Dominic Arthur and St Augustine’s, Bristol

In 1496, seven men submitted a petition to the chancellor complaining that City of Bristol officials had arrested them within the sanctuary precinct of St Augustine’s monastery, just outside the civic bounds.

When I first dug into this case, a striking thing emerged: though this and one other case are the only I’ve found in the legal records for sanctuary at St Augustine’s, two fragments of yearly accounts for the monastery (1491-92/1511-12) indicate that it was quite popular as a refuge for sanctuary seekers.

And excavating further, I learned that the Bristol Record Society volumes have been digitized and are online! Hurray! On page 232 we see 12 sanctuary seekers were admitted 1491-92: a higher number than either Beverley or Durham for that year.


By 1511-12, the number had dropped to five (p 233), but that’s still pretty substantial in relation to records for other houses. Given that so few St Augustine’s cases ended up in the legal records, it really hits home how record survival affects what we know about sanctuary. It’s the iceberg phenomenon: we can only see the bits of the iceberg sticking up out of the water (surviving records), and we don’t have any idea how big the chunk of ice sitting below the surface is (actual sanctuary seekers who left no documentary trace).

Anyway, back to our 1496 case. It looks like what happened was that Bristol officials tried to arrest a sanctuary man at St Augustine’s, Dominic Arthur, an Irish pouchmaker from Limerick, on a trespass (not a felony), and the other six men in some way helped him resist arrest. The other six men were charged with having unlawfully “imprisoned” a Bristol sheriff’s official in what other sources describe as a riot that ensued; they were in the end found guilty and fined.

The abbot ended up handing Arthur over to Bristol civic officials, perhaps because he was charged with trespass, not felony (or perhaps just to stop the riot): sanctuary was not technically available for a non-capital offence (it did happen sometimes, but the abbot couldn’t or at least didn’t argue for it here).

As I noted before, this was part of a larger campaign the Bristol civic authorities were waging against St Augustine’s, which had, like other religious houses in the late 15th century, lately begun to assert its jurisdictional privileges more strongly. Sanctuary was amongst those jurisdictional privileges, but they also included seemingly unrelated issues such as the right to hold assizes of bread and ale, and to allow artisans to sell at retail outside the civic markets and guilds. City governments, before and after the 1490s, attacked sanctuary as what they saw as the soft underbelly of these privileges. I think they were really concerned, though, about their own assertion of monopolies on holding markets and regulating craft production.

In the end, we don’t know what happened to Dominic Arthur; the case was investigated in Star Chamber, but there was no known resolution, except that we do know that St Augustine continued to offer sanctuary into the reign of Henry VIII (as the accounts show). The City of Bristol also continued to be concerned about religious houses and their privileges, but by the 1510s their attention had turned instead to Hospitaller properties, particularly the Temple Fee, as we’ll see in other cases (here and here).


Peter Fleming, by the way, has written a great article on the conflict between Bristol and the monastery, available here. See also TNA, C 1/207/59; KB 9/409, mm 47-48; Ralph, Great White Book of Bristol, pp 21–22, 43–67. Maps: Historic Cities.

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: