London Sheriffs Get Aggressive, 1440

In 1440, a conflict between the City of London and ecclesiastical institutions in and near the City heated up to boiling point over the issue of those churches’ independent jurisdictions. The City was concerned not just about sanctuary, but even more about liberties’ other economic privileges. The liberties were independent jurisdictions and could ignore City regulations about labour and retail. So the City – through its sheriffs – began a concerted campaign to bring the independent jurisdictions within the boundaries of London under their control. Aided by the retired common clerk of London, John Carpenter, the City aimed to create test cases in courts to destroy the liberties’ privileges, including sanctuary for debt and for felony.

Liberties (independent jurisdictions) in and around London 15th-early 16th century. Map by Alice Reiter

Two episodes occurred (were manufactured?) in August and September 1440. Ep. 1: On 22 August, William Foyle went into sanctuary in the priory church of St Bartholomew in London to avoid debtors’ prison. Sanctuary for debt had become common by the mid-15th century, but was obviously annoying both to creditors and to officials of the City of London, whose courts could no longer enforce sanctions for debt. So at the end of August 1440, the sheriffs of London forcibly entered St. Bartholomew’s priory to seize William Foyle to face the debt suit.

St Bartholomew’s priory church. Photo by DAVID ILIFF.

Foyle’s arrest at St Bartholomew’s was only the first shot in the London sheriffs’ campaign to bust the privileges of independent jurisdictions in and near London. They launched a second and more significant assault (Ep. 2) on 1 September 1440, when a prisoner, John Knight, escaped. Knight was being led from Newgate prison to debt court at the London Guildhall when suddenly four men jumped out from behind a butcher’s stall in the Shambles and wrested him away from the sheriffs’ men. In the context it seems possible that the episode was even manufactured by the sheriffs (“whoops, look, we just happened to have released his leg irons and now he escaped!”); in any case, the situation suited the City of London well as it provoked a test case.

Map annotated from Mary Lobel, ed. Historic Towns Atlas of the City of London

Suddenly at large in the Shambles, Knight and his four rescuers ran to the nearby precinct of St Martin le Grand and sought sanctuary. The sheriffs came calling at St Martin’s to demand the surrender of Knight and his companions, but the canons of St Martin’s refused. Then the sheriffs themselves, with an armed retinue, entered the precinct and violently removed the men and put them in prison.

St Martin’s was headed by a dean, Richard Caudray, who was a political player: before becoming dean he was clerk of the king’s council and chancellor of Cambridge University. (I wrote an article about him; Sebastian Sobecki has also recently identified him as the author of the political work Libel of English Policy — and writes about his work as a royal clerk in this hot-of-the-press article here.)

Caudray was more than a match for the London civic leaders, as the quite mundane case of John Knight’s relatively small debt and the not-usually-seriously-regarded offence of helping someone escape from custody turned into an out-and-out battle between St Martin’s and the City. Each lobbied and submitted claim and counter-claim to the king and his council over whether St Martin’s legitimately possessed sanctuary and other jurisdictional rights.

Long story short: this City of London campaign to crush the liberties would not succeed. Foyle was restored to sanctuary by the justices at King’s Bench, who ruled that his seizure from St Bartholomew’s by the sheriffs had breached the priory’s privileges. Dean Caudray also won, though this was not the last battle in the war between St Martin’s and the City. In late October 1440 Knight and the other four men were restored to sanctuary at St Martin’s by order of the king.

LMA, Journal 3, fol. 54v; TNA, C 4/49/8; Westminster Abbey Muniments, Book 5, fols. 41r-64r; LMA, Letter Book K, fol. 189r (CLBK, 242); McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary, ch 3. Top photo St Bartholomew’s priory church. Top image, BL Harley 2278, fol. 107r.

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