A Berkshire prison break

We’ve seen a few cases of felons awaiting trial escaping from their prisons and running to sanctuary; sometimes a whole gang break out at once and reach safety by running to nearest churchyard, as happened in Berkshire in 1497.

In 1497, six prisoners in Wallingford castle in Berks (now Oxon) escaped by the keeper’s negligence. They didn’t know one another before: they’re from different places and accused of a range of felonies (horse theft, robbery, homicide).

When they broke out they ran to the nearby cemetery of the church of All Hallows (the church itself was torn down in the 17th century). There are no further records for them, but they probably all abjured from there.


The record that does survive is an indictment of the gaol-keeper’s boss, Berks sheriff Hugh Shirley, for allowing the escape. There’s no indication of the resolution in Shirley’s case, but usually the sheriff paid a fine for the negligence.

Hugh Shirley does show up later in crown service, including as sheriff for Oxfordshire (CPR 1494-1509, 437, 608, 619), so it didn’t permanently damage him. Who knows about the gaol-keeper!

TNA, KB 9/419, m. 50; TNA, KB 27/964, rex m. 8d. Top photo: Wallingford Castle, photo by pitou250.

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