Apostasy, Sanctuary, and Spin: The Canons of Waltham and Sanctuary at St. Martin le Grand, 1430

Guest post by Shannon McSheffrey; posted 12 January 2018.

In 1430, Henry Ciprian and Roger Bukke, two Augustinian canons, fled from their priory at Waltham, Essex, and sought sanctuary at the collegiate church of St. Martin le Grand in London. Their request for asylum sparked a major conflict between the dean of St. Martin’s and the mayor and aldermen of London over the church’s right to harbour sanctuary seekers, and more broadly to exercise a jurisdiction independent from the City of London. In the controversy that followed the forcible arrest of the two canons by the sheriffs of London from the church, a flurry of petitions and statements issued from each side presenting their cases to the king’s council. Both the dean and the City officials employed the art of spin in their representations of the situation in their submissions to the crown and in how they chose to inscribe documents related to the case in their own archives. This gives us a lemons and lemonade situation. The lemon is that neither side’s account is reliable, leaving us without a clear sense of what happened. (This is, of course, hardly unusual with historical documents: the point of writing most records was not to offer an impartial version of events but rather to make a particular, and often partisan, point.) The compensating lemonade is that the records of this dispute offer us a fascinating insight into the rhetorical strategies and justifications these two parties thought would convince the king’s council to support their claims.

When the canons took sanctuary at St. Martin’s, they may have thought that the privilege they sought was an ancient one, as various ecclesiastical figures, including the dean of St. Martin’s, claimed in the early decades of the fifteenth century. It was in fact quite new, however. It was only somewhere around 1400 that religious houses, most precociously Westminster Abbey and St. Martin le Grand, began to offer a new form of sanctuary to felons, debtors, and other wrongdoers.[1] A more long-standing form of sanctuary had been part of the English common law from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century: a felon could take asylum for forty days in any parish church or churchyard before going into exile from the kingdom (a process often called abjuration, after the oath the exile took before proceeding to a port to find passage overseas). Westminster Abbey, apparently the innovator, began to offer a fundamentally different form of sanctuary in the waning years of the fourteenth century: a refuge in the abbey precinct that was unlimited in time. Once a felon, debtor, or other wrongdoer took sanctuary there, they were safe from arrest by sheriffs, opponents, or creditors for as long as they wanted to stay. St. Martin le Grand, situated within the London walls north of St. Paul’s cathedral, began also to offer this form of refuge by about 1400.

This was not an uncontested development. The most fervent opposition came from the mayor and aldermen of the City of London, who saw St. Martin le Grand’s sheltering of felons and debtors as threats to their own jurisdictional claims. St. Martin’s had for centuries been an independent liberty within the City; its sanctuary claims from c. 1400 were part of a broader flexing of its jurisdictional muscles in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As the City of London itself moved to increase its own jurisdictional reach in this same period, the City and St. Martin’s were bound to clash. From the early fifteenth century until the 1540s, disputes over St. Martin’s sanctuary claims were to a significant extent a proxy war for other kinds of jurisdictional struggles, over debt litigation and craft regulation especially.[2] During the 1410s and 1420s, the City of London and St. Martin le Grand engaged in legal tussles heard in the Court of Common Pleas over the London sheriffs’ ability to seize debtors who had taken sanctuary there, and over who had the “waif and straif” (the right to recover stolen goods) for stolen items brought into the sanctuary by thieves taking asylum in St. Martin’s.[3] The altercation between the City and St. Martin le Grand over the canons of Waltham in 1430, however, is the first to leave behind a more substantial record.

©British Library, Egerton MS 3277, fol. 82r, Joab taking sanctuary.

