An overzealous gaoler

Not surprisingly, when an accused felon in custody escaped from gaol (or jail in North American spelling), the gaolers were angry – incensed because their authority was flouted, and worried because they themselves were liable to be charged with negligence for allowing the prisoner to scamper away. The gaolers’ frustrations, however, didn’t give them licence to breach sanctuary, as a Northampton gaoler found out in the first decade of the fifteenth century.

In 1407, a felon named John Lakyn was imprisoned in Northampton castle awaiting his trial. He was an “approver,” a felon hoping to give sufficient information about his accomplices to have his death sentence remitted. Perhaps thinking his hope for a plea deal was not going to pan out, Lakyn escaped from the castle and ran to the nearby church of St. Mary and took sanctuary. There he confessed his felony before the coroner and abjured the realm.

As Lakyn was proceeding along the king’s highway to a port, the gaoler of Northampton castle, enraged that Lakyn had broken from his custody, followed him and arrested him again, bringing him back to the castle to stand trial for his felony. When Lakyn came up before the justices at gaol delivery, however, they ruled that his sanctuary had been illicitly breached: he had the right to abjure and they sent him back on the highway to the port. The justices fined the gaoler for his overzealousness, but the king gave him a pardon. (Impunity of law enforcement for breaching the rights of the accused has a long history.)

CPR 1405-08, 326. Top image: BL, Harley MS 2838, fol 27r.

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