No felony, no sanctuary

A curious aspect of medieval English sanctuary is that if you (blameless) were being chased by your foes (bad guys) and spotted the safe haven of a parish church, you could only take sanctuary there if you invented a felony.

To receive the “protection of holy church” from pursuers sanctuary seekers had to be felons – not unfairly accused, not innocent but persecuted. So some made up their crimes. Or at least that’s what some abjurers afterwards claimed: that the felonies they confessed to the coroner had not actually occurred but had been invented so they could flee the country under the law’s protection.

In 1439, for example, John Bartelot, a husbandman (farmer) of Tetsworth in Oxfordshire petitioned the king’s council for a pardon. He explained that two years before he had been forced (on 7 Sept. 1437) to take sanctuary in the church of St. Michael Bassishaw in London to escape his “mortelx enemyes” who were pursuing him.

Because he couldn’t have sanctuary unless he confessed a felony, he invented one: he told the coroner that he had stolen a horse in Middlesex and then abjured the realm. Two years down the road, it was evidently safe for him to come home, so he begged for a pardon for this false confession, which was granted to him.

TNA, SC 8/181/9039; CPR 1436-41, 298. Top image: BL, Royal 6 E VI  f. 128v.

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