Murder in Sanctuary: Liberty Jurisdictions and the Prosecution of Felony in Early Tudor England

Posted by Shannon McSheffrey, 19 January 2021.

Figure 1: Timeline of Homicides in St Martin le Grand, 1508-17.

Between 1508 and 1517, a string of six homicides occurred within the precinct of the collegiate church of St. Martin le Grand. Located just north of St. Paul’s cathedral and about the size of a football field, the precinct of St. Martin’s was a complicated place: it was an ecclesiastical liberty, making it independent from the jurisdiction of the civic government of London although it was within the city walls, and it was a sanctuary, a territory within which accused felons and debtors could shelter free from arrest by sheriffs or creditors. The collegiate church of St. Martin le Grand had formerly been an independent ecclesiastical institution under the rule of a dean, but in 1503 King Henry VII had granted the church (and its income producing properties) to Westminster Abbey to pay for a new chapel.

Figure 2: The Precinct of St Martin Le Grand.

The precinct comprised not only the church building itself and some housing for canons and choirboys, but a significant number of residential tenements and artisans’ shops on both sides of St. Martin’s lane and in a warren of courts surrounding the church on the east side of the lane. In those tenements, leased from the abbot of Westminster, lived and worked some English craftsmen, a few sanctuary seekers (probably about a dozen at a time), and the largest concentration of stranger artisans in the kingdom. The hundreds of mostly Dutch and French immigrants in the precinct took advantage of the jurisdictional independence of the liberty of St. Martin le Grand, which allowed them to work and sell outside the regulation of the London civic guilds, which by the early sixteenth century severely restricted those born outside the realm from making and retailing artisanal goods within the City.[1]

The precinct was crowded, but with a likely population of around 500 people (extrapolating from tax data in ensuing decades), six homicides over a decade is extraordinary. I want here both to consider the homicides themselves — what little we can know about why they occurred and whether they were connected — and how the killings were handled in the criminal justice system of early sixteenth-century England. These six deaths, which occasioned six felony homicide processes, offer us an opportunity to look closely at how liberties and sanctuaries operated within the legal system of early Tudor England and more broadly how law worked in English society.

Sanctuary rights became intertwined with the messy question of jurisdiction in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was most evident in the development from the late fourteenth century of chartered sanctuaries, monasteries and other religious institutions that claimed the privilege of sheltering accused felons from arrest as an aspect of their royally-granted jurisdictional rights (known as liberties or franchises in the contemporary lingo).[2] This form of asylum derived in part from the long-standing practice in England where felons could seek asylum in any parish church for up to forty days before the felon had either to surrender to royal officials to face charges or to abjure the realm (go into judicial exile). Chartered sanctuary differed in that the sanctuary seeker’s stay in the precinct of a religious house claiming such a privilege was not limited in time but could shield them from arrest and trial for a crime in perpetuity.

There has been some misunderstanding of how sanctuaries functioned within the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century common law, particularly a widely-held misconception that chartered sanctuaries operated outside the king’s law, as “places where the king’s writ did not run.” [3] As some have interpreted this, sanctuaries were, in effect, lawless zones beyond the reach of the king’s justice or any kind of secular authority, but in a number of ways this misconstrues the workings of the liberty jurisdictions that played host to sanctuaries.

Figure 3: London-area liberties. Map by Alice Reiter after Mary S. Lobel, The City of London from Prehistoric Times to c. 1520 (Oxford, 1989).

First, sanctuary was integrated into, rather than separate from, English common law: sanctuary privileges were confirmed by royal grant; claims of sanctuary were adjudicated (and frequently ratified) in the common law courts; and, along with other mitigations such as benefit of clergy, they were taught as normal legal processes to fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century law students.[4] Second, the king’s writ did run in sanctuary precincts and liberties more broadly. Although chartered sanctuaries were jurisdictionally independent from the counties in which they were geographically located, they were nonetheless, like other liberty jurisdictions, integrated into the royal justice system through employment of their own coroners and other royal officials. As the map of London-area liberties shows, such areas, which each had their own constellation of jurisdictional powers and privileges, were by no means negligible in number or extent in the kingdom. Although such liberties and peculiar jurisdictions operated outside the county or shire system (with sheriffs, justices of the peace, and so on) through which royal justice was ordinarily conducted, mechanisms existed that allowed for felonies committed in those liberties to be reported to, and prosecuted within, the royal courts. Those who had been accorded the privilege of sanctuary could not be arrested for felonies committed outside the precinct, but that protection did not extend to offences committed within the precinct.[5] Liberties had internal court structures, including both ecclesiastical courts outside the diocesan system and, on the secular side, leet courts that dealt with misdemeanours and offences that elsewhere would have been dealt with by manor, town, or city tribunals. We have, unfortunately, almost no records of these courts.[6] But those liberty courts did not deal with felonies; just as the court of the mayor and aldermen of London did not try homicide cases, so also were felonies within liberties handled by the crown. In other words, if a person committed a felony inside a sanctuary, they were subject to arrest and trial in the king’s courts, through a process that both recognized and acknowledged the jurisdictional independence of the liberty and yet integrated it into the royal justice system.

