Escape from sanctuary

On 23 March 1405, William Holt, esquire, of Sussex took sanctuary in the church of St. Martin in the Fields (now on Trafalgar Square). He confessed to the coroner that he was an accessory to a decade-old homicide. The coroner, however, was suspicious about the long time lag: he thought Holt had already abjured for the same crime so could not do so a second time. As the coroner dithered, Holt remained in the church under the guard of local men to keep him from getting away.

Suddenly in the night, however, a number of Holt’s associates broke into the church and, wounding several of the watchmen, helped Holt escape. What happened to Holt following that is not quite clear, but it is possible that he is the same William Holt of Aston, Warwickshire, who was MP in 1421. That means that he was somehow able to escape the felony charge (probably with a royal pardon). He went on to an important career as a gentleman, soldier, and MP (you can read about his parliamentary career at the History of Parliament site — and Adam Chapman pointed out when I originally posted this to Twitter that there are records relating to him on the Medieval Soldier database).

This pattern – royal pardons for gentlemen who could be useful to the crown in military and political capacities – had been and remained common. Indeed, there were a fair number of MPs who used sanctuary at one point in their lives as part of their strategy to get out of a homicide indictment, usually but not always before they sat in Parliament. Sanctuary was used more and more, especially in the period between 1480 and 1535, as part of the elite toolkit facilitating their escape from the noose. Even a brief stay in sanctuary permitted Holt to sidestep an imminent arrest, swift trial, and execution, giving men like him breathing space to organize through friends and patrons a more permanent reprieve such as a pardon.

Such adventures seem not to have ruined such men’s careers – in fact, a bit of manly violence may well have improved their standing amongst their peers.

TNA, KB 9/194, m. 22; CPR 1405-1408, 245; L. S. Woodger, “Holt, William II.” Top image: St Martin in the Fields, 16th c: The Agas map of London, https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/agas.htm

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