As apostates, the canons had crossed a boundary between ecclesiastical and secular law. Monks, canons, nuns, and other religious who left their orders without permission were subject to arrest by royal officers in England from the thirteenth century; in this case, as was normal procedure, the prior of Waltham asked that the king issue a writ to the sheriffs of London, where it was thought that the canons had fled, ordering the canons’ seizure. By the terms of the writ, if the canons were found in the sheriffs’ jurisdiction, they were to be forcibly returned to Waltham Abbey.[4] On 30 September 1430, in response to this writ, the London sheriffs seized the canons from St. Martin’s sanctuary. Although the City records presented this arrest as simple obedience to the royal writ, it was of course not simple at all, as the canons were within the sanctuary. This could easily be represented as a sacrilegious breach of sacred space (and of course that is precisely what the dean of St. Martin’s called it), and as a violation of the independent jurisdiction of the church’s precinct, which was not within the London sheriffs’ jurisdiction.

We have two different sets of records about this encounter, one version found in the City of London’s Letter Book, the other in a register compiled by a later dean of St. Martin le Grand.[5] In the City’s records, a first entry indicates that in seizing the canons from St. Martin’s the sheriffs acted only to obey the king’s writ, and that this was lawful because St. Martin’s precinct was fully within and under the jurisdiction of the City of London, a view City representatives had “expressly argued before certain lords of the king’s council assigned to hear it.”[6] A second and longer entry, undated, is a record of a submission made by the City to the king’s council regarding the matter, which again argued that St. Martin’s was not privileged and never had been.

The City’s contention that St. Martin’s was under its authority was a bold one, as the church had exercised an independent liberty jurisdiction in its precinct since at least Norman times; this was shooting for the jurisdictional jackpot in mid-fifteenth-century terms, trying to obtain a royal seal for the City’s claim that the mayor and aldermen were the sole governors of all territories encompassed within City boundaries. To make this ambitious argument, the City took a number of approaches. One argument was semantic: in all its charters St. Martin’s was called “the church of St. Martin le Grand, London; or of St. Martin le Grand of London, or St. Martin le Grand London within London,” indicating (the City argued) that it was under City rule.  Other arguments rested upon the legendary origins of the City: London had been founded by Brutus the Trojan, a refugee from the Trojan wars, and thus its privileges and rule over the territory within the present walls, including St. Martin’s precinct, went back even before the Anglo-Saxons came to England. Further arguments had legal bases (specific felony cases showed the jurisdiction of the sheriffs of London within the precinct) and fiscal/economic foundations (craftsmen keeping shops in the precinct paid taxes and other dues as anywhere else within the City).

The submission to the king’s council was likely drawn up by the City’s long-time recorder, John Carpenter, an indefatigable defender of the City’s liberties and its resident legal mastermind. He was explicitly involved even after retirement in fashioning City arguments in another similar dispute in 1440, and in 1430 he was still fully in the saddle.[7] The City submission ended with the hope that the commissioners would make a speedy determination on the question, although that determination is not recorded in the Letter Book or any other civic records, nor anywhere else that I have looked. The omission of the royal commissioners’ decision from civic records points to a negative result for the City. So also does a subsequent rather clumsy use of the 1430 dispute as precedent: in the 1440 dispute, the City cited the canons’ case, but edited it so that the two canons were said to have been arrested outside the St. Martin’s precinct — arguing, in effect, that the case had nothing to do with St. Martin’s status as a sanctuary one way or another.[8] This redaction of the case is perhaps the best evidence that the king’s council did not affirm the City’s right to arrest the canons inside St. Martin’s precinct, for if the council had indeed confirmed the legality of that arrest in 1430 or 1431, surely the City would have loudly trumpeted it in subsequent conflicts, rather than arguing for the case’s irrelevance to the sanctuary rights of St. Martin’s.

