Could Priests Claim Sanctuary in Medieval England?

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 16 May 2019.

A more familiar gang of medieval outlaws: Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, and Little John.

The Folvilles of Ashby-Folville (Leics.) played a key role in persuading me to devote my life to researching crime in medieval England. As an undergraduate, reading Edward Stones’ 1957 study of the infamous crime family opened my eyes to the medieval common law’s broad potential for manipulation and creative application of the laws.[1] For those of you unfamiliar with the family, their story comes across as a medieval rendering of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, with a little bit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid thrown in for good measure. John de Folville, lord of Ashby-Folville, fathered seven sons. Only one of the seven, John the younger, led the typical life of the medieval gentry, obtaining appointments as commissioner of array and keeper of the peace at various stages in his career. The other six were professional criminals, with a string of robberies, rapes, and murders on their respective rap sheets. One of the brothers, Richard Folville, strangely enough was also a member of the clergy. Ostensibly, joining a religious order was a common tactic among criminally-inclined gentlemen to ensure that if arrested, they might at least claim benefit of clergy, and thus be transferred to the church for sentencing where execution did not belong on the menu of potential punishments. Fortunately enough, at no time did Richard have to invoke his clerical status in order to escape hanging. The brothers’ close relationship with the Mortimer government (1326-30) conferred on them protected status. This is especially clear from their involvement in the 1326 murder of Roger Bellers, a baron of the exchequer and one of the king’s justices who had risen to power with the support of the Despenser family; the crown did not even issue warrants for the brothers’ arrest until after the fall of Roger Mortimer in 1330. But it was the kidnap and ransoming of Sir Richard Willoughby, justice of the King’s Bench (and future Chief Justice of the King’s Bench!) in 1332 that drove the family into hiding and signaled firmly Edward III’s intent to regain control of his unruly gentry.

Richard Folville, whom Henry Knighton fingered as the ringleader of Willoughby’s kidnapping, absconded to France immediately after the ransom had been paid and did not set foot in England again until February of 1340. He was arrested at once as a “notorious suspect” and incarcerated in the Tower of London. By January of 1341, he had escaped and claimed sanctuary in the church of Teigh (Rutland, close to Melton Mowbray) – the very same church where he had been employed as rector for some twenty years. Robert of Colville, the keeper of the peace charged with his arrest, remained in hot pursuit; thus, Richard resumed the attack from within the church. With bow and arrow at hand, he took the life of one of his pursuers, and wounded several others. Given Richard’s unseemly behavior, it is not surprising that Robert felt no compulsion to respect the holiness of sanctuary. Typically, the church denied sanctuary to men who committed sacrilege, in this context defined as felonious behavior conducted within a church or its proximate environs.[2] Indeed, Robert ordered Richard dragged from the church and beheaded in the churchyard. While Robert’s egregious violation of sanctuary resulted in public penance ordered by Pope Clement VI himself – namely, beating with a rod in procession around the principal churches of the district – surely, he and his men did not regret having removed a dangerous criminal from their midst.

What has always intrigued me most about this story is the fact that Richard Folville, a member of the clergy, was entitled to claim sanctuary at all. Quite frankly, sanctuary was designed for the criminal element among the laity, not the clergy. Medieval sanctuary existed as an extension of the church’s capacity to grant Christian mercy to men and women by rescuing them from capital punishment, even though they had rightfully earned it through their criminal activities. In this respect, churches mirrored the intercessory process endorsed by the cult of saints. All unconvicted felons had the right to claim sanctuary at any church, chapel, churchyard or cemetery in England, and remain there for up to forty days, at which point they had to either confess to the coroner and abjure the realm (that is, go into permanent exile), or present themselves before the coroner for jury trial. England, quite uniquely, also boasted a number of chartered sanctuaries, where a criminal might live out the rest of his life with impunity.[3] By the fourteenth century, the English church expanded eligibility requirements to include also debtors. Debt did not belong to the category of serious crime in the medieval context; thus, the church was not saving a debtor’s neck from the gallows. However, the state’s punishment for debt normally entailed imprisonment until repayment was complete. In consequence, starvation in prison was the more likely outcome for most debtors.

