The Hospitaller’s cloak

In 1506, two accused felons claimed sanctuary by touching the cloak of a Hospitaller knight rather than more conventionally running into a parish church or monastery. Richard Pulham (harpist from St Mary Hoo, Kent, indicted for homicide) and Ralph Toker (Somerset yeoman who’d previously abjured twice for multiple felonies but been caught in the realm) were being tried before the peace sessions at Canterbury in 1506.


By the end of the day’s business neither man’s processes had terminated, so they were both being led back to their cells in the prison in Canterbury castle when one or both of them had a bright idea.

They spotted Sir John Rawson, brother of the Hospitaller order; darting away from their guards, they placed their hands on Rawson’s cloak and “claimed the sanctuary and privilege of the prior and brothers of St John of Jerusalem in England” for their felonies.


As I’ve noted before, over previous decades Hospitaller properties had been used more and more as sanctuary; the rhetoric tied the sacredness of the Order to their properties and to providing protection and redemption of even the most heinous sinners.

The Hospitallers also played an important role in the punishment of English criminals: they charitably buried the bodies of hanged felons in their churchyards, conveying bodies from the gallows in a “St John’s cart.” Chronicler/geographer John Stow remarked in the 1590s that back in the day the St John’s or “fraerie” carts, draped with a black cloth with the Hospitaller cross, had “had the privilege of Sanctuary.”

Maybe Stow was referring there to a 1486 case, where a felon being led to the gallows ran to the St John’s cart and claimed “the privilege of St. John’s” by holding on to the Hospitaller banner draped across it. Though there’s no evidence that asylum claims made on the St John’s cart were common (nor clear if it succeeded in the 1486 case), Pulham’s and Toker’s bid for sanctuary in Sir John Rawson’s cloak is clearly based on the same principle.

What exactly did Pulham and Toker envisage when they took hold of Hospitaller knight Sir John Rawson’s cloak? Following him around indefinitely clutching his cloak? Or (much more likely) that they should be conveyed to asylum in a Hospitaller property?

Pulham’s and Toker’s invocation of sanctuary in a cloak may seem ridiculous to us, but the court’s handling of their cases suggests that it didn’t find their pleas as outlandish as we do. The JPs at Canterbury neither accepted nor definitively ruled against their pleas. Both men could have – arguably by standards of time should have – been hanged (Toker, especially, had multiple felonies on his record at this point). The Justices of the Peace, however, referred their cases up to King’s Bench instead of sending them to the gallows.

Legal uncertainty about the exact parameters of sanctuary was involved, along with reluctance to make a ruling objectionable to the Hospitaller order. The Hospitaller prior in England, Thomas Docwra, was a very significant figure at Henry VII’s court.

Thomas Dowcra, prior of the Hospitallers. Source

Maybe Pulham and Toker each had their own strings of influence to pull: Pulham as a harpist (so had strings! pun initially unintended…) was presumably (?) largely employed in aristocratic households; and Toker was a yeoman, possibly an aristocrat’s retainer.

Nine months later at King’s Bench, Pulham and Toker’s sanctuary pleas were indeed ruled inadmissible, but they were each positively invited by the justices to use other mitigations. Ultimately Toker was pardoned and walked free. Pulham successfully pleaded benefit of clergy, likely meaning that he was incarcerated for a few years in an ecclesiastical prison and then released.

This odd little episode brings together certain strands in thinking about sanctuary in the early 16th century: the association between sanctity, mercy, and redemption that sanctuary encapsulated, and likely also political considerations about jurisdiction and influence.

KB 9/442, mm 17-20; KB 27/984, rex mm. 4, 12; KB 27/993, rex m. 17; KB 29/136, mm 4d, 41d; Baker, Spelman, 2:340 [intro]; Lyons, “Rawson, Sir John,” ODNB.

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