Posted by Sara M. Butler, 26 November 2021.
A felon’s right to claim sanctuary upon sacred ground for a period of forty days is hardly a new subject for this blog (see previous blogs by McSheffrey, Butler, Kesselring, and McSheffrey). Nor is the tension that sometimes existed between sheriffs keen to catch a criminal and the church’s dogged persistence that sanctuary must be respected. When violations of sanctuary by royal officials did occur, we usually hear about the consequences from the secular side of things. The close rolls offer up numerous instances of felons restored to sanctuary at the request of the king, presumably after complaints issued from the church in question. For example, royal correspondence to the sheriffs of London in September of 1337 ordered them to restore Andrew of Sutton immediately to the church of All Hallows, Haywharf in London. Stephen de Gravesend, Bishop of London, complained to the king that when John of Catton arrested Andrew, he had already entered the porch of the church and “held the ring of the door in his hand,” a clear and indisputable violation of All Hallows’ sanctuary. The king was anxious to set things right by returning Andrew to the church at once. One assumes that John of Catton and his fellow “sons of iniquity,” as the king’s letter refers to his accomplices, were reprimanded by the crown for causing trouble. But one can’t help but wonder about the spiritual consequences of their actions. Was the Bishop of London content to see Andrew of Sutton restored to the church, or did he demand that John of Catton and his accomplices also perform penance for their sinful abuse of sacred space?
The case of William de Lay, a fugitive dragged from the churchyard of St Philip and St Jacob Church (or Pip ‘n’ Jay, as it was once known) in Bristol in the year 1279, recorded in the register of Godfrey, Bishop of Worcester, is instructive. The man who ordered the breach of the church’s sanctuary was Peter de la Mare, the constable of Bristol castle, and William de Lay’s jailer for the past few years. While little is known about who William actually was or why he was targeted by the English crown for long-term imprisonment, in December of the year 1275 he
was captured on board the ship of Amaury de Montfort, papal chaplain and also canon of York, third son of the recently deceased rebel Simon de Montfort, the sixth Earl of Leicester. Amaury was escorting his younger sister Eleanor to meet her new husband, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the last sovereign prince of Wales before its conquest by Edward I of England, to whom she had been married by proxy earlier that year. This marriage was a renewal of a tradition of allegiance between the de Montfort family and the Welsh princes. Nonetheless, the marriage did not meet with the approval of Eleanor’s cousin, King Edward I, who saw this as not only disparaging of his cousin’s royal standing (she was King John’s granddaughter, after all), but also what might be a dangerous prelude to renewal of older hostilities. Thus, he was delighted when a storm waylaid the de Montforts’ ship in the Bristol Channel, permitting four local ships to seize Amaury and his sister, bringing them and the members of their party to the castle to be imprisoned.
While Eleanor was transferred to Windsor Castle within days, followed soon after by Amaury to Corfe Castle, William de Lay remained incarcerated at Bristol for the next few years.
The pipe rolls record that William cost the constable an average of 1.5 pence per day, paid out until 20 July 1279. Such a high cost suggests that William de Lay was a man of some importance and a political prisoner.
How it is that he eventually escaped from Bristol castle is not recorded, but he did so with Peter de la Mare’s men in hot pursuit. One of his captors, Robert le Waleys, later reported that when they caught up with William, all of his body but his feet were in the churchyard (presumably he had tripped?). Robert le Waleys grasped him by the feet and pulled him beyond the bounds of sanctuary. Robert was not alone in this endeavor. Nicholas son of Neel explained that he held William down and took an iron weapon from his hand. Henry of Essex admitted to snatching William by the beard; Gilbert la Gayte grasped his arm; Richard de Waleden, a clerk but also seemingly the constable’s bailiff, confessed to having laid hands on William. Together, they dragged him the short distance (0.2 miles) from the churchyard back to the castle. Upon arrival, on order of Peter de la Mare, Henry of Essex tied William’s hands and led him to the place of execution, where Adam le Steor, the prison’s keeper, beheaded him.
Summary justice of this kind was generally acceptable only when a felon was caught in the act. Of course, prison-break and escape both constituted felonies, and thus were sufficient grounds for execution without trial. Yet, because of the political nature of William’s imprisonment, Peter de la Mare’s decision, without consulting the king or waiting for the next itineration of the king’s justices, was rash. Admittedly, Peter probably felt that his decision was warranted: 1.5 pence a day was a lot to house a political prisoner over a cause that had since been resolved.
