Crime and Credibility

This case features a serial horse-thief and serial sanctuary-taker with a wee bit of a credibility problem. In May 1489 John Whatman, a roper of Ticehurst, Sussex, stole a horse at Wadhurst, a few miles away. Then in September 1489 Whatman stole another horse, at Heathfield in Sussex. He was arrested for this second theft and arraigned before the Sussex peace sessions in April 1490; at first he pleaded not guilty, then changed his mind, pleaded guilty, and called for the coroner.


Calling for the coroner at that stage meant that he was trying to “turn approver,” i.e. become a crown witness, in hope that he would provide such valuable information on other felons that he would be reprieved himself. He was sent back to prison as his gambit was considered.

But he must then have escaped. A few days later we see him taking sanctuary at the chapel of St George in the king’s palace at Sheen. There he confessed to the first horse theft, abjured, and was sent off to Southampton to go into exile.


Whatman’s (later) version of what happened next: he was innocently on his way to Southampton when the sheriff of Surrey arrested him and imprisoned him at Guildford. For 16 weeks he was given only bread and water on alternate days. To save his life, he said, he escaped again.

This version was at least partially invented: it doesn’t match up with the chronology of a second sanctuary-taking only two days after the first at Sheen: on 7 May 1490, Whatman took refuge in another church dedicated to St George, this one in Southwark.


This time the authorities were definitely after him, and he was seized from the church by Sir John Turberville, marshal of the Marshalsea prison. He was brought before the court of King’s Bench. He pleaded sanctuary – that Turberville’s arrest in the church had been illegal.

The attorney general agreed with Whatman that the seizure had been illegal, and so the court ordered Whatman to be restored to the Southwark church. He presumably abjured again – but it seems he again didn’t proceed into exile, as by autumn 1491 he was in custody once more.

Appearing once more before King’s Bench, he told his sob story about being starved in the prison at Guildford, but his tale simply didn’t match up with the two records of his sanctuary-taking at the two St George’s churches, and so the justices rejected his plea.

He was sentenced to be hanged. Liars never prosper and crime doesn’t pay, as current events often show us clearly.

TNA, KB 9/391, mm. 67-68; KB 27/915, rex m. 4d; KB 27/921, rex m. 6 (reference kindly supplied by Graham Dawson); KB 29/120, m. 19d. Top image, P. Bruegel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: