Could a house serve as sanctuary? Hospitallers and asylum in the 15th century

In 1461 a coroner’s inquest was held over the body of William Lyng, found dead in St John’s Street, which led into the priory of St John of Jerusalem, the Hospitaller Knights’ HQ in Clerkenwell. The inquest jurors ruled that Lyng was killed by Vincent Hall, baker and brewer of St John’s Street. Hall was arrested and put into the “king’s prison within the liberty,” liberty meaning the independent jurisdiction of the Hospitaller priory.

Another coroner’s memorandum, dated about six weeks later, indicates that about a month after the killing Hall had claimed sanctuary in a house in Clerkenwell within the ambit of the priory (“ad quadam domum apud Clerkynwell, parcellum hospitalis predicti”), probably a house in St John’s Street, a street running southeast from the gate of the priory complex and part of the priory’s liberty jurisdiction.


Controversy about whether the “ambit” of the priory (the parts of the liberty outside the actual priory wall) had the same sanctuary privilege as a parish church and churchyard must have ensued, because on 20 November 1461 the new king, Edward IV, issued a writ stating that the prior had sufficiently proven that the priory church had the same sanctuary rights as any parish church in any part of its houses or lands. This was a bit crazy, as the Hospitallers held thousands of residential properties throughout the kingdom (more on that below).

KB 9/297, m. 2._

The writ then commanded the coroner to go back to Hall, hear his confession, and allow him to abjure – which he did. Hall was to leave the realm by the port of Sandwich, but he was found in the realm again the following year, obviously either not having gone into exile as he promised or having returned. Still living under a lucky star, Hall was given a royal pardon for his felony and his breaching the terms of his abjuration and walked free.

Hall’s case was significant for the vexed question of sanctuary claims in Hospitaller properties. The Hospitallers, a wealthy and highly-connected order, were vigilant about their jurisdictional rights, and from the 1450s sanctuary was generally becoming an emblem of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

There’s no indication that Hall (or the priory) sought unlimited-in-time (chartered) sanctuary as exercised by Westminster Abbey. Hall simply asked for, and received, the same temporary sanctuary followed by abjuration he would have received at any parish church, though it was in a residential house. The royal writ affirmed not only that the house next to the priory was sanctuary, but that any Hospitaller lands, including thousands of residential properties throughout the kingdom, were sanctuary too. This created an interestingly hybrid notion of sanctuary – that the sacred space of the church that gave sanctuary both its name and its ideological underpinning was in a sense shared by any of the properties held by this religious order.

In subsequent decades, claims of sanctuary in Hospitaller properties would build on this idea, and indeed shift towards an even broader conception. Though Hall had only requested the 40-day sanctuary followed by abjuration available in any parish church, by the 1480s, seekers were claiming (and the Order itself defending) the time-unlimited sanctuary a seeker might receive at Westminster Abbey – but in residential houses leased from the Hospitaller Order, sometimes nowhere near a church. That was an unworkable idea; more to come in other posts (see all the Hospitaller posts here).

If anyone’s interested in the longer and put-together version of sanctuary and the Hospitaller order, I have a chapter in my Sanctuary Seekers book on it.

References for the Hall case: TNA, KB 9/297, mm. 2-3, 67; KB 29/92, m. 11; CPR 1461-67, 214. Maps: thanks always to MoEML.

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