Police brutality, 1490s style

Cases from the 1490s show clearly that one thing that really bothered London sheriffs and their underlings was the escape of felons from their custody into nearby churches. Frustrated the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of them.

In 1495 John Calcott was in Newgate prison awaiting trial on felony when he managed to break out and run to nearby St Sepulchre church to take sanctuary. Four days later at midnight the Newgate gaoler, Thomas Godeale, arrived at the church with an armed retinue to seize him back.


The parish priest and the churchwardens – shocked, as the churchwardens later put it, by Godeale’s contempt “of the holy Churche and the king’s peace” – were alerted by a great ruckus, and a scene of some chaos ensued as Godeale’s men tried to break into the church.

Someone rang the church bells and all the parishioners rose up out of their beds and ran to the church to see what was happening. Godeale couldn’t knock down the church doors and seize Calcott with all those people watching, so he left.


This wasn’t a “church versus state” quarrel here: those opposing Godeale were the lay parishioners. It’s no surprise that many lay Londoners would be less than thrilled by the heavy-handed tactics of law enforcement who came storming into their parish churches with armed retinues.

After the St Sepulchre priest and churchwardens stymied his attempt to retake Calcott, Godeale sued them for preventing him from doing his job (arresting an escaped felon). We know about this case from two petitions sent by the churchwardens and the priest to the chancellor.

The priest and churchwardens wanted the chancellor to order them to be released; the outcome isn’t recorded, but they probably won, I’d guess. In fact, Godeale would’ve been lucky to escape without a heavy fine for his negligence in allowing the escape.

TNA, C 1/226/44, C 1/228/35

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