The savvy criminal

George Sawyer alias Wolmer, a Surrey man variously identified as husbandman, yeoman, and sawyer, was a walking example of the escape hatches, legal and illegal, available to the savvy late medieval criminal.

In 1499, Sawyer took sanctuary at St. Mary Overey in Southwark after a string of burglaries in Kent, but three men dragged him out of the church. He was forced to stand trial where he pleaded sanctuary, asking the judges to restore him to St Mary’s.

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His sanctuary plea was duly tried at King’s Bench in 1500, and the jurors found that his claim of sanctuary was true, so he was sent back to the church. He then abjured the realm, swearing he would proceed to Southampton to find a ship and go into exile forever.

Shortly afterwards, however, he was caught in the kingdom and hauled back before the court of King’s Bench. This time he pleaded benefit of clergy. The reading test was administered to him, he passed, and he was then handed over to the custody of the archdeacon of Westminster. He was imprisoned in the “convict house” inside the Westminster Abbey sanctuary, where those who had been granted benefit of clergy were held. There he stayed for a decade, until 1510.

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At this point, you’d think he might have tried to get a pardon – Henry VIII had granted a general pardon at his accession that should have covered Sawyer’s felonies, and lots of others like him took advantage to wipe out indictments or walk out of ecclesiastical prisons.

But instead, Sawyer decided just to escape. He somehow broke out of the Westminster convict house, and he wasn’t heard from again. The abbot of Westminster, in charge of the convict house, was convicted of negligence for allowing the escape, pardoned, and probably paid a fine.

TNA, KB 27/953, m.4; KB 27/956, rex m. 2d; KB 29/130, m. 27d, 29; KB 9/454, m. 38; KB 27/996, m 18. Top image, P. Bruegel.

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