An abjurer’s story

Abjurers making their way into exile often encountered problems and sometimes they came back into court to tell quite a story about their tribulations. Such was the case with Richard Bery, carpenter of Sittingbourne, Kent, who took sanctuary in 1512 at the parish church in Kidbrooke. He confessed to theft and swore to leave the realm, cross in hand.

Eleven weeks later, he appeared before King’s Bench, caught in the realm. Asked to explain himself, Bery told this story. As customary, he said, he was being led from district to district by local constables on his way to Dover, until they came to Boughton-under-Blean in Kent. There the constable accompanying him left him on the high road, telling him he would soon be back with another constable to continue the relay to the coast. But the constable never returned, leaving Bery just standing there alone.

After a few hours three men riding from Canterbury came along and evidently recognized Bery. (They would have known he was an abjurer anyway, as he was carrying a cross.) One of the men shouted at Bery, “Ah, thou errant thief, art thou here? I shall slay thee with my own hand.”

The man drew his sword and struck at Bery. Fearing for his life, Bery ran into a nearby wood and hid there for three days, without food or water. Then in desperation he left the wood and began to walk, making his way to Chislehurst, about 45 miles away (and, notably, the opposite way from Dover).

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At Chislehurst Bery sought food and drink, still carrying his cross and his “pasport” as an abjurer (evidently a leather purse with a document indicating his status – an interesting detail). But instead of offering him alms, the local official in Chislehurst, the burgrave, took him into custody. From there he was led up to London, the King’s Bench prison, and then to court where he told this story.

So, he told the court, it’s not my fault; I’d like my passport again and start back on the road into exile. The king’s attorney responded that Bery’s plea was insufficient (without specifying exactly why). The judges took it under advisement, returned him to prison, but when he came back in October they ruled that indeed his plea had been insufficient. He was asked if he was eligible for benefit of clergy, but he admitted he was not: so he was sentenced to hang.

England thus lost quite a storyteller. It’s interesting that his story has a lot of threes – he waited for the constable to return for 3 hours; then was met by 3 men; then hid in the wood for 3 days. A bit folkloric, perhaps?

TNA, KB 9/458, mm109-110; KB 29/144, mm2, 5; KB 27/1004, m19

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