Don’t mess with the Earl of Oxford

William Knok, yeoman of Faversham, was outlawed in Kent in 1503 after he failed to appear to answer an indictment for felony. He escaped detection for about three years, but then in May 1506 he was evidently rumbled.

He ran into the Blackfriars church in London, but before he could abjure before a coroner he was violently taken from the church (so he said) by a certain John Auger, the king’s gaol-keeper at Colchester, Essex, together with servants of the earl of Oxford.

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It’s a bit mysterious why a gaol-keeper from Essex and servants of the earl of Oxford would be involved in seizing a felon wanted for a Kent indictment; possibly Knok had been found in Essex but then had escaped from Auger’s custody? And why servants of the earl of Oxford? The 13th earl, John de Vere, was a very powerful man in Henry VII’s England (said to have been second in power only to the king himself). He had his principal residences in Essex, so that probably explains the tie to Auger.

The participation of Oxford’s henchmen in Knok’s seizure from Blackfriars wouldn’t have been official chain-of-command in Essex but instead suggests the drafting of private muscle – maybe Oxford had a personal interest in Knok’s being brought to “justice”? My guess is that either Knok’s original 1503 indictment or some subsequent crime involved an offence against the earl of Oxford or someone under his protection.

And reflecting Oxford’s power and influence, the court seems to have allowed the sanctuary breach. When Knok appeared in King’s Bench following his seizure from Blackfriars, he pleaded sanctuary, giving the story I told above. The king’s attorney then stood up and simply stated that Knok’s plea was “insufficient in law” and didn’t require a response.

The justices agreed that the plea was insufficient, thus bypassing the trying of the plea before a jury. (NB: there is nothing about the statement of his sanctuary claim that is any different from any other plea of sanctuary, so this seems to be a nakedly political ruling.) The justices then asked Knok if he could claim benefit of clergy, and he replied that he could not. So he was sentenced to hang. Lesson: don’t mess with the Earl of Oxford.

TNA, KB 27/979, rex m. 1d. Top image source

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