Inventing a felony to escape a creditor?

In 15th-century England, if you couldn’t pay your debts your creditors could throw you in prison until you were able to pay them off: no bankruptcy declarations, no restructuring, just a rather counter-productive carceral stint. Prisons were unpleasant, to say the least, so of course you’d do what you could to avoid that arrest, especially if there was no reasonable way you would be able to pay off your debt while languishing in a prison cell. Sanctuary could help you, but only the chartered sanctuaries such as Westminster Abbey and St Martin le Grand, which sheltered debtors as well as criminals. If you weren’t especially close to a chartered sanctuary when you saw the sheriff’s man bearing down about to arrest you, what could you do? Well, you could dash into a parish church – in much of England often very close at hand – but the sanctuary ordinary churches offered did not extend to debtors. So in order to take advantage of its shelter, you’d have to make up a felony. Seems a bit extreme, but it could work.

St Andrew’s parish church, Canterbury, 19th-century drawing.

On 19 July 1426 a servant of the sheriff of Kent tried to arrest William Smyth, a leatherdresser of St. Albans, at Canterbury; Smyth was a bit far from home, and we might surmise he had gone into hiding but had been rumbled and the Kentish sheriff informed. On seeing the sheriff’s servant, Smyth ran into the parish church of St. Andrews and claimed sanctuary. The coroner was duly summoned, and Smyth confessed to him that 25 years before, in 1401, he had killed one John Robert near Pontefract in Yorkshire; he then proceeded to abjure the realm. A quarter-century old crime seems a bit suspicious, especially one so far away, which no one local in Kent could know about one way or another. In fact (Jessica Freeman speculates), Smyth may not have been running away from arrest for this homicide (which may or may not have happened at all), but instead from a creditor, William Cook of London, who was trying to arrest Smyth for debt. A safe passage into exile – assuming Smyth actually took a ship overseas rather than going into hiding elsewhere in England – was certainly preferable to the loathsome conditions in a debtors’ prison.

TNA, KB 9/224, m. 255; KB 9/937, m. 54; Freeman, “And He Abjured,” 295. Top image: Albrecht Dürer.

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