Treason and sanctuary: the case of Thomas Bagnall

One of the most famous – albeit misinterpreted – sanctuary cases of the Tudor period: the 1495 claim of sanctuary made by Thomas Bagnall, traitor, supporter of Perkin Warbeck, thorn in the side of Henry VII.

In 1495 five men—Thomas Bagnall, John Heth, John Skotte, John Kenyngton, and Alexander Synger—were accused of using the sanctuary of St. Martin le Grand as a base from which to disseminate treasonous flyers in support of Perkin Warbeck and against the king.


Although Synger’s name drops from the record (perhaps he died in prison), the other four were brought before King’s Bench. Heth, Skotte, and Kenyngton pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty and sentenced to a traitor’s death.

Bagnall, on the other hand, pleaded sanctuary. His plea was (unusually) recorded in English and submitted on a separate document to the court: “He saieth that he is a sanctuary man of St. Martin’s, the sanctuary place beside Cheap, and was taken out of St. Martin’s on Ash Wednesday against his will by Master Sampson and others and Master Digby being present, and prayeth thereto to be remitted, restored, and aknowledges the treason whereof he is arraigned.”

Although on the King’s Bench coram rege roll, no judgment is recorded, and so it has usually been thought that his plea failed (the interpretation often being that traitors couldn’t claim sanctuary), other evidence indicates Bagnall’s plea succeeded.

In discussion on a case later the same year, Chief Justice Hussey recalled a precedent: when “the men…were taken out of St Martin’s and beheaded, it was because they did not pray the protection of the place: one did pray it, and had it.” This must refer to Bagnall and his associates. (One wonders why the others didn’t plead sanctuary: what did they have to lose?) As I’ve noted before, treason was not an absolute bar for sanctuary, as sometimes thought.

Some sanctuaries – Westminster, St Martin’s – were “privileged” for treason. St Martin le Grand actually also had another Perkin Warbeck associate who will come up in coming weeks, who lived there apparently for 20 years.

TNA, KB 9/78, mm. 8-9, 19, 20-21; KB 27/931, rex m. 6; KB 15/42, fols. 73r-75r; Great Chronicle of London, 250; Baker, Port’s Notebook, 31-36; McSheffrey, SS, 49. Top image source.

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