Brutal breach of sanctuary?

Here, an escaped robber and disputed accounts of his arrest: was he brutally seized in a church in great disrespect of the sacral space and sanctuary—or simply taken into custody on the city street?

In February 1490, Richard Reynold, yeoman of Hendon Middlesex, ran into the London church of St Olave in Old Jewry, escaping arrest for the robbery of Robert Shordych, esquire, at Edgeware.

What happened next was contested: Reynold claimed that before he could abjure, the London sheriffs’ servants dragged him from the church, and “contrary to the laws of almighty God, with great force and violence,… sore beat, wounded, and maimed” him.

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The sheriffs of London, on the other hand, claimed that Reynold had been on the street outside the church and not in sanctuary at all when they arrested him.

A dispute on a “plea of sanctuary” (an allegation of an illegal seizure from a church) was sent to a jury to decide if the person had actually been in sanctuary when arrested. The London jury sided with the sheriffs and so his trial on the robbery was to go ahead.

Reynold then petitioned the chancellor to intervene in the case; his petition is full of language about the terrible pollution to the church’s sacred space the violence of the breach had caused.

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Reynold asked the chancellor, who was also the archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, to act as the “hedd of the church” as well as the chancellor and to right this terrible wrong against the laws of God as well as the king’s.

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It’s not clear whether Morton did intervene but clearly something happened to stop Reynold’s trial. He sat in prison for two years: there was probably some to-ing and fro-ing while a decision was made about what to do.

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Finally in early 1492 Reynold’s case was called up to King’s Bench, where it was recorded that the king’s attorney had decided to drop the case, acknowledging that sanctuary had, in fact, been breached, exactly as Reynold had alleged.

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The crown attorney’s statement implied that the London sheriffs had lied about where they arrested Reynold. It wasn’t unusual for the London sheriffs to push the envelope on sanctuary; it also wasn’t unusual for the crown to swat them down for it. Evidently the king himself, perhaps at Morton’s urging, had decided to come down against the sheriffs. Hard to say if this was an evaluation of the facts; a PR move (a good king should be seen to support sanctuary); or a slapdown of the annoying Londoners.

The justices then ordered Reynold to be restored to sanctuary in the church. Presumably back in St Olave Old Jewry he formally confessed his felony to the coroner, abjured the realm, and proceeded into exile.

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TNA, KB 9/385, mm. 4-5; KB 27/919, m. 7; C 1/159/53. Top image: footage of false arrest 1490.

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