“I ly in seintwarye at grete coste”: Scribe William Ebesham in sanctuary

In 1468 or 1469 scribe William Ebesham wrote one of his most important clients, Sir John Paston, to ask him for money, for as “God knoweth, I lie in sanctuary at great cost and amongst right unreasonable askers.” Between about 1460 and 1500, layman Ebesham made a career as a scribe, especially as a copier of luxury books. He worked frequently for the now-famous Paston family, who left the largest surviving English medieval collection of family letters.


When Ebesham wrote Sir John Paston, he was in the sanctuary at Westminster, presumably for debt. He asked Sir John to advance payment for a “grete booke” he was then copying for Paston, a book of “chivalry,” including The Art of War by Vegetius.

British Library, Lansdowne 285

Ebesham solved his debt problems (perhaps when Paston paid him), but he apparently decided he liked the Westminster sanctuary, for he lived there for at least 20 years, from the late 1470s to the late 1490s. He also worked as a scribe for Westminster Abbey itself (interesting that a monastery would contract out scribal work to a layman!); one of the many manuscripts attributed to him includes a statement of the sanctuary privileges of Westminster Abbey.

Refs: Davis, ed., Paston Letters, 2:387; A.I. Doyle, “The Work of a Late Fifteenth-Century English Scribe, William Ebesham,” BJRL (1957). Top image: British Library.

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