Violent seizures and righteous indignation

In 1506, Hugh Wenwryght, yeoman of Merton, Surrey, broke into the Augustinian priory at Merton and stole chalices and other plate. Later arraigned for burglary at Surrey gaol delivery, he pleaded sanctuary.

Wenwryght claimed in court that he had taken sanctuary in the church of St Michael Cornhill in London, not only for that burglary but for several other felonies, including murders. But then, he said, “diverse unknown men” had violently taken him from the church. As he indignantly reported, this sanctuary breach was “against the ecclesiastical laws” – a bit rich given that he’d robbed a priory. But he was right: regardless of who the victim of his felony was, he was entitled to take asylum in a church and to plead sanctuary in court.

Wenwryght’s indignation didn’t stop with the sanctuary plea: he also refused to plead guilty or not guilty to the felony indictment, “refusing the king’s law,” as the record put it. The justices at Surrey gaol delivery said “OK, fine,” and referred the case up to King’s Bench.

A year later when Wenwryght came before King’s Bench he changed his plea from sanctuary to not guilty, maybe because he had a card up his sleeve. Put back in prison to await jury trial, the next time he appeared, in November 1509, he presented a royal pardon and went free.

So: he burglarizes an abbey and then gets indignant about church law; he disdains the king’s law, but then produces a royal pardon. All part of the topsy-turvy world of the prosecution of crime in early 16th-century England.

TNA, KB 9/445,m88; KB 27/986,rex m6d; KB 27/993,rex m 17. Top photo: source

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