Of course, sanctuary was not necessary to save the lives of criminal clergymen. Their crimes were punished in ecclesiastical courts, and since the clergy was prohibited from shedding blood, public penance and imprisonment, not execution, were the more typical sentences.[4] Because of Richard Folville’s lengthy association to the church where he took refuge, none of the clergymen there could credibly pretend not to know that he was a priest. Accordingly, his claim of sanctuary, one would think, should have been denied. On this point, at least one historian has argued that Folville’s claim was invalid simply because a priest cannot take “shelter in his own church” – a logical-sounding “rule” that I cannot find in any medieval document.[5] No matter what, with Robert of Colville’s men in furious pursuit, Richard had good reason to think that turning himself into the authorities was not the safest best.

For most of my career, I had assumed that Richard’s claim was exceptional; that is, until last summer when I wandered across two more cases of medieval clergymen who claimed rites of sanctuary. These cases were buried among criminal inquisitions at the National Archives, a class of documents that includes inquiries into potentially malicious accusations of homicide. The first recounts how Hugh Gromy paid for the holding of an inquest into the charges against him. He was incarcerated for having murdered Robert of York, a forester, a crime that he claimed he did not commit, and for which he was indicted out of hate and spite (de odio et atya). As was often the case with these inquests, the jurors whole-heartedly agreed. They blamed John of York, the victim’s father, for having maliciously procured the indictment. More important still, they identified William of Alcester, a chaplain, as the real culprit. Their identification was prompted by William’s own admission: immediately after the homicide, the chaplain fled to the church at Beverley, where he confessed to his crime before the coroner and abjured the realm. Hugh Gromy, accordingly, was acquitted.[6]

Another trial also held at the gaol of Beverley produced similar findings. Alice, daughter of Martin of Galmeton, was arrested and detained at Beverley gaol for the homicide of William of Galmeton. Much like Gromy, she, too, argued that the accusation lodged against her was false, prompted by malice. The inquest jurors found her story to be credible. They maintained that Anabilla, the mother of the said Alice, had in fact procured the false indictment (why, they do not say). They also offered an explanation for what had really happened to William of Galmeton. They noted that Jordan of Revesby, a cleric, had in fact killed William and then fled to the liberty of Beverley where he entered into the chartered sanctuary.[7]

Remains of one of the four medieval stone boundary markers for the sanctuary of Saint John of Beverley.

Since then, diligent searching of the internet has uncovered two more instances of priests claiming sanctuary, both in the calendar of patent rolls. Both men in these instances were debtors, rather than felons, but their exploitation of sanctuary is telling nonetheless. For 1386, the calendar includes a notation for the revocation of protection accorded to Robert of Seckington, the parson of Shere (Surrey), who was supposed to have accompanied Hugh le Despenser to Scotland in the king’s service. However, the king had recently received word that the parson had taken up residence in the sanctuary of Saint Martin le Grand in order to dodge paying his debts.[8]

The case of John Palmer, canon of the priory of Torrington (Devon), establishes that hiding in sanctuary might even be profitable for a (albeit, devious and sleazy) priest. A calendar entry for 1366 observes that John Palmer,

flying from the said priory for misdeeds perpetrated by him, is in sanctuary in the abbey of Westminster, and calling himself prior of the said priory levies the rents due to the priory for his own use; he, at the supplication of the sub-prior and convent of the priory, inhibits all tenants of the same in the city of London from paying any rents due to the said John, and orders them to pay them to the sub-prior and convent.[9]

What is significant about these two additional cases is that they add further weight to the argument that priests who claimed sanctuary were not exceptions to the rule. The real question, though, is why were all of these priests turning to sanctuary when the provision was not intended for them? Why didn’t they merely claim benefit of clergy and have their cases transferred to the ecclesiastical forum?

Clearly, the answer is that these men didn’t want ecclesiastical justice. Why might that be the case?

I would like to propose the possibility that these clerics opted for sanctuary because they saw ecclesiastical justice as being too harsh. This is not an easy argument to make. For years, common law historians have ridiculed the church courts, seeing benefit of clergy as a means not only to escape hanging, but to evade punishment altogether. Much ado has been made of the ecclesiastical process of purgation, in which criminal clerks bring forward oath-helpers to clear their names. That “almost every person who came before the ecclesiastical court accused of theft, murder or other secular offense, and who went on to purgation, did so successfully” has inspired little confidence in the efficacy of the process.[10] However, as Richard Helmholz reminds us, the high “acquittal” rates in the medieval church very much mirror those of the royal courts. In general, the medieval English seem to have believed that indictment and trial were suitable punishments on their own for most criminals.[11] In addition, as Margaret McGlynn has recently argued, we need to recognize that the church courts did punish its offenders. For those delivered to the church as convicted clerics, purgation occurred only after a period of incarceration in an ecclesiastical prison; thus, it is reasonable to see their punishment as a prison sentence, even if the medieval documents do not express it in those precise terms. Also, we need to acknowledge that some criminal clerics actually confessed – indeed, confession was deemed a necessary part of the penitential process to put the penitent back on the path to salvation. Those who confessed were denied purgation altogether; they spent the rest of their lives in prison.[12] And given the state of medieval prisons, one might well argue that was a fate worse than death.

