“Pleading sanctuary” in court

In the late 1440s, Edward Wyrley was arrested in Westminster for felony and taken to prison to await trial, but somehow escaped and ran into Westminster sanctuary.

Westminster Abbey & its precinct 1543 | Source

Wyrley claimed he was then forcibly removed from the precinct and brought back to stand trial. Felons thus seized could “plead sanctuary,” i.e. asking the court to restore them to sanctuary as the seizure had been illicit, rather than to try them for the felony.

The king’s attorney answered Wyrley’s plea by saying that he had been on the road outside the precinct and thus had no protection of sanctuary. The court evidently believed the king’s attorney, as a note indicates Wyrley was hanged. When the crown challenged pleas of sanctuary, this was most often how they did it: not by questioning the privilege of sanctuary per se, but by arguing the defendant was not actually within the boundaries at the time of arrest.

We have no way of knowing whether this was a convenient fiction on the part of the crown (used only sometimes, as many others safely used sanctuary), or if it was Wyrley who misrepresented the situation.

TNA, KB 15/42, fol. 71rv. Top image: Prisoners at King’s Bench.

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