William Wawe and Beaulieu Abbey

Circa 1426 William Wawe, a husbandman of Worcestershire, was indicted for many horse thefts (at least eight) and a litany of other crimes. It seems, in fact, that he became the poster-boy for uncontrolled crime in the kingdom. His name was notorious enough that it would be invoked in following years to smear political opponents – quite an accomplishment for a lowly husbandman. When he escaped arrest by fleeing to sanctuary at Hampshire’s Beaulieu Abbey (pronounced Bewley, just to be confusing), royal officials were determined that he not escape justice.

Royal officials demanded the abbot of Beaulieu hand Wawe over, but the abbot refused to violate his abbey’s sanctuary. The abbot was summoned to King’s Bench to provide evidence for the abbey’s sanctuary privileges, but he was not able to prove them satisfactorily. Wawe was then seized from the sanctuary and hanged in the summer of 1428.

Something more was going on than the record indicates: a John Pasford, gentleman, of Beaulieu, and others were indicted for sheltering Wawe, knowing him to be a felon (making them accessories to the thefts). Did Pasford live within the abbey’s precinct and Wawe stayed with him? Whatever the legal niceties might have been – did welcoming a sanctuary seeker make one an accessory to felony? – the court did not end up grappling with that ambiguity, as Pasford’s case was dropped on a technicality (his indictment was ruled faulty) and he walked free. Wawe, of course, was not so lucky.

Wawe’s case was much commented upon in legal reports; although Beaulieu’s sanctuary privilege in his case was not secure, the abbey did in later decades harbour sanctuary seekers more successfully, with such celebrity sanctuary seekers as Queen Margaret of Anjou, Prince Edward (son of Henry VI), and Perkin Warbeck. Their sheltering in the abbey might have given the abbey precedents from which to argue for the privilege when other seekers show up in the records from the 1490s.

Seipp 1429.033; Seipp 1429.071; TNA, KB 9/222/2, m. 35-37; KB 27/673, rex m. 7; KB 15/42, fol 158r-161v.

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