The Raynsfords and their local sanctuary: aristocratic criminality, Tudor-style

The Raynsfords, an important Essex gentry family, patronized St John’s abbey in Colchester; this was in itself unremarkable, as pious gentlefolk often donated to their favourite local monastery. The monks of St John’s offered the Raynsfords more than prayers for departed ancestors, however: they also provided asylum when the Raynsfords themselves and their retainers committed murder. Convenient one-stop shopping.

In early 1512, John Raynsford, son of Sir John Raynsford (knight of the body to Henry VIII and future captain in the French wars of the 1510s), sought sanctuary at St John’s abbey with retainer Maurice Gryffyn. The fled there for the murder of John Burges at Greenwich.

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St John’s Abbey precinct, Colchester. Source

Gentleman Richard Cornwall and esquire William Courtney were also indicted as accessories for procuring the murder. Cornwall and Courtney were, like John Raynsford, gentlemen who served the king in the usual official capacities and would later both be MPs and attain knighthoods.

In fleeing to St John’s abbey, Raynsford and Gryffyn took asylum in a monastery that had received a lot of donations from the Raynsfords, and in a sense owed the family. They joined a number of other retainers of the family already there sheltering from felony indictments.

While in St John’s sanctuary, both Raynsford and Gryffyn were implicated in another homicide, the death of Michael Brasebrigge, another sanctuary man and Raynsford retainer. Raynsford was never charged, though he admitted in a later court case Gryffyn had committed the homicide.

After this quarrel amongst Raynsford retainers, Gryffyn took a second form of sanctuary: no longer protected by his privilege at St John’s as the second crime was committed within abbey boundaries, he fled to a nearby parish church, called for the coroner, and abjured the realm.

The Raynfords’ use of sanctuary at St John’s for themelves and their retainers did not pass without comment at the time. In a later lawsuit, the former abbey bailiff Richard Vynes alleged that the Raynsfords (big donors to the abbey) effectively controlled the sanctuary precinct, using it as a shelter from homicide prosecution both for John, the Raynsford heir, and a host of retainers. In a TNA blog postEuan Roger talked about another strange case involving Sir John Raynsford from the early 1520s, a case entwined in some complicated way with Vynes’s suit. TLDR: the elder Raynsford was a piece of work.

No doubt Vynes had an axe to grind, but in their own responses to Vynes’s suit father Sir John Raynsford and John Jr. confirmed that when Brasebrigge was killed there were five or six men connected to the Raynsfords in the sanctuary, having taken the privilege for different felonies. They turned the precinct, Vynes complained, into a den of iniquity, with rampant violence and sexual delicts. Moreover, none of them were ever punished for their felonies, because Sir John Raynsford as JP blocked indictments and used other means to protect them.

Vynes’s allegations were correct regarding impunity at least for John Raynsford Jr. and his retainer Maurice Gryffyn: both were pardoned of all felonies in July 1513. Raynsford joined his father in Henry VIII’s forces in the French war later that year. The younger Raynsford (who was not actually so young, in his 30s in the 1510s) was knighted in 1523 and became JP for Essex like his father, an office he held most years until he died in 1559. He also served as MP in 1529, and possibly also in 1536, 1539, and 1540.

So as a confessed murderer, he sat as justice of the peace over felony trials and served in Parliament. And he is no anomaly: a number of Tudor gentlemen saw felony proceedings from both sides of the prisoners’ bar.

Sanctuary was a crucial tool that allowed the early Tudor aristocracy to escape consequences for the violence that characterized their political rivalries, even as they continued their legitimate (and legitimating) service for the crown.

TNA, KB 9/458/57-60; KB 29/144, m. 1d, 5, 5d; STAC 2/18/283; 2/20/26; 2/20/100; L&P, 1/2:967; D. F. Coros, “Raynsford (Rainforth), Sir John; more detail and references in McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary, 183-84.

Top image: a Tudor father and son, by Hans Holbein (the Goldsalves, not the Raynsfords, alas).

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