What to do, what to do, when you’re in a civil war and your enemies have flown to sanctuary? If you’re Henry VI, Richard III, or Henry VII, you let them stay because breaching sanctuary would destroy your moral standing, which you can’t afford. But if you’re Edward IV – not a man especially known for caution, or for moral principle – you walk right in to the church and seize them – and then chop off their heads without so much as a trial.
In early May 1471, Edward defeated his Lancastrian enemies at the battle of Tewkesbury. Many of the most important Lancastrians, including Henry VI’s heir, Prince Edward, were killed in the fray.
According to ‘Warkworth’s’ Chronicle, about fifteen of the leadership core of the Lancastrians who made it off the field alive – including Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset and John Langstrother, prior of the Hospitallers – fled to Tewkesbury Abbey after the battle.
Hearing that they’d fled into the abbey, Edward rushed into the church with his sword bared. A priest saying mass, with a eucharistic host in his hand, confronted him, requiring the king out of respect for the mass and the church to pardon those men.
The king agreed to do so, giving a solemn promise before the eucharistic host to pardon them. Assured as they were of the king’s mercy, Somerset and the others didn’t flee, but remained in the church recovering from the battle, intending to leave in a few days.
But two days later Edward’s men came to the church and seized them. At Edward’s orders, all fifteen were summarily executed without trial, as traitors. In this image Edward looks on as Somerset is beheaded; Langstrother, the Hospitaller prior, waits dolefully on the right, as he’s next.
Edward IV’s sacrilege here – his order to seize the men violently from the sanctuary, the betrayal of his word, compounded by its being made in church, at mass, in the presence of the sacrament – was significant.
Why did he get away with it? Henry VII, Richard III, and Henry VII were hesitant to commit sacrilege so obviously and so boldly. It was likely the particular moment and Edward’s own risk-taking personality: it was certainly a strong statement that traitors to his renewed regime could expect no quarter. He could cross that line because of the political exigencies of the moment – but it wasn’t a harbinger of a more general repudiation of sanctuary in his second reign. As the realm returned to ordinary time in the 1470s, successful use of sanctuary by felons and debtors increased.
Matheson, ed., “‘Warkworth’s’ Chronicle,” 113-14; Images of Edward, Tewkesbury, and the beheading from Histoire de la rentrée victorieuse du roi Edouard IV en son royaume d’Angleterre, 1471, found here.