Many late medieval English people saw sanctuary as a bulwark against judicial corruption. Others saw it as corruption itself, allowing heinous criminals to escape consequences. This seeker was a great example of the latter.
On 28 March 1490, a mariner of Brixham, Devon, John Preston alias Westlake, took sanctuary in the church in Bishop’s Sutton, Hampshire, for a murder he’d committed in May 1489: he’d killed William Thomas, a Somerset man, up in Rotherham, Yorkshire (this was a geographically diverse crime).
He abjured and the coroner sent him to the port of Poole to take a boat. As he later explained, though, at Poole “he waited for a ship that had space for fourteen days and he did not have food or drink, nor could he get a ship, and for that reason he returned to London.”
He used that to explain why he took sanctuary again in a second church, at St Botulph without Aldgate in London in June 1490. Maybe, just maybe, he could argue that he was simply trying to find another way into exile – he needed another coroner to assign him a new port. The problem was, though, that he confessed to a different murder the second time around: in May 1490, after he had abjured for the first murder and was in theory wandering around the south coast of England looking for a ship to take him into exile, he killed another man in Kent.
The second coroner didn’t know of the first abjuration (no reason why he should) and assigned Preston to go to Ipswich – but probably someone realized there was something fishy and arrested him and put him in prison. Preston’s case was called up to King’s Bench where he made his excuses, but the justices had both coroners’ memoranda, so they were on to him. They rejected his plea that he couldn’t find a boat to go into exile, but here’s the strange part:
Instead of sending him to the gallows, as the king’s attorney urged, they asked him: “Hey, do you happen to be literate? Cuz if you are, then you can get out of hanging!” (They used slightly different wording.)
He answered, “Hey, yes I am!” He took the reading test, passed, and was handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities for imprisonment instead of execution. They did stipulate that the imprisonment should be perpetual (that is, that he was not allowed purgation).
It truly is hard to understand why the justices reached in some cases, though not others, for mercy. Sometimes we can see elevated social status and connections, but this guy was a mariner, not in general a socially-elevated occupation. But maybe he was a VIP’s mariner – or just an especially sympathetic character.
Mind you, life in prison was no picnic. The case was notorious enough that the legal commentator Spelman wrote it up in his notebook.
TNA, KB 9/388, mm. 26-29; KB 29/120, m. 30; KB 27/921, rex m. 2d; Baker, Spelman’s Reports, 1:44.