“A great cross of gold”: Theft of religious objects

On 24 January 1444, William Porter, yeoman of Yorkshire, took sanctuary at the London Charterhouse for a breaking and entering at Barking nunnery, stealing a “great cross of gold” and other church plate. He abjured the realm through the port of Winchelsea. It’s ironic that he committed a theft in one religious house and then fled to another for safety, but that was how sanctuary worked (although curious that it was a monastery and not a parish church).


Later the same year, Thomas Laykyn, a merchant of Bristol, took sanctuary at the church of St Mary in Guildford, Surrey, and confessed that he had stolen “a book called a Prymer” worth 14d from an unknown man. A primer was a prayer book (sometimes now known as a book of hours).

BOOK OF HOURS, Use of Rome, in Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum. Northern Italy (most probably Florence), c. 1480. Price est.: € 2.700-3.200 €
Primer or Book of Hours from Italy, c 1480 – https://blog.mearto.com/2016/06/20/object-of-inspiration-book-of-hours-from-northern-italy-c-1480/

While Porter’s motivation is obvious (cross was worth £100), the coroner valued Laykyn’s stolen primer at just over a shilling (the minimum amount separating petty and felony theft). Rather than the gorgeously decorated books of hours studied in great detail by art historians and other scholars, it was presumably a small and undecorated manuscript; they do survive, but it’s difficult to find images of them, as libraries and museums don’t much celebrate them! Laykyn might even have stolen it for pious reasons rather than as material object (again, an irony). Laykyn abjured the realm also, but he must have been later caught in the kingdom; records indicate he was hanged the next year (I haven’t been able to trace Porter’s fate).

Maybe, just possibly, the issue with Laykyn was Lollard adherence, though that’s not indicated on the indictment; otherwise a terrible example of the death penalty for theft of very small value.

TNA, KB 9/246, m. 3; KB 9/248, m. 43; KB 29/77, m. 25. Top photo: A processional cross from the V&A.

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