An early English king, a woman seeking asylum, an evil sheriff, and an avenging fiend: these are all part of a story written by poet and monk John Lydgate to influence the impressionable young king Henry VI.
In the later 1430s, John Lydgate, poet and monk of the abbey of St Edmunds, translated the life and miracles of St Edmund, 9th-century king of East Anglia and martyr. The magnificent manuscript of St Edmund’s story was a gift for young Henry VI, then in his mid-teens, as a guide for Christian kingship.
One miracle Lydgate translated told the story of a woman who committed a crime and then ran into the abbey to claim “the sanctuary of St. Edmund.” An evil sheriff, Leoffstan, stormed into the church with his henchmen and seized her with “force and violence,” showing contempt not only for her asylum claim but for St. Edmund himself.
The abbey’s clergy resisted, but the sheriffs’ officers, “ravenous like hounds,” couldn’t be stopped. The woman cried out: “Help, blessed Edmund! . . . for but thou help, I shall in haste be dead. Keep and conserve thy jurisdiction from this tyrant, or this day I shall die.” Leoffstan disregarded her pleas and convened a jury, then and there, to hear her case. The jurors found the woman guilty and she was immediately executed. True justice nonetheless prevailed.
St Edmund, though reluctant to shed blood, knew he needed to protect his authority, sanctuary, and abbey against the encroachments of local tyrants. He sent a fiend to take possession of Leoffstan’s body (see below), and the sheriff suffered extreme torments all over his body before he fell dead.
(Note Death walking off stage right with an evil grin on his face.)
Lydgate’s adaptation of the story emphasized ecclesiastical jurisdiction with sanctuary as exemplar; this was a hot issue in the later 1430s. Interestingly, the abbey of Bury did not, as far as I know, make sanctuary claims per se, but was definitely interested in protecting other jurisdictional rights. Though we don’t know whether Lydgate’s text shaped Henry VI’s views, in the years around 1440, as the teenage king came of age and began to put his own imprint on his regime, he made a number of Edmund-like decisions on sanctuary cases, protecting “his” religious houses.
John Lydgate’s ‘Lives of Ss Edmund & Fremund’ and the ‘Extra Miracles of St Edmund’, ed. Anthony Bale and A. S. G. Edwards, Middle English Texts 41 (Heidelberg, 2009), 121-3.