A sanctuary in Greenwich

In the 1460s or 1470s, a London leatherseller named Thomas Bygge ran to sanctuary in Greenwich because he owed £100 (a huge amount of money for a humble leatherseller) to John Hanmer, a London mercer.


Hanmer complained to the Chancellor, reporting that he and one of his servants, William Umfray, had gone the previous week to speak with Bygge, to see if he could pay back any part of the £100. Bygge said he had no money at all and wouldn’t pay.


After Hanmer, exasperated, left their meeting place and went to eat some dinner in Greenwich, Bygge roused not only the bailiffs of Greenwich but also sixty (!) sanctuary men to attack Hanmer and his servant Umfray. Bygge (according to Hanmer) had the bailiffs arrest Hanmer on a fake lawsuit alleging £100 in damages. Hanmer beseeched the Chancellor to intervene, as otherwise those “seyntwary men” would ensure he lost the case.


It’s not completely clear what this Greenwich sanctuary was, except there’s a clue: Hanmer asks the Chancellor to intervene with the steward and bailiffs “of Sheen of East Greenwich and Lewisham.”

This suggests that the sanctuary was at a manor held by the priory of Sheen, a Carthusian religious house founded not long before (in 1414) in Richmond, about 23km away. Hanmer’s claim that there were sixty sanctuary men might be hyperbole (very common in Chancery petitions), but it still suggests a sizeable group of sanctuary seekers there who otherwise have left little trace. There are four references I’ve found for men taking sanctuary at Greenwich right around 1470-75, all in Chancery petitions, all for debt (here’s a post about another one of them).

Sanctuary at this place in Greenwich – wherever it was – may have been a shortlived phenomenon, but perhaps it just kept going in subsequent decades under the documentary radar.

TNA, C 1/71/104

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