The Savage case and sanctuary in the 1510s

The case of John Savage is one of the most famous of English sanctuary cases, about which some of the most influential scholarship on the subject has been written. I would argue, however, that the Savage case has been misinterpreted and its significance overstated. Nonetheless it reveals a lot about what was happening with sanctuary in the 1510s.

In 1516 a father and son, both named Sir John Savage, were feuding with another Worcestershire gentleman, John Pauncefote. The Savages were highly connected but by the 1510s had begun to exhibit an unruly independence that Henry VIII’s chief minister Cardinal Wolsey sought to curb. When the Savages and their band of retainers murdered Pauncefote in March 1516, a move was made to bring them into line, and sixty-seven(!) indictments were drawn up against them. Six weeks after the murder, Sir John Jr took sanctuary.

Curiously, rather than going to a clearly legal sanctuary (such as Westminster Abbey), the younger Savage claimed asylum in the house of one William Hanley, located in St John’s Street, a neighbourhood north of the city of London under Hospitaller jurisdiction.

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Though especially in retrospect it seems a foolish choice, Savage had reason to believe that Hanley’s house would serve as sanctuary; a recent decision at King’s Bench had declared a similar Hospitaller property in Islington to be sanctuary. So why not stay with his friend? It should have been safe.

Sir John stayed there about six weeks, until June 1516, when he was seized from Hanley’s house, taken to the Tower, and from there was brought to King’s Bench to face a private prosecution of Pauncefote’s homicide brought by his widow.

In defence Savage pleaded sanctuary, presenting long and detailed arguments, as usual presumably provided to him by the Hospitaller Order, but tailored to him. Perhaps foolishly (again, hindsight), his arguments privileged papal over royal grants as the basis of sanctuary claim, which was not the best argument to make in the royal court. (Mind you, note that at this same time the court of King’s Bench had said that sanctuary was to be determined by the ecclesiastical forum – and so perhaps that accounts for this odd argumentative direction.)

The justices deferred and conferred, and the case, as usual in 1510s sanctuary cases, dragged on and on. In the end, it was brought to an end not by a decision on the sanctuary question, but by an out-of-court settlement in 1520 of the private suit brought by the widow. With the private suit settled, Savage still had the crown’s homicide charge to answer, but that was easily solved: the king granted him a pardon in return for the payment of a sizeable fine. In the end – again – the sanctuary issue remained judicially unresolved.

The case did excite some discussion both by the King’s Bench justices and at the king’s council about whether or not a residential house like Hanley’s could offer sanctuary. The legal reports indicate that the justices did not agree with one another on the issues discussed.

Though some eminent historians (E. Ives, J.H. Baker) have interpreted the recorded opinions in these discussions by chief justice John Fyneux as spelling the end of sanctuary, I think that misunderstands both what Fyneux said and the effect of his giving this opinion in discussions.

  1. He did not argue that sanctuary itself had no basis – just that residential properties held by religious houses were not sanctuary (he actually indicated that sanctuaries like Westminster and St Martin le Grand had clearly proved sanctuary privilege).
  2. Though he gave this opinion in discussions, it wasn’t a binding pronouncement, as the sanctuary issue was dropped in the actual court settlement of the case. People continued to seek sanctuary quite successfully for the next twenty years, including even in residential houses.

In other words, there is no discernible effect in either the practice of sanctuary or judicial decisions on sanctuary pleas following the Savage case – except that Hospitaller claims diminished (but didn’t cease). What makes this case more typical than innovative is the outcome: this was an assassination in a gentry feud, in which sanctuary featured as part of the toolkit the assassins employed in order to proceed ultimately to extinction of the charges through a pardon.

The Savages didn’t get off scot free – the settlement with Margery Pauncefote and the fine for the pardon added up to a lot of £££ – but clearly execution for homicide was for the little people, not for aristocratic folk.

For references – See Baker, Caryll’s Reports, 704-13 (incl. transcript of KB 27/1020, plea m.60); E. W. Ives, “Crime, Sanctuary, and Royal Authority under Henry VIII,” in On the Laws and Customs of England (1981), 296–320; McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary, 99-106.

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