In October of 1278, Eleanor and Llewelyn formally married. Not only was Edward I a guest at her extravagant wedding, but his brother, Edmund of Lancaster, gave Eleanor away. Moreover, the close rolls suggest that Peter de la Mare was the kind of man who was accustomed to making decisions independently. On the first of January 1285, Peter received a pardon from the king for beheading William de Lay; on the following day, he was also pardoned for the dragging and hanging of William of Netlington, a clipper and coiner of money in the Exchange at Bristol, without first consulting the king’s justices. Granted, because of the strategic importance of the castle as a “spring-board for Ireland,” and for launching attacks on the Welsh, the constable may often have needed to make on-the-spot decisions and so may have felt justified in these instances.
Regardless, Peter’s career in administration was not harmed in the least by this error in judgment. When the Bristol Exchange opened 2 Jan. 1280, one of only ten mints across England to strike during the years 1279 to 1281, Peter was made keeper of the Exchange, responsible for an output calculated at £40,000. Moreover, Peter continued on as constable of Bristol castle, with a second series of accounts surviving for the years 1289-91, at which point he passed away.
While the crown may not have cared overly much about Peter’s transgression, the same cannot be said for the Bishop of Worcester, Godfrey Giffard. Son of Hugh Giffard, a royal justice, and brother of Walter Giffard, the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop worked in a series of important positions before landing in Worcester. From 1265-67, he was archdeacon of Barnstaple; from 1267-68, he was the archdeacon of York; and from 1266-68, he was chancellor of England. This is a man who was used to giving orders and getting what he wanted. And his register makes it clear that he was determined to punish every single individual involved in the violation of sanctuary that happened in his diocese, under his watch.
First, those involved in the arrest and execution of William de Lay, were ordered to exhume his body, restore it to the church of St Philip and St Jacob, head and all, and bury it in the churchyard “from whence it was violently taken when living.” The register stipulates also that Adam le Steor, who beheaded William, “should be present and do the principal work.” In addition, the bishop commanded that those who participated in the arrest
should go from the church of the Friars Minors [in Lewin’s Mead] of Bristol by most public ways to the church of the Apostles Philip and James [Jacob], in solemn procession, with uncovered heads and bare feet, in only their shirts and breeches, before the third hour of the day, on four market days in four weeks, and at the door of the said church each of them should receive discipline from priests specially appointed for that purpose.
For those who were simply present at the execution, they were to do like penance (that is, procession as stipulated above) for only one day.
Second, Peter de la Mare, who did not participate in the arrest, but did order it, was similarly required to do like penance on one day. Furthermore, he was expected to
endow one priest with fit maintenance at a place to be fixed, to perform divine service for ever in honour of God and of His mother, and all the elect, more especially to remember the deceased and other faithful in Christ. That he should erect a stone cross at the cost of 100s. at least, according to the ordinance of the bishop, that so the Church of Christ built in His blood may be recompensed with due reverence for so grave a crime; and that at the same cross every year a hundred poor were to be fed, and each of them should receive one penny for food at the expense of the said Peter, and that he should be present at the penances of all the other offenders.
Of course, the bishop gave the assembled “sons of iniquity” an out: if any of them would take up the cross and go on crusade, he would mitigate the punishment.
Peter and his men did process through the streets half-naked. Moreover, Peter built that cross; the Annals of Bristol locate it at the south side of the Old Market, near the corner of the Tower Hill. The cross was still there in 1470 when William Worcestre wrote his chronicle. Yet, Peter and his men also took the bishop up on his deal as atonement for their sins. The next entry in the bishop’s register clarifies that they would “send one of themselves at their own cost, or some other sufficient warrior, to the Holy Land for the remission of their sins, and if they did so nothing further should be exacted from them for the crusade.”
Finally, the bishop was satisfied. In the very next entry, the bishop issued a mandate proclaiming absolution from excommunication for both Peter de la Mare and his accomplices.
Was Godfrey Giffard particularly harsh in his dealings with the men who violated sanctuary? If William de Lay was still alive, would their penance have been much less than what we see here? While it is impossible to know exactly why the bishop reacted as stridently as he did, it is entirely possible that he did so to quell the growing rumors of William de Lay’s sanctity.
