The lamb rustler

Another day, another Surrey gaol delivery. In 1507 Thomas Whytworth, yeoman of Southwark, was indicted for having stolen sixteen lambs from Thomas Webbe at Mitcham. Like many this decade, he pleaded sanctuary.

He claimed that two weeks after this lamb-rustling, he’d taken sanctuary at St Mary Overey in Southwark, and sought a coroner so that he could abjure the realm. Instead, the usual “diverse unknown men” had violently extracted him from the church.

St Mary Overey, Southwark. Source

He then asked the court to restore him to his sanctuary and for good measure pleaded not guilty to the felony. The king’s attorney offered his usual response to the sanctuary plea: the accused had been at large on the street and not in the church when he’d been taken. The question of whether Whytworth’s arrest had taken place in sanctuary or not was put to a jury in Southwark, which found that he had, in fact, been in the church and thus the arrest had been illicit. He was restored to the church.

There are a lot of sanctuary pleas resulting from claims of sanctuary breach in the first decade of the 16th century; some went against the accused, but most ended up either in restoration to the church or some other mitigation or even acquittal. Sanctuary pleas slowed down from circa 1510 and by 1520 they were rare again: not because sanctuary-taking had ceased (there is still lots of evidence for it in the 1520s), but because the breaches had largely ceased. Whoever was doing those arrests in churches stopped.

TNA, KB 9/446, m39. Top image British Library.

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