Get-out-of-jail-free card?

There were quite a few sanctuary breach cases 1500-10, suggesting that either local authorities were pushing the envelope on sanctuary, or felons were trying to use allegations of breach as a get-out-of-jail-sort-of-free card. Though some have seen these cases as part of a “judicial assault” on sanctuary, that’s not quite accurate. In cases coming to court, the principle of sanctuary was unchallenged: alleged breachers instead claimed that the felon hadn’t actually been in sanctuary when arrested.

For instance, consider seeker William Starkey, yeoman of Southwark. In 1502 he was indicted for robbing a man in Southwark; at trial he pleaded sanctuary, claiming that he’d been violently seized from his sanctuary in the London church of St Mary le Bow.


Such a sanctuary plea had to be put to a jury and Starkey was taken back to prison while the jury was empanelled. Starkey must then subsequently have escaped, as in 1503 the Surrey sheriffs reported that he was no longer in their custody.

Fast forward to mid-1504, when the law caught up with him in Cambridge and he was brought back south. Appearing before King’s Bench in early 1505, he again pleaded sanctuary, saying he’d taken asylum at Cambridge Greyfriars and sought the coroner to abjure, but instead was arrested.

The crown attorney’s response to Starkey’s second sanctuary plea followed the usual line, not to challenge sanctuary per se, but to deny he had actually been in sanctuary. The crown said that he’d been at large on the street outside, not in the church, when he was arrested. The question was put to a Cambridge jury and they found for the crown, ruling that he hadn’t been in the church when seized. Starkey then pleaded not guilty to the robbery and went to a jury trial on the indictment. In early 1506 he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

If cases like Starkey’s were a backdoor attack on sanctuary as a principle, though, it backfired. The line the crown* followed (that the arrests were valid because the felon had not been within the sanctuary) gave judicial confirmation to the principle that those clearly within sanctuary bounds had protection. Such breach cases slowed down, and over the next two decades sanctuary appears to have increased in (successful) use.

*NB: crown often means local civic officials in their roles as sheriffs and JPs.

TNA, KB 27/974, rex m. 5

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