Sanctuary at Hospitaller properties

Around 1500, the Hospitaller Order (also known as the military order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem) compiled a record of cases that (they contended) showed the Hospitallers had always had permanent sanctuary privileges in their properties.

This was, as I’ll explore another in another post, a bold but entirely fictitious claim, and one that also argued for a wholly impractical policy. As often happened when rights were claimed in court, someone did some archival research, and one of the cases the late 15th century researchers turned up comes from a 1409 peace sessions record from Hampshire. John Gore was brought before the justices charged with felony, but pleaded sanctuary, saying that he had taken sanctuary at a certain “Spitelhous” in “Burghton,” a Hospitaller property, “which house was privileged just as every house of the hospital is privileged.” I’ve tentatively identified “Burghton” as Broughton, Hampshire, which is near Houghton (the location of the alleged robbery), but various other Burtons, Bartons, etc. are also possible. This property need not have had an ecclesiastical building, as the order held many manors and other income-producing properties around the kingdom, often known locally as the “spitalhouse.” So, in other words, he likely went onto a manor or toft belonging to the Hospitallers and on that basis claimed the same privilege as if he were in a church.

Before the justices at the peace sessions, Gore said he had been extracted from his sanctuary by force, and now he asked the judges to restore him. An attorney for the Hospitaller order appeared and produced various proofs that any possession of the Order had the same sanctuary privilege as any parish church, and that those who breached it were to be excommunicated. The question was put to a local jury, who found that the house had been used as sanctuary “from time out of memory,” and that in previous cases any who had been seized from it by the king’s officers had been restored. After conferring with justices of both benches, members of the king’s council, and other learned men, the Hampshire justices restored Gore to the sanctuary, from which he presumably proceeded to abjure.

This case was preserved in Hospitaller records because it was deemed an important precedent for the order’s jurisdictional privileges. What’s interesting here regarding the long-term strategies of the Hospitaller order on sanctuary is that Gore and the Order were arguing only for the same 40-day sanctuary any parish church had. This is not too surprising, as sanctuary without time limits (“chartered sanctuary“) was only just beginning to be asserted at Westminster and St Martin le Grand. In any case c1400 such a claim for “asylum of holy church” in what might simply have been a secular Hospitaller property was itself a bit of a reach – though in later decades it would seem positively unambitious. By the late 15th century (when the cartulary in which this case was recorded was compiled), the Hospitallers would pivot and instead contend that sanctuary-seekers could remain in Hospitaller properties indefinitely, as felons and debtors could at Westminster Abbey, St. Martin le Grand, and the other chartered sanctuaries. See here for posts on other Hospitaller cases through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

BL, Cotton Nero E.VI, Hospitaller Cartulary, fol. 57v, and more detail in a chapter of my Seeking Sanctuary book. Image: St John’s gate, entryway to the priory of St John of Jerusalem, Hospitaller headquarters in England.

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