Seizing property from debtors in sanctuary

The second half of the 15th century saw many high-status participants in the civil wars running to sanctuary at each regime change, but more ordinary people continued also to use sanctuary for their ordinary problems, including debt.

Although debtors could avoid an uncomfortable stay in prison by taking refuge in an ecclesiastical liberty – a refuge conflated with sanctuary for felony by the 15th century – processes were established so their creditors could nonetheless seize their property even without a court judgment.

The Colchester civic records show the process for this seizure: in 1454, Humphrey Bohun, sheriff of Essex, passed on to the bailiffs of Colchester the king’s writ for the arrest of Thomas Fuller, weaver of Halstead, on a £50 debt suit in Common Pleas.

£50 sounds like a lot for a weaver: using the National Archives’ Currency converter, in 1450 that was worth 4.6 years’ labour for a skilled tradesman, or 65 horses, or 125 cows. Wonder what Fuller was doing to amass that level of debt?

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Fuller was in sanctuary at St. John’s Abbey in Colchester (the first sanctuary case I’ve found for this abbey), so the sheriff enjoined the bailiffs to make proclamation at the sanctuary gate five times on five days, summoning him to answer the suit.

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The bailiffs reported that they diligently made the call five times but that he didn’t answer; that would then allow the sheriff to seize Fuller’s property to pay off his creditors.

W. Gurney Benham, ed., The Red Paper Book of Colchester (1902), 56-57. Top image – map of Colchester, source.

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