Murder with a turf spade

On 12 June 1467, William Laydman of Bowes sought sanctuary at Durham Cathedral. He confessed that nine days before at Moss Sike Head he had mortally wounded John Williamson, also of Bowes, with a turf spade. He said that he did this “against his will and in defence of his body,” a frequent refrain in the Durham sanctuary seeker confessions. Williamson was wounded on the right part of his head and died, and Laydman then fled towards Durham.

Laydman and Williamson had been digging turves (compacted mossy earth, aka peat, used as fuel) at the marshy head of a stream, Moss Sike [in writing this post I learned that sike = small stream]. It’s unclear exactly where this happened: if this is Bowes, Yorkshire, then Moss Sike is 100 miles away in the Scottish borders, and it is improbable that two men of Bowes would go so far to dig turves. Perhaps Laydman and Williamson were from a different Bowes, though I haven’t found one near Moss Sike.


It could be another Moss Sike that I can’t find, or more likely the registrar misheard Bessy Sike, a mile or so from Bowes, Yorkshire (which in turn is about 30 miles from Durham).

Photo of Bessy Sike by Andy Waddington

In general, the seekers at Durham cathedral were apparently of lower social status than in the southern sanctuaries – their weapons were more likely to be agricultural implements (as here, a turf spade) than swords.


I don’t know how the seekers supported themselves while in the sanctuary precinct. In Westminster or St Martin’s, they were often supported from outside by patrons or ran businesses from inside the sanctuary (though that market was easily saturated).

The Durham cathedral precinct. Source

Both seem unlikely for the rural labourers who made up much of Durham’s seeker population. Some probably did not stay for long (16th century evidence says that was also true of Westminster), but others show up later as witnesses to other seekers’ confessions.

Sanctuarium Dunelmense, 1

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