Three sanctuary breaches

The last years of Henry VII’s reign (he died in 1509) are often seen as rife with judicial corruption. That might not be completely fair, but there were lots of cases with odd outcomes in these years.

Three sanctuary breach cases ended up in King’s Bench on the same day in 1508. The first involved Robert Cruse, yeoman of Shenley, Herts., indicted in 1502 for burglary. He wasn’t tried because he took sanctuary soon after the deed at St Martin le Grand in London. Cruse stayed in St Martin’s for five years unmolested until June 1507 when several armed men, led by John Gyldern, “valet of the crown,” violently seized him from the sanctuary. Brought before King’s Bench, Cruse pleaded sanctuary and asked to be restored.

The second and third claims of breach of sanctuary came from Thomas Fyssher and John Byrd, both yeomen of Southwark. The two had been in the Marshalsea prison in 1505 (Fyssher for treason, Byrd for felony) but then participated in a 15-man prison break. Both ran to (different) sanctuaries.

Fyssher ran to Westminster Abbey. Unlike Cruse, Fyssher was seized immediately from Westminster, and despite his protestations that he’d taken sanctuary, he was put back into prison.

Byrd ran to Lambeth parish church, but he was also seized from the church the same day. He joined his fellow escapee Fyssher back in the Marshalsea prison. Both stayed there for almost three years, joined by Robert Cruse following his seizure from St Martin’s in 1507.

In February 1508 all three appeared before King’s Bench. Cruse and Fyssher (again) pleaded sanctuary. This time – the crown’s tactics evidently having taken a turn – the king’s attorney, speaking for the crown, acknowledged that both had, in fact, been illegally seized. The King’s Bench justices then ordered Cruse and Fyssher to be restored to their sanctuaries. John Byrd was even more fortunate: in his case, he was able to present a royal pardon, and walked free.

TNA, KB 9/447,m30; KB 27/985,rex m3; KB 27/986,rex m15; KB 29/137, m15d. Top image: National Portrait Gallery.

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