The string of homicides that took place within the precinct of St. Martin le Grand between 1508 and 1517 give us the opportunity to examine in detail how such felonies were handled. First, a little bit about the killings, although it must be said that trying to discern the contexts for these and most other homicides from surviving records is frustrating, as coroner’s inquest reports and indictments are at best laconic (and mostly entirely silent) on backstories. In at least one of the cases, Thomas Porter’s murder of John Gamlyn on 1 June 1516, the killing resulted from a quarrel between sanctuary men. Both Porter and Gamlyn were privileged of the sanctuary, and they had some kind of tie to Henry VIII: the king’s household accounts between 1514 and 1516 record that the king paid £10 a year to the keeper of St Martin’s sanctuary for their living expenses. Porter and Gamlyn evidently fell out and Gamlyn ended up dead; Porter himself fled the precinct following the slaying, and the King’s Bench records indicate that he was never found. He was outlawed in 1517.[7] In several of the other homicide cases, one or both of the men involved, judging by their names and trades, were almost certainly stranger artisans resident in the precinct: in 1509, Jacob or James Cay alias Ruster was killed at St Martin’s by Nicholas Strynger, a pouchmaker;[8] a month after Porter’s murder of Gamlyn in 1516, a tailor named William Makerell was found dead, and the inquest jurors fingered a shoemaker named Olaf Wilkins alias Williamson for the murder;[9] and in 1517, a leatherseller named John Maydman killed Paul Bugderem, a goldsmith recently arrived from Cologne.[10] Like Porter, these three accused perpetrators fled and were never found, with two being outlawed and the third dying before the process of outlawry was complete. In two further cases (Thomas Walsshe’s alleged killing of Christopher Wilkinson in 1508,[11] and James a Horton’s alleged killing of Christopher Trapmell in 1516),[12] it is not clear whether the victim and perpetrator were sanctuary men, stranger artisans, or English visitors to the precinct, although in both instances, the jurors found that the homicides had been in self-defence and the defendants were pardoned.

All these homicides were committed within the sanctuary precinct, but the perpetrators could not seek asylum for them at St Martin le Grand as refuge was not available for felonies committed inside sanctuary bounds. On the one hand the heterogeneous nature of the killings makes it unlikely that all six homicides were connected, but on the other it seems equally unlikely that the spate of four killings within sixteen months in 1516-17 were entirely separate quarrels. It is also noteworthy that in the midst of that cluster of homicides the Evil May Day riot of 1517 occurred: not only was Evil May Day the most serious riot in London for decades but the insurrectionists took stranger artisans in general and the precinct of St Martin’s in particular as their target. How the homicides connected to the unrest that led to and followed the riot, however, is simply unknown.

We are on surer footing in considering the process by which the homicides were handled. When a homicide occurred within the ordinary jurisdiction of a county, one of the county’s four coroners (appointed by the crown) was summoned to convene an inquest.[13] As liberty jurisdictions were independent from the counties in which they were situated, however, they had their own coroners, also appointed by the crown in collaboration with the governor of the liberty. In the first three decades of the sixteenth century the coroner for the abbot of Westminster’s liberty (which was quite extensive, including much of the territory between London and Westminster as well as St. Martin le Grand) was a well-known lawyer named Thomas Roberts or Robertz.[14] Roberts was an attorney and clerk (filazer) at King’s Bench; he served as coroner for all six of these cases and many others besides, as one of his many gigs as a lawyer. He was presumably either on retainer or received a fee for each inquest. Notably, Roberts also served as coroner for the county of Middlesex.[15] In other words, whether an unnatural death occurred within the abbot’s liberty or in Middlesex proper, Roberts was summoned, although he did so by virtue of separate appointments (and presumably he billed different offices). The paperwork was similar, although where most coroner’s inquest reports indicated the name of the county on the upper left, in the case of a liberty the coroner indicated that instead (in these cases, for instance, it says “Sanctuary of St. Martin le Grand,” instead of London or Middlesex).