This does not mean, however, that the king’s council instead fully confirmed St. Martin’s sanctuary privileges. The version of the episode recorded in the St. Martin’s Register certainly does imply a full victory, but again the absences in the record are significant. In 1430, the dean of St. Martin’s was Thomas Bourchier, a young aristocrat whose tenure as dean was prelude to a stellar career in ecclesiastical and royal service.[9] The Register has an undated petition from Bourchier, protesting the sheriffs’ seizure of the canons and arguing that St. Martin’s had the same privileges and immunity as Westminster Abbey (which in 1430 apparently served as the gold standard for ecclesiastical privilege). The royal free chapel exercised those rights by virtue of charters and letters patent granted by William the Conqueror and other kings, along with papal bulls. The dean respectfully requested that the king strike a commission to consider the matter.[10]

The St. Martin’s register entry that follows is a copy of a royal writ, addressed to the mayor and aldermen, similarly undated, citing the complaint made by the dean and ordering the City officials to restore Henry Ciprian[11] to sanctuary at St. Martin’s, whence he had sought protection “for certain reasonable and just causes.”[12] There is no mention of the commission the dean requested, although it was apparently struck, as the City evidently composed a submission for it. This is the full record in the Register. It implies that the king immediately ordered restitution of the canon as soon as the dean complained, thereby confirming St. Martin’s privileges.

It seems unlikely, however, that this was the final result, as again the wielding of the case as a precedent in 1440 indicates: it was not mentioned at all in the dean’s submissions in the later dispute, suggesting it was not thought to make a strong case for St. Martin’s. There are, unfortunately, only minimal traces of this altercation in the royal records, and nothing that indicates its conclusion. As both the City and St. Martin’s were reluctant to make too much out of its precedential value in later conflicts, it seems most likely that the king’s council made no definitive declaration. Perhaps in some way events surpassed the specific issue (the canons died, or perhaps they agreed to return to their abbey), and it seemed easier not to have to make a decision about the larger principles.

If the episode of the canons of Waltham seems in itself to have ended inconclusively, the argumentative strategies of the two sides are more significant. The dean of St. Martin le Grand appealed specifically to the grounding of the collegiate church’s privileges in royal grant dating as far back as the Conquest, while also gesturing towards the particular harm done to the king’s peace by violence done in his churches. This tying of sanctuary to the king’s grant and protection would be, in the future, a highly successful rhetorical move. The City’s claims conversely did not admit of any privileges or liberties for St. Martin’s at all. Each made arguments that those who crafted them must have known were exaggerated if not outright misleading. Neither side addressed directly the most interesting legal question — whether sanctuary was available for the offence of apostasy, a legal anomaly sitting at the juncture between ecclesiastical and common law.[13] For the City to address the question would be to allow that St. Martin’s had some kinds of privileges, if perhaps not this one; for St. Martin’s to address it would be to concede that there were limitations on its privileges. And, importantly for how we understand the two sets of records as evidence for the how sanctuary worked, both the City’s Letter Book and the St. Martin le Grand Register probably significantly misrepresented the episode, attempting to spin the outcome in a way that made an unresolved situation into a clear victory. The limitations on their ability to make that spin believable, however, are shown by the evident later decisions not to make too much out of this episode.

Although it seems likely that neither St. Martin’s nor the City of London “won” this battle over jurisdictional rights, in the short and medium term, St. Martin’s would triumph, its sanctuary privilege ratified by royal declaration and becoming well-ensconced by the 1450s. By the second half of the fifteenth century the notion of sanctuary in the precincts of religious houses and collegiate churches became broadly accepted in English law and culture, although civic authorities – whose own jurisdictional claims were most infringed – would continue to resist it. Over the subsequent century, sanctuary adapted to changing circumstances and became firmly embedded in English law and political practice, before very suddenly declining in the context of the monastic dissolutions (a story for another time). There are many parts to the story of the flourishing of sanctuary in the years that followed the dispute over the canons of Waltham. A key element was the successful rhetorical framing of sanctuary as a manifestation of the king’s mercy, a “spin” that kings from Henry VI to (the early) Henry VIII were eager to endorse.Shannon's Books Cover

Shannon McSheffrey is Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal. She has published books and articles on heresy, gender, marriage, sexuality, and law in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Her newest book, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford University Press), appeared in 2017.