When it comes to our murderous clerks above, if they had submitted themselves to royal authority and then claimed benefit of clergy, imprisonment (possibly even for life), defrocking, and public humiliation loomed in their futures. Sanctuary, in effect, represented the easy way out for these men. William of Alcester Wissant.8confessed before the coroner and abjured the realm. The work of William Jordan on English exiles in France indicates that someone in William’s position likely took up work in an inn or tavern where English-speakers were always needed for the expatriate community of Englishmen in Wissant, the French village directly across the channel from Dover. Many others in William’s shoes eventually returned home to England; some of them even obtained pardons.[13]

Jordan of Revesby entered into the chartered sanctuary at Beverley, where mostly probably he lived out the rest of his life quite normally, providing he remained within the confines of church lands. Here, we should remember also that medieval churches typically owned numerous rental properties in the vicinity of the church, stretching the boundaries of a chartered sanctuary to include several city blocks of land. Accordingly, sanctuary men in chartered sanctuaries did not live in the church. Rather, like any other man at the time, they rented homes and ran businesses out of them. The sanctuary at Beverley, in particular, was unusual in that it included the entire town. Chartered sanctuaries were porous environments: while sanctuary men could not leave, anyone could and did enter a sanctuary. Indeed, medieval Londoners frequented the sanctuary of Saint Martin le Grand precisely to buy high quality shoes, knowing that Dutch shoemakers only operated out of the sanctuary in order to work around London’s restrictive guild regulations.[14] Thus, living in a chartered sanctuary did not mean leaving behind one’s former life and acquaintances. It simply dramatically curtailed one’s travel plans.

As clergymen, should William of Alcester and Jordan of Revesby have been permitted to exploit the provisions for sanctuary? Obviously the answer is, no. They were doing an end-run around the system in order to manipulate it to achieve the most desirable outcome. Yet, we must also remember that many clergymen submitted themselves to criminal trials managed by the state and never once breathed a word about being a member of a religious order (providing they were acquitted).[15] How is the sanctuary-seeking priest so very different?


Main Image: “The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield with Robyn Hood, Scarlet and John,” (1689). Courtesy of the General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University New Haven, Connecticut. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Saint John of Beverley Sanctuary Stone. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

[1] E.L.G. Stones, “The Folvilles of Ashby-Folville, Leicestershire, and their Associates in Crime, 1326-1347,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 7 (1957): 117-36.

[2] R.F. Hunnisett, The Medieval Coroner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 38.

[3] For a fascinating discussion of one particular chartered sanctuary, see Krista Kesselring’s “Mapping Durham’s Medieval Sanctuary Seekers,” Legal History Miscellany (2 July 2018), . See also Shannon McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[4] NB: In January of 2018, Shannon McSheffrey wrote an excellent blog for Legal History Miscellany on the subject of two canons who took sanctuary at Westminster.  See: . Again, this particular case falls into a different category than clergymen generally claiming sanctuary. As apostates, were the men still considered proper members of religious orders?

[5] Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 245.

[6] The National Archives (hereafter, TNA) C 144/28, no. 12 (1287-88).

[7] TNA C 144/33, no. 21 (1300-1307).

[8] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Rich. III, vol. 3 for the years 1385-1389 (London: HMSO, 1900), 92.

[9] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edw. III, vol. 13 for the years 1364-1367 (London: HMSO, 1912), 312-313.

[10] R.H. Helmholz, “Crime, Compurgation and the Courts of the Medieval Church,” Law and History Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 19.

[11] Helmholz, 19.

[12] Margaret McGlynn, “Ecclesiastical Prisons and Royal Authority in the Reign of Henry VII,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, first view, 6 May 2019,

[13] William Chester Jordan, From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2015).

[14] Shannon McSheffrey, “Stranger Artisans and the London Sanctuary of St. Martin le Grand in the Reign of Henry VIII,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43, no. 3 (2013): 545-71.

[15] For a discussion of how this process worked, see Leona C. Gabel, Benefit of Clergy in England in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Octagon Books, 1969).

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