“Peine forte et dure” in London, 1512

At Newgate gaol delivery in late January 1512, Robert Williamson, a London tailor, was charged with stealing 20s 5d worth of goods from yeoman Thomas Newman a few weeks before. Williamson pleaded sanctuary, though not in the usual way. His plea was, in fact, so unconventional that the justices ordered him to be tortured in order to produce a legally admissible response.

Williamson alleged in court that on the day of the theft he’d taken sanctuary in the churchyard of St Saviour’s in Southwark, but that same day he’d been dragged from there by four armed men who then put him in prison in London to await trial.

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He both pleaded not guilty to the felony and said that he “wishes to be acquitted by the privilege of the church.” The justices at gaol delivery held this plea to be “insufficient.” They don’t specify why, though it was definitely an odd formulation. Maybe the problem was that on taking sanctuary he had to confess to the felony, but then in court he pleaded not guilty. Or maybe it was that he didn’t seek restoration to his sanctuary but instead acquittal by “the church’s privilege” (which wasn’t a thing).

Either way, the justices weren’t having it ā€“ and they ordered that he was to undergo “peine forte et dure” (“strong and hard pain”), a form of judicial torture employed in English courts to force accused felons to plead guilty or not guilty to an indictment (read Sara Butler’s blog post on Legal History Miscellany). This torture involved pressing the accused criminal with heavy stones; if they didn’t give in, then they were to be crushed to death. Sounds fun.

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Apart from this being weird in itself, another strange element in Williamson’s case is that he did plead to the charge (he said “not guilty”) ā€“ though as above he added on a couple of other pleas incompatible with that not guilty plea.

It’s not clear what happened exactly in Williamson’s case, but he didn’t die from the peine, if indeed he underwent it, nor does he seem to have undergone a trial following either a guilty or not guilty plea. Instead, he remained in prison for another 11 years. Finally, he appeared at King’s Bench in Easter term 1523, when he presented a pardon from the king. I guess someone decided that he’d been punished enough.

TNA, KB 9/490, m. 21-22; KB 27/1047, rex m. 8; KB 29/155, m. 5

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