Incarceration as punishment

Theoretically incarceration wasn’t used as punishment for felony in medieval England; it was used instead for detention pre-trial and during proceedings. At times, though, lengthy delays in proceedings seem deliberate, imprisonment serving unofficially as a middle way between acquittal and the noose. This seems to have been the case for two sanctuary seekers in 1497.

Two yeoman of Tonbridge, Kent, John Moresse and James Gryffyn, lay in wait at Reverhill, near Tunbridge, to assault and rob one Thomas Grigby, from whom they stole 29 shillings worth of goods. They then ran to the church at Tonbridge and took sanctuary.


Moresse and Gryffyn were, however, soon violently seized from the church porch – or at least that’s how they later characterized it – by Grigby and a number of other men and taken to the Maidstone gaol. At trial, they pleaded sanctuary.

Rather than putting the question of whether they had been illegally seized from sanctuary to a jury (as would be normal procedure), the judges returned Moresse and Gryffyn to prison while they took the question under advisement. Moresse and Gryffyn apparently stayed there for 8 years.

Finally in 1505, they once more appeared in court, and this time they pleaded not guilty. But again, rather than proceeding to a jury trial, they were recommitted to prison, this time for another two years. Finally in 1507 their case was put to a jury, who acquitted them. They went free after a total of 10 years in prison.

We can’t know exactly what was going on there: on the one hand, their sanctuary plea was side-stepped and not tried by a jury as should have happened. On the other hand, eventually they were let go rather than hanged. Their punishment was finessed by using term-after-term delays as the judges continued to “advise themselves.” Ye olde activist judges, working around the letter of the law.

TNA, KB 27/976, rex m. 6. Top image – source.

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