Figure 4: The coroner Thomas Roberts’s inquest at St Martin le Grand over the body of John Gamlyn, 25 July 1516, KB 9/472, m. 73. Image reproduced with permission of The National Archives.
Figure 5: Roberts’s inquest in Middlesex over the body of John Gerves, 8 November 1516, KB 9/472, m. 74. Image reproduced with permission of The National Archives.

When a coroner arrived on the scene where there lay a dead body, he convened an inquest jury to report on the cause of death. For a coroner’s inquest in a county, the jurors (all adult men) normally came from the township in which the death occurred and three neighbouring townships; in the case of London, the jurors came from the city ward in which the death occurred and three neighbouring wards. In a liberty, however, the jurors were inhabitants of that particular jurisdiction, meaning that in the case of the homicides in St. Martin le Grand, the jurors in each case were residents of the St. Martin’s precinct. There were between fourteen and twenty men who served as jurors on each of these six inquests (some serving on more than one jury), for a total of sixty-nine different jurors. Of these sixty-nine men, a significant majority were the stranger artisans who made up most of the precinct’s inhabitants: this in itself is interesting, as in London proper inquest jurors were normally English-born citizens of London. In these cases we see the logic of jurisdiction and the need for local jurors leading to the integration of immigrants into the royal justice system.[16] The jurors rendered a verdict on the cause of death that was recorded by the coroner and his reports constitute most of our evidence for these cases.

Roberts then in due course submitted the inquest reports that required action — such as these six homicides — to the court of King’s Bench. Roberts evidently brought both his Westminster liberty and Middlesex county inquest reports in at the same time, as they are still filed consecutively (see, for instance, the images of the reports above). Although a homicide occurring within a liberty’s jurisdiction was not handled through the county-based system at the level of the coroner’s inquest, from that point on they seem to have slotted into the normal processes, with county courts being employed where necessary. In the cases where the felons had fled, for instance, the outlawries were undertaken at the London sheriffs’ court. Of the six accused perpetrators here, three were outlawed and one died before the outlawry process could be completed. The two who stood trial both did so at King’s Bench, where they presented pardons. It is not clear what the mechanism might have been for trying these felons otherwise, though as the outlawries were processed through the sheriff of London’s court, it would make sense for trials to be held there as well. The record on the coram rege roll of King’s Bench (KB 27) suggests this somewhat hybrid system: although in the body of the entry the language from the coroner’s inquest report indicated that the jurisdiction was the liberty (apud sanctum Martinum magnum London infra sanctuarium et libertatem abbatis Westm’ sancti Martini magni London coram Thoma Robertz coronatore dicti domini Regis infra Sanctuarium et libertatem predictam [at St Martin le Grand within the sanctuary and liberty of the abbot of Westminster of St Martin le Grand London, before Thomas Robertz, coroner of the said lord king within the aforesaid sanctuary and liberty]), the marginal note classified the location as London.

Figure 6: Record of Christopher Trapmell’s appearance at King’s Bench, 7 May 1517, KB 27.1023, rex. m. 1. Image reproduced with permission of The National Archives.

So: what does this mean? It must be emphasized that late medieval England was jurisdictionally complex and that the system was not at all neat and tidy. But it was flexible: work-arounds were found for processes that did not quite fit into the “ordinary” county-based procedures. The liberties, which sometimes appear entirely anomalous to modern historians, were more integrated into the landscape of royal law and criminal procedure than we have understood. The bigger take-away from this discussion of a niche technical question is that law in practice in late medieval England was a messy and often ad-hoc process, but that messiness also allowed for flexibility, for adaptation and accommodation to the anomalous.

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 most recent book is Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford University Press), and she is currently writing a study of the Evil May Day riot in 1517.


[1] On St Martin le Grand, see Shannon McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 58–82, 112–39; and “Residents of St Martin Le Grand, c. 1500-1550,” 2016.

[2] For any unreferenced discussion of sanctuary here, see McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary.

