Sanctuary in the Rye cemetery

Though most of my cases of sanctuary seekers come from the records of the royal courts or sanctuary registers, a few examples turn up in town records, including one from Rye, Sussex, in 1500. On 24 October of that year John Purchase, noted to be thirty years old, took refuge in the cemetery of the Rye church and asked for a coroner. When the coroner appeared a couple of days later, he had a sorry tale to tell of a string of crimes across the south of England.

His first felony was committed when he was doing his civic duty, or so he claimed: in the parish of Ottery St Mary, Devon, he tried to stop a thief who’d stolen a set of linens, but ended up killing the thief. So far, so potentially pardonable, but Purchase decided to flee.

Taking his two horses, he headed eastward and ended up in Sussex. Once there, he seems to have turned reckless, or at least his “just a good guy caught up in a bad situation” narrative began to crumble, as for no obvious reason, he stole a mare at Lewes.

Now with three horses, he traveled to Newenden, Kent, and put the horses to pasture on lands belonging to a John Sneth. Sneth, however, may have been suspicious in the first place (strangers were always suspect), and perhaps he’d heard about the horse theft in Lewes.

Alerted that he’d been found out, Purchase then fled to Rye via Canterbury (not the most direct route…), hoping to lie low or perhaps hop a boat overseas, as Rye was a port. After a short while, however, he heard in Rye that someone was seeking to have him arrested, and so he ran into the cemetery for sanctuary.

After making this confession to the coroner, he abjured the realm. The coroner sent him to Dover to make his way overseas: let’s assume that he got there. It’s quite the itinerary.


East Sussex Record Office, MS RYE/60/4, Account Book for Rye, 1493-1514, fol. 94r. Top photo – source

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