Murder, treason, and exile

An odd case weaving together an apparently ordinary homicide with the last throes of the 15th century dynastic wars – and suggesting that in some circumstances traitors who might foment rebellion abroad could not be allowed to abjure.

In Dec 1501, Thomas Forest, tailor of Leominster, Herefordshire, took sanctuary far from home in Holy Cross church, Canterbury. When the coroner came, Forest confessed that three months before in Herefordshire he had killed one John Flewellyn.

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Holy Cross Westgate, Canterbury. Source

The coroner wrote a record of abjuration, but bundled with it were two short depositions, brought to King’s Bench by the mayor and sheriff of Canterbury on a writ of habeas corpus because of “treasonous words” Forest had said against the king.

The first witness, Richard Smyth, a tailor of Holy Cross parish in Canterbury, testified that before Forest had taken sanctuary, he’d been in Smyth’s shop (perhaps working there, as Forest was also a tailor).

As they were conversing, Forest heaved a sigh, complained he had no money, sighed again, and said that he wished he were with the duke of Suffolk. The second witness, bocher [second-hand-clothes dealer] John Curteys, another Holy Cross parishioner, had similar testimony, but a bit more detailed and damning.

Forest talked to Curteys after he took sanctuary, in the church awaiting the coroner. He told Curteys that he wished he already had the cross in his hand and was beyond the sea, for “there he had a master that should bear him out.” When Curteys asked him to elaborate, Forest said that his master was the duke of Suffolk, “for the king’s days be but short.” The duke (or more properly the earl) of Suffolk was Edmund de la Pole, descendant of the house of York. At that point Suffolk was in the Empire trying to raise support to overthrow Henry VII.

Suffolk wasn’t successful, obviously. After years wandering around the continent, in 1506 he surrendered himself to Henry VII (tired, no doubt). He languished in the Tower until finally Henry VIII had him executed in 1513 in the context of the French war.

How a Leominster tailor became caught up in the Pole claim is hard to know, but it seems Forest was not permitted to abjure, presumably as it seemed just too clear that exile would be no punishment but rather a treasonous act in itself. I’m not sure what happened to Forest; the last evidence I have for him is that he was committed to the Marshalsea Prison in 1503.

TNA, KB 29/133, m. 17d (fronts | dorses)

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