Henry VII and Humphrey Stafford

In 1485-86 Richard III loyalist Humphrey Stafford sought sanctuary twice as he continued to resist the new regime of Henry VII: the first time Henry VII left him unmolested, but at the second attempt he found a technicality that allowed him to be dragged out.

Humphrey Stafford first sought sanctuary at St John’s Abbey in Colchester along with Francis Lovell. After he, his brother Thomas, and Lovell tried unsuccessfully in spring 1486 to foment rebellion, he fled for the second time with brother Thomas to Culham, a manor held by Abingdon Abbey.


Culham had been used as a sanctuary for debt in the 14th century and by the 1480s claims were evidently being made for its sheltering of felons as well, as was also the case around this time for manors held by Westminster Abbey and other religious houses.

Soon after they entered Culham, however, the Staffords were seized and put on trial for treason. At King’s Bench Humphrey pleaded sanctuary, which if proved would mean that he had to be returned to his sanctuary and the trial would not proceed.


The abbot had to show evidence at King’s Bench that Culham was “privileged for treason”; on looking at his charters and other records, the judges at King’s Bench decided that although Culham was a sanctuary for debt and felony, it was not a sanctuary for treason.

Thus Stafford’s sanctuary was denied and he was given the traitor’s death of drawing, hanging, and quartering. According to Polydore Vergil his younger brother Thomas, however, was pardoned by the king.

“Tractus et suspensus,” drawn and hanged

Though sometimes the Stafford case is discussed as a total barring of sanctuary for traitors, the decision at King’s Bench was a narrow rather than a general one: it applied only to Culham manor, and indeed implied that other sanctuaries did have privilege for treason.

In practice, Westminster, St Martin le Grand, and Beaulieu – often presented in legal argument as having the most capacious sanctuary privileges – continued to shelter traitors for decades to come.

TNA, KB 27/900, rex m. 8; TNA, KB 15/42, fol 151r-155v; Seipp 1486.044; Vergil, Anglica Historia (ed. Hay), 11-13; Chrimes, Henry VII, 71; Peter Iver Kaufman, “Henry VII and Sanctuary,” Church History 53, no. 4 (December 1984): 469.

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