Prosecuting crime in the Durham palatinate

In 1492 Robert Atkynson of Nether Crosby, Cumbria, sought sanctuary because a month before he’d killed William Skoloke at Warwick Bridge. Atkynson’s garden-variety request for sanctuary had a couple of interesting diversions from the ordinary. His case hints at a relationship between the administration of the Durham sanctuary and the system of criminal prosecution in the Durham palatinate (a jurisdiction operating separately from the main system of English royal justice).


First, maybe Atkynson was more desperate than the norm. Though most felons sought asylum “urgently [instanter],” he was recorded to have done so “instanter, instancius, et instantissime [urgently, very urgently, most urgently].” He really really wanted sanctuary.

Second, following the entry was a copy of a “letter of testimonial and credence” written (in English) by the prior of Durham Cathedral to “all Cristen peple,” a kind of press release.


The letter certified that Robert Atkynson, who had murdered William Skoloke along with Henry and Christopher Atkynson (information which was not in Robert’s own confession), had confessed the felony and had asked for, and received, the immunity and sanctuary of Durham cathedral.

I’d guess this letter was either aimed at those processing an indictment against Robert Atkynson (“just fyi btw, he’s here in sanctuary, so don’t waste your time trying to find him to bring him to trial”); or else to facilitate the forfeiture of his goods as a confessed felon.

This is the only such letter surviving in the Durham records: but it’s possible that such letters were written all the time for those admitted to sanctuary, and that the only unusual thing about this one was its being copied into the register.

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