveness to reformed ideas and the break with Rome in the 1520s and 30s.

The case also offers insight into the development of these “sanctuary towns” in this period, evidence for another evolutionary development in the idea of sanctuary. Managed, as Good Easter was, by a lay administrator, these sanctuaries were a move towards secularization. The shift towards these basically secular sanctuary towns was arrested in the late 1530s and 1540s by the dissolution of the religious houses upon whose independent jurisdictions they depended. There’s vivid evidence from 1537 about Knowle, a Warwickshire sanctuary town, in this post.

References: The Enquirie and Verdite of the Quest Panneld of the Death of Richard Hune (Antwerp: H. Peetersen van Middleburch[?], 1537; from Early English Books Online); J. Fines, “Hunne, Richard,” ODNB.

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