Sanctuary for sexual assault

On 12 March 1467, John Beauchamp of Lympstone, Devon, took sanctuary at St. Paul’s cathedral in London because eight years before he had assaulted, raped, and “deflowered” singlewoman Alice Perow with a knife.


By the way, although in some circumstances in the 15th century (as Ruth Mazo Karras has shown), “singlewoman” came to be used as a synonym for prostitute, it also continued to be used simply to mean unmarried woman, with no negative valence. So calling Alice a “singlewoman” here was not necessarily a snide commentary.

There’s no indication of why Beauchamp needed to seek asylum such a long time afterward – or, indeed, why he needed to seek sanctuary at all. Rape was a felony, punishable by death, but convictions were as rare as hen’s teeth, as juries were very reluctant to hang men for this crime.

Some sexual assaults were regarded as more heinous than others (eg. deflowering of a virgin, use of a knife), and maybe this one would have resulted in a rare conviction. But eight years had passed after the incident and apparently no trial for Beauchamp.

So why fly to sanctuary in 1467? Maybe he was simply found again in London after having disappeared from Devon following the crime. But what he did when he got to St Paul’s suggests that maybe (just maybe) he was driven to the church by remorse.

In entering St. Paul’s cathedral, instead of the sanctuary of St Martin le Grand about 100m away, presumably Beauchamp knew that he was not choosing a chartered sanctuary where he could stay permanently, but a temporary, 40-day asylum, normally followed by abjuration of the realm.


After his confession, though, Beauchamp told the coroner that he didn’t wish to abjure, but instead to stay in the church for 40 days, “according to the customs and liberties of the English church,” which the coroner allowed him to do.


On Beauchamp’s 40th day, a writ was issued to the coroner asking him to report on Beauchamp’s status: had he abjured? Answer: no, he’d just confessed. The court official at the other end simply recorded this as an “acknowledgement” (cognicio) of Beauchamp’s felony.


I can’t find a pardon for Beauchamp, so I think he was hanged: his confession was a guilty plea. As he actively chose not to take options that would have saved his neck – St Martin le Grand where he could have remained indefinitely, or abjuration – we’re left with two explanations.

1. Beauchamp wanted to hang; maybe the rape had weighed heavily on his mind for many years, and now he felt it was time to suffer the penalty; or

2. he had some other card up his sleeve that I haven’t found (eg. pardon; or benefit of clergy plea) and walked free.

TNA, KB 9/316, mm. 3-4; KB 29/98, m. 2. Top image: source.

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