Robbery in Knightsbridge

The canny felon in early 16th-century England could, if smart and lucky, avail himself of an array of different mitigations to escape the noose – sometimes cycling through them until he found one that worked, as this seeker did.

At gaol delivery for Middlesex in May 1508, a Westminster yeoman named Thomas David ap Howell appeared to answer an indictment that he had robbed John Barell at Knightsbridge of 26s 8d. He pleaded sanctuary. Ap Howell claimed that the previous December he had taken sanctuary in a tenement “of the ancient tenure of the hospital of St John of Jerusalem” in the parish of St Clement Danes – another instance where an apparently secular property belonging to a religious house was claimed as sanctuary.

Rather than challenging whether this tenement constituted sanctuary, the king’s attorney, for the umpteenth time in the first decade of the 16th century, simply claimed that ap Howell hadn’t been on the property when arrested and thus had no sanctuary privilege.


Ap Howell’s sanctuary plea was put to a jury, and the jurors found for the crown, that he had been “at large” at the time he was taken into custody. So ap Howell tried another tack: I claim benefit of clergy, he said. The king’s attorney said nope, you’ve already pleaded benefit of clergy before, at Bristol in 1504. (Someone was starting to keep track of clergy claims around this time: a felon could only claim clergy once, but before this there had been no centralized record keeping.)

Proof of this previous clergy claim had to be produced, so ap Howell was remanded back to prison to await verification. Luckily for ap Howell, things were delayed long enough that Henry VII died, and new king Henry VIII granted a much-anticipated general pardon.

Ap Howell claimed a pardon and walked free in November 1509. He was probably on the pardon rolls as Thomas ap David ap Howell ap Gybon of Uske in the marches of Wales, yeoman. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

TNA, KB 9/960, m 142; KB 27/993, rex m 17d; L&P 1:239.

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