Sexual violence and vigilante justice

Late in Henry VII’s reign, sanctuary facilitated a victim’s vengeance on her rapist when the justice system itself would not likely have helped her.

In 1508 jurors in Northamptonshire reported that Francis Aleyn, chaplain, “tempted by diabolical thoughts,” broke into John Wydevyll’s house at Old Stratford and raped Margaret Wylson. Following the assault, Wylson turned to two labourers, William Turnam and William Payne, to help her avenge the wrong. The three of them lay in wait for Aleyn in the fields of nearby Passenham, and when he came along the two men beat Aleyn to death while Margaret watched.

Turnam and Payne then fled to the parish church of Passenham for sanctuary. Both men abjured the realm, Turnam dispatched to Bristol and Payne to Chester to find a ship overseas. Turnam and Payne were both outlawed some years later. Though Margaret’s presence during the assault should have made her an accessory, there’s no sign she was indicted for it.

This seems clearly to be a case of vigilante justice. Felony prosecutions of rape were very unlikely to succeed and if prosecuted, Aleyn could have escaped serious punishment through benefit of clergy. Private vengeance therefore probably seemed the only solution.

Sanctuary and abjuration helped Turnam and Payne escape the noose, yet it involved a major sacrifice. Both had to leave their homes and perhaps families; assuming they actually took the ships overseas, they had to make a new life in a foreign land. Local jurors shielded Margaret from indictment (suggesting considerable local sympathy), but her future was also unlikely to have been a bed of roses. Violence left its mark on many people; sexual violence scarred especially deeply.

TNA, KB 9/960, mm 80, 83, 84; KB 29/138, m. 3d

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