An apostate monk and royal defence of sanctuary

An odd story of another apostate monk, and flipping of assumptions of sanctuary as church encroachment on royal power: an “enemy” abbey (Citeaux in Burgundy) allegedly interfered in the king’s sanctuary at Westminster. Allegations and counter-allegations in this case are contradictory, so it’s impossible to discern “what happened,” but what follows is my best guess.

On 17 March 1442, John Minehead, a monk of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, London, left the abbey as an apostate and took refuge in the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

St Mary Graces Abbey, NE of the Tower of London, from the Agas map:

Minehead didn’t join his fellow monks in Westminster abbey itself, but stayed as a lodger in the house of another sanctuary seeker in the precinct; it seems he was trying to leave religious life. It’s to be noted that in the midst of all this he was indicted for burglary, so he may not have been suited to monkishness.

Minehead’s entry into the sanctuary either inaugurated or worsened a dispute between the two abbots. The abbot of St Mary Graces accused the abbot of Westminster of kidnapping Minehead and imprisoning him at Westminster (which is unlikely). The abbot of St Mary Graces allegedly sent armed henchmen into the Westminster abbey precinct to seize Minehead and inflict various “enormities” on him. The abbot of Westminster thus accused the abbot of St Mary Graces of acting as an agent of the court of Burgundy, “mortal enemy of the English,” since the Burgundian abbey of Citeaux was the mother house of St Mary Graces. The attack on Westminster Abbey’s sanctuary, the Westminster abbot argued, was a breach of regalian rights, as Westminster’s right of sanctuary came from the king. The case excited the interest of the king’s council, who appointed Chief Justice John Fortescue to look into it.

It’s not clear what happened except that Minehead himself seems to have scarpered – he was outlawed on the burglary indictment in 1442.

TNA, KB 9/240, mm. 88-89; KB 29/75, mm. 28d, 29, 30; KB 27/725, rex mm. 6d, 30; KB 27/726, rex m. 2d; Nicolas, Proceedings Privy Council, 5:215

Image at top: A running monk misericord from Lincoln cathedral.

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