Seizing the ring: Claiming sanctuary at Arundel castle chapel

In 1405, the bishop of Chichester’s register tells the story of one John Moot. Moot had been arrested and taken into custody at Arundel Castle for theft and robbery, but then escaped. He ran to the chapel in Arundel Castle, where he “took hold of the ring” of the cloister gates “as a sign of the immunity of the church.” The constable and the porter of the castle, along with other men, seized him despite this claim of sanctuary. The bishop of Winchester, Robert Rede, heard talk about this breach of sanctuary in his diocese and summoned the constable and porter to appear before him. Before the bishop, the constable and porter admitted they had done wrong to deny Moot sanctuary, and he was restored to the church. Following that, Moot must have abjured the realm, as he was pardoned by Henry IV both for the theft and for abjuration in 1406.

Though most mentions of sanctuary seeking come from the records of the royal courts, every once in a while we see cases in other administrative documents. You’d think there might be lots of evidence in church court records, as sanctuary was sought in churches, but as sanctuary was part of the English common law it was normally adjudicated in royal courts. It was complicated, though, as sanctuary was also part of the rights of the church. Another complication was that “the church” was not a monolithic institution with a clear hierarchy ready and able to defend its rights, but a many-headed creature made up of diverse independent powers. Abbots of monasteries that claimed sanctuary privileges were, unsurprisingly, often vigorous in their defence of those privileges; bishops, on the other hand, mostly didn’t care to stick their necks out about the issue of sanctuary as it did not particularly enhance their power or income.

So what was going on in this case in 1405? There may be micro-politics on the ground here that I don’t know about (and possibly nobody does – that kind of thing often doesn’t leave a documentary trace), but a larger-picture context was that six years before there had been a coup d’état in England. In 1399 Henry IV had overthrown his cousin Richard II, with important ideological support from the archbishop of Canterbury. So the new regime was friendly to ecclesiastical power, and this in turn may have given the bishop confidence to take action when local crown officials violated common law procedure in a way that disrespected the church. Though a normal avenue would be to take it to the common law courts as a breach of sanctuary, the bishop of Chichester may simply have thought it more expedient to call the Arundel castle officials in before him to chastise them. It evidently worked – maybe because the constable and porter (two small-fry officials) were intimidated by the authority of the bishop, or because they knew the royal regime was likely to back the ecclesiastical side on this.

The church in Arundel Castle, now known as the FitzAlan chapel, was fairly new when Moot fled to it, having been built in 1380, in perpendicular Gothic style.

Fitzalan Chapel, photo John Salmon: https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1652540

Cecil Deedes, ed., The Episcopal Register of Robert Rede, Sussex Record Society 8, 11 (Lewes, Sussex: Sussex Record Society, 1908), 1:44-47; CPR 1405-08, 191. Top image: the “sanctuary knocker” at Durham cathedral.

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