Debtors in sanctuary and debt litigation: an odd twist

Here a debtor seeks sanctuary, with a couple of twists. In the mid-1470s, William Cowper of London complained to the chancellor about one William Chapman, “dwelling and abiding in sanctuary in Greenwich.”


First of all, a curious twist in the complaint: usually Chancery plaintiffs were annoyed with defendant sanctuary men because they were in sanctuary and owed them ££; here it was the defendant sanctuary man, Chapman, who had sued plaintiff Cowper in London, for a debt of about £10.


Cowper was arrested and incarcerated in Ludgate, the debtors’ prison in 15th century London. Cowper was in catch-22: Chapman couldn’t leave sanctuary to sue the case in person and so Cowper was imprisoned indefinitely, as an alderman had decreed he couldn’t be released until the case was heard.

Cowper thus asked the chancellor to intervene to issue a writ of corpus cum causa: i.e. going over alderman’s head to force the suit to be heard, which would either force Chapman to come out of sanctuary or to forfeit.

Second twist: in saying Chapman was “in sanctuary in Greenwich,” it’s not entirely clear what Cowper meant. Maybe he meant the virge of the king’s household, i.e. the zone around the king’s palace, an independent jurisdiction. [I’m not sure this image below was the form of the 1470s palace or 16th-century.]


Describing that as “sanctuary” would have been odd, as it was not a religious institution and sanctuary implied holiness). And the king might in principle support the idea of sanctuary, but he would hardly want a troupe of debtors and felons hanging around the royal palace.

It was more likely a manor held by Sheen priory at Greenwich, where another sanctuary seeker went (he had quite a story). Otherwise in the 1470s there was no religious house at Greenwich, as Franciscan Observants were not re-established there until 1480.

This is then likely an early example of dependent properties of monasteries, such as manors, being used as sanctuary: we’ll see more of them in decades following.

TNA, C 1/48/17; VCH Kent, 2:194-98. Top image source.

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