The local community seems to have supported William from the moment the posse caught up with him at the churchyard. In his testimony before the bishop, Robert le Waleys explained that he held William by the feet to pull him out of the churchyard, and yet “because of the clamour of the people,” he decided to leave the scene altogether. Sanctuary was a time-honored right in medieval England, and one that many people depended upon, less as a flight from justice than as an opportunity for tempers to cool and stories to straighten before justice was put into action. Even though it was intended chiefly for felons, petty thieves, debtors and even wife-beaters often fled to sanctuary for a respite from the consequences of their actions. It is no surprise that the local inhabitants saw the constable’s violation of sanctuary for what it was: contempt for a long-held and deeply respected right of refuge that belonged to every Englishman and woman.
After William’s beheading, it did not take long for locals to recreate his image, transforming him from political prisoner and fugitive to storied martyr. When interviewed by the bishop, Robert, rector of the church of the Blessed Mary of Bristol, claimed that he did not know who was responsible for composing “a certain libellous song, who wrote it, and who published it. But he says that he has heard of miracles done by the said William de Lay, and that his brother recited those things.”
Bishop Giffard was not prepared to leave things there. He issued a mandate to the Archdeacon of Gloucester and the Dean of the church of Westbury to find out more. He wanted them to ask around in their communities to discover
if any had wickedly gone to the body of William de Lay, next the church of the Apostles Philip and James [Jacob], as a saint, asserting that he was a martyr, or who had presumed to compose a song about him, or recited a composition, or related it in public, and especially concerning the authorship of a certain libellous song written on and fixed to a certain board, and to restrain such transgressors, and to punish the rectors of the Blessed Mary in the Market, and of the Apostles Philip and James [Jacob] and others who stirred up scandal and errors in the town of Bristol by reason of William de Lay, deceased.
Giffard’s mandated penitential processions and public proclamations surely would have put an end to any public veneration of this mistaken martyr. But what can we learn from this moment?
Giffard’s reaction makes it clear that violating sanctuary was a big deal: simply returning the felon to sanctuary was probably insufficient in itself to make amends (even when the felon was still alive). However, because the church’s requirements for penance are kept in separate records, those are often missed from the larger picture.
Violations of sanctuary also mattered greatly to the people of England. While historians tend to focus chiefly on sanctuary as a site of conflict between church and state, we need to remember that there is a third player in this struggle. While libelous songs may not seem like the most powerful weapon, they certainly had Godfrey Giffard worried.
Photo of All Hallows by the Tower. Courtesy of Urban Adventurer, 2021.
“Aumaury de Montfort.” Genealogical chronicle of the English Kings (1275-1300) – BL Royal MS 14 B V. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
“Eleanor de Montfort.” Genealogical chronicle of the English Kings (1275-1300) – BL Royal MS 14 B V. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
“Llewelyn ap Gruffud.” Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Detail of a stained glass window in the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross, Chapel Lane, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The cross is shown at the center of Robert Ricart’s map of Bristol, in the ms. The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar. He was the common clerk of the town from 1478 to 1506. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
 The following account comes from J.W. Willis Bund, ed., Episcopal Register. Diocese of Worcester. Register of Bishop Godfrey Giffard. Part I: 1268 to 1273 (Worcestershire Historical Society, 1898), 110-113.
 TNA E 372/121, m. 21; E 372/122, m. 28; E 372/124, m. 24; as noted in Margaret Sharp, ed., Accounts of the Constables of Bristol Castle in the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries (Bristol Record Society, 1982), xxx n. 126.
 “1285, membranes 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12,” in Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward I: Volume 2, 1281-1292, ed. H C Maxwell Lyte (London, 1895), 150-181.
 Sharp, ed., Accounts of the Constables of Bristol, xxii.
 L.V. Grinsell, The Bristol Mint: An Historical Outline (Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, 1972), 11.
 Sharp, ed., Accounts of the Constables of Bristol, 22-27.
 Bund, ed., Episcopal Register, 112.
 George Newcomb, Annals of Bristol, containing a List of the Mayors, Prepositors, Bailiffs, and Sheriffs, from the commencement to the Present Time; together with Chronological Notices of such Remarkable Events as have Transpired in the City during a period of Six Hundred Years (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 1834), 49.
 William Worcestre: The Topography of Medieval Bristol (Bristol Record Society, vol. 51, 2000), 24.