Treason and sanctuary: the case of Thomas Bagnall

The 1495 claim of sanctuary made by Thomas Bagnall, traitor, supporter of Perkin Warbeck, thorn in the side of Henry VII, is one of the most famous sanctuary cases of the Tudor period. I also think it’s been misinterpreted.

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. Warbeck (who would later himself seek sanctuary) claimed to be the younger son of Edward IV – aka one of the “princes in the Tower,” probably but not certainly murdered in 1483. The mystery about what happened to the Yorkist princes during and after their uncle Richard III’s seizure of the throne left the door open for pretenders seizing their identities and challenging Henry VII’s dynastic right to the kingship. Warbeck’s challenge was a serious one, and so the activities of Bagnall and his company in support of his claim were dangerous.

So it’s not too surprising that Henry VII was willing to breach sanctuary in order to seize them. It nearly worked, too. 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, arguing that his seizure had been illegal. 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.”

On the King’s Bench coram rege roll, no judgment is recorded, and so it has usually been thought that his plea failed, with further inference that the court implicitly ruled that traitors could not claim sanctuary. That’s a lot of weight to put on a record that actually says nothing about the ruling, especially as other evidence indicates Bagnall’s sanctuary 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 – in particular Westminster and St Martin le Grand – were “privileged” for treason. St Martin le Grand actually also had two other Perkin Warbeck associates (here and here), one of whom lived there for twenty 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.

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