Sanctuary and the Legal Topography of Pre-Reformation London

Sanctuary and the Legal Topography of Pre-Reformation London

By Shannon McSheffrey

Law and History Review, Vol. 27:3 (Fall 2009)

Introduction: In early sixteenth-century England, the presence of ecclesiastical sanctuaries in the legal, social, and religious landscape was a matter of great controversy. Any English church could offer temporary sanctuary to an accused felon, a privilege that expired after about forty days, following which the felon had to abjure the realm. More contentiously, by the late Middle Ages a number of English religious houses used their status as royally-chartered liberties to offer sanctuary permanently, not only to accused criminals, but also to debtors, alien craftsmen, and, especially during the civil wars of the fifteenth century, political refugees. These ecclesiastical liberties, small territories that exercised varying extents of juridical and political autonomy, considerably complicated the jurisdictional map of late medieval England.


London in particular, with its host of liberties and peculiars, constituted a patchwork quilt of legal jurisdictions. Although the mayor and aldermen of London were wont to say that the “chyeff and most commodyous place of the Cytie of London” constituted “one hoole Countie and one hoole Jurisdiccion and libertie” over which its citizens ruled, saving only the authority of the king himself, this confident assertion of the City’s jurisdiction over the metropolitan square mile was constantly belied by the presence of these liberties. The most notable—and for the City, the most troubling—was the sanctuary at St. Martin Le Grand, a sizeable area within the bounds of the City, before 1503 governed by the dean and canons of the College of St. Martin, after 1503 absorbed into the lands attached to Westminster Abbey and ruled by the abbot. For about two centuries before St. Martin Le Grand was dissolved in 1542, its precinct was home to a