[3] This is an oft-repeated phrase which went back to the late medieval period to describe palatinate jurisdictions such as Durham and Chester; as far as I can tell its use to describe sanctuaries draws from the influential work on the subject by Isobel Thornley and Sir John Baker: Thornley, “The Destruction of Sanctuary,” in Tudor Studies, ed. R. W. Seton-Watson (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1924), 185; Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. (London: Butterworths LexisNexis, 2002), 512–13. Baker changed the wording in the 5th edition of Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 552-53) to indicate that “secular authority did not run” in ecclesiastical liberties, though that, too, is not strictly accurate, as shown here.

[4] See on the last point, Margaret McGlynn, ed., The Rights and Liberties of the English Church: Readings from the Pre-Reformation Inns of Court, Selden Society 129 (London: Selden Society, 2015), 70, 83, 86, 93–94, 109–12, 128–29, 149–50.

[5] An exception was the seeking of sanctuary by Richard Southwell and his retinue at Westminster Abbey in 1532 following the killing of Sir William Pennington inside the precinct boundary: that was an exception made for political reasons. McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary, 1-5, 180-83.

[6] There are a few stray records from St Martin le Grand’s courts: Westminster Abbey Muniments [WAM], MSS 13191 and 13294; and echoes in other records for St Martin’s and other London area liberties: e.g. The National Archives [TNA], C 24/3, ‘Abbas’, m. 17; KB 15/42, fols 140v–41r; STAC 2/21/121; C 1/964/24; SP 1/237, fol. 282r; London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/01/01/001, fol 97v.

[7] TNA, KB 9/472, m 73; KB 29/148, m. 48; TNA, KB 27/1029, m. 17; J. S. Brewer, James Gairdner, and R. H. Brodie, eds., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII (London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1862), 2:1466, 1469, 1471.

[8] TNA, KB 9/452, m. 6; KB 29/140, m. 12d.

[9] TNA, KB 9/472, m 75; KB 29/148, m. 48. This killing may have occasioned another (see below, fig. 4): several months after the killing of William Makerell, on 7 Nov. 1516, one Gilbert Makerell, variously described as cook, brewer, and innholder of the parish of St. Clement Danes, killed John Gerves by stabbing him in the parish of St. Clement’s. A Nicholas Mulbery of St. Andrew Holborn parish, brewer, was accessory. (Makerell was pardoned on 28 June 1517; Mulbery went sine die also because of Makerell’s pardon.) This latter killing may somehow have been in revenge for William Makerell’s death. KB 9/471, mm. 22, 85; KB 9/472, m. 74; KB 29/148, mm. 37d, 48; L&P, 2:1089.

[10] TNA, KB 9/474, m. 61; KB 29/149, m. 18. Bugderem registered with the Goldsmiths’ Company as a stranger goldsmith in 1515: London, Goldsmiths’ Hall, Wardens’ Accounts and Court Minutes, 4-C, p 162 (thanks to Charlotte Berry for her help locating this elusive entry).

[11] TNA, KB 9/961, m. 74; KB 27/1001, rex m. 1d.

[12] TNA, KB 9/472, m 76; KB 29/148, m. 48; KB 27/1023, rex m. 1.

[13] In general on coroners see R. F Hunnisett, The Medieval Coroner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961); Sara M. Butler, Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[14] John Hamilton Baker, The Men of Court 1440 to 1550, Selden Society, Supplementary Series 18 (London: Selden Society, 2012), 1308.

[15] See fig. 5 for an example of one of Roberts’s Middlesex inquest reports.

[16] It is impossible to be precise about the proportions, as clear designations of alien status beyond names are rare in the 1510s (later tax records are much more definitive). At least two-thirds of the 69 jurors had clearly Dutch or French names, and many more bore names that were ambiguous. Only two (William Mathew and John May) were certainly English (both were citizens of London). TNA, KB 9/961, m. 74; KB 9/452, m. 6; KB 9/472, mm 73, 75, 76; KB 9/474, m. 61. Most of the jurors can be found in “Residents of St. Martin le Grand,” by searching “inquest juror.”

This was not the only occasion when strangers served on juries: strangers who came to a jury trial had the right to request a “half-tongue” jury, that is, one made up of half English and half strangers. See J. H. Baker, The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volume VI, 1483-1558 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 612–14; Susanne Jenks, “Justice for Strangers: The Experience of Alien Merchants in Medieval English Common Law Courts,” in The Medieval Merchant: Proceedings of the 2012 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline M. Barron and Anne F. Sutton (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2014), 166–82.

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