Robert Purfote and the boundaries of sanctuary

Here is one of my old favourites: a London grocer named Robert Purfote who took sanctuary at St Martin le Grand around 1480 for debt. By twists and turns his house came to straddle the boundary of the sanctuary precinct, so that one side was within the refuge, one side out.

A grocer. Source

In a 1530s royal enquiry regarding the bounds of St Martin le Grand, Purfote’s former apprentice, grocer William Mathew, testified that in the 1480s Purfote had opened a grocery shop in a property inside, but right on the boundary of the sanctuary precinct. Though he couldn’t leave the precinct for fear of arrest, his customers could come to him and he was safe from being imprisoned for debt and having his goods in the precinct seized by creditors. His shop door opened into St Martin’s, but he also cut a window out to the street outside the precinct where he could sell his goods without leaving his shop.


Over the years Purfote was able to pay off his debts and come out of the protection of sanctuary: but apparently he found the business in his sanctuary shop so good that he stayed in the same property for the rest of his life. He even acquired the shop next door and expanded. When he died, another grocer (not in sanctuary) took over the lease.


His original shop was inside the sanctuary but the expanded area next door was outside the boundaries – so his shop was then half-in, half-out of sanctuary (see map at the top). The boundary was no longer marked by a wall, but a post stood where the wall had been. That post was used to mark the boundary of the precinct also on the street outside, where the sanctuary extended to the drainage channel in the middle of the street: sanctuary seekers could go up to those lines but no further, or they risked arrest.

TNA, C 24/3, “Abbas,” mm8-9,10,12-13,16-17; STAC 2/20/323, mm19-23; PROB 11/15/654, Will of Robert Purfote, 1508; WAM, MS 13324. I wrote an article about this and other strange topographical elements of the SMLG sanctuary.

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