[1] This paragraph is drawn primarily from Shannon McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), ch. 2.

[2] See McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary, ch. 2 and 5.

[3] Richard Caudray (dean of St. Martin’s 1435-58) had transcribed entries related to several cases from Common Pleas, which he argued supported his claims for St. Martin’s privileges. These were part of a cartulary he had compiled for the privileges of St. Martin le Grand. See London, Westminster Abbey Library and Muniments, Muniment Book 5, Registrum Collegii Sancti Martini Magni, fols. 37v-39r, 63v-64v. I have located some of these in the Common Pleas records: for instance Edmund Chymbeham c. Simon Floure and William Gerveys, canons of St. Martin le Grand, over “waif and straif,” the recovered stolen goods surrendered on entry into the sanctuary. This case continued from 1419 to at least 1426 — without a clear resolution that I have located. TNA, CP 40/634, rot. 452, CP 40/647, rot. 111d; TNA, CP 40/654, rot. 391 (the links are to Jonathan Mackman and Matthew Stevens, Court of Common Pleas: The National Archives, CP40 1399-1500 (London, 2010), at British History Online). See also John and Joyce Shenefeld and Rose Barnet v. John Cavendyssh, a debt case, TNA, CP 40/653, rot. 104; CP 40/673, rots. 318 and 391; and John and Ellen Portyngton v. William Rosselyn, another debt case, TNA, CP 40/rot. 318.

[4] See, on the process for apostate religious, F. Donald Logan, Runaway Religious in Medieval England, c.1240-1540 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 97-120. Logan does not discuss this case.

[5] Registrum, fols 35r–36v; London Metropolitan Archives, COL/AD/01/010, Letter Book K, fol. 72r, 120r–123r.

[6] “…sicut docebatur expresse coram certis dominis de consilio Regis ad hoc audiendum assignatis.” Letter Book K, fol. 72r. Although two scholars of medieval London, Reginald R. Sharpe and Isobel Thornley, have read this record as showing that the king’s council corroborated the City’s claims regarding St. Martin’s lack of privileges, this entry does not indicate that the Council “certified” the proofs (as Sharpe translated it), but rather only that the City showed the proofs, that is, made the claims. Reginald R. Sharpe, ed., Calendar of Letter-Books, Letter Book K (1422-1461) (London: J. E. Francis, 1911), 106-7, 152-54; Isobel Thornley, “The Destruction of Sanctuary,” in Tudor Studies, ed. R. W. Seton-Watson (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1924), 189. See also below regarding the City’s subsequent employment of the case as precedent, which does not support a City victory before the king’s council.

[7] Matthew Davies, “John Carpenter (d. 1442),” ODNB, 2004. Carpenter retired as the City’s common clerk in 1438, but continued to advise the City on important matters. On his role in 1440, see LMA, Letter Book K, fol. 189r; Registrum, fols.44r-45r.

[8] Registrum, fols. 54rv. The case was probably included because the City assumed St. Martin’s would claim it as a precedent on their side.

[9] Bourchier, second son of a highly connected noble family, had been appointed to the position in 1427 at the tender age of about sixteen, and thus in 1430 would have been in his late teens and only recently ordained a subdeacon. (Linda Clark, “Bourchier, Thomas (c.1411–1486),” ODNB, 2004.) Presumably the young dean had help from more experienced canons in shaping St. Martin’s strategies at this stage, although he was later to show tremendous abilities in his subsequent career as archbishop, cardinal, and chancellor.

[10] Registrum, fols. 35r-36r.

[11] Although the original writ and the first entry in the Letter Book for the City name two canons, Henry Ciprian and Roger Bukke, Bukke’s name drops from the records after that — he may have agreed on his own to return to the priory.

[12] Registrum, fols. 36rv.

[13] See Logan, Runaway Religious, 97-120.


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