Sanctuary breaches and hard resets in Coventry, 1490

There was a real mess of a sanctuary situation in Coventry in 1490 enmeshed in a triangular dispute, featuring the bishop, the city’s government, and the crown. The bishop and the city both played fast and loose with the rules.

Seizure #1: In February 1490 William Johnson, tailor of Lincoln, was about to be hanged for felony when a band of men, including a chaplain, rushed the sheriffs’ servants, wrested Johnson from their custody, and took him to sanctuary in the cathedral.


In response, Seizure #2: the sheriffs’ men burst into the cathedral, grabbed Johnson, and returned him to prison. Outraged, Bishop Hales of Coventry went to the gate of the sheriffs’ prison and demanded Johnson’s return to his church, but the sheriffs refused.


The bishop immediately excommunicated the sheriffs and gaol keeper, but still they didn’t acquiesce. The next day, Seizure #3: another group of men, including a Franciscan friar and several Staffordshire gentlemen, broke into the gaol and brought Johnson back to the cathedral. This time the sheriffs didn’t risk a second breach and left him in the church for his allotted 40 days. He didn’t abjure, however, and so what to do at the end of his 40 days?

The Staffordshire gentlemen from Seizure #3 (whose relationship to this tailor of Lincoln is unclear) decided to do an unconventional hard reset on Johnson’s sanctuary stay.

They led him out of the cathedral and onto the public street and proclaimed (in paraphrase): “Everyone here pay attention and bear witness that William Johnson, who was in sanctuary, is now outside it. Now we’ll take him back into sanctuary again and he can start another 40-day stint.” And so he did.


I don’t know what happened to Johnson – his return to the church is the last we hear of him. Some of the others were prosecuted. The chaplain from the Seizure #1 was found guilty as an accessory to felony; he was able to plead clergy. The other rescuers disappeared and were outlawed.

The sheriffs of Coventry and the gaol keeper were also indicted – interestingly not for breaching the sanctuary but for allowing Johnson’s escape from their custody. The prosecution against the gaol keeper was dropped but the sheriffs pleaded to a very substantial fine of £100.


This was one of a number of altercations between local ecclesiastical authorities and civic hierarchies over sanctuary in Henry VII’s reign – we’ll see more dramatic cases over coming weeks. In Coventry itself, it might be worth connecting this to the bishop’s handling of a heresy case that same month of February 1490, part of a series of prosecutions the bishops of Coventry undertook between 1486 and 1522. While I’d argue that the relationship between the bishop and the civic authorities of Coventry was complicated rather than inherently conflictual, a bishop’s insistence on the protection of sanctuary for felons (and especially one that definitely flouted with the “rules”) often set him at odds with local urban governments.

TNA, KB9/1061, m 50; KB29/121, m 9d; KB27/919, m 9; KB27/920, m 14; KB27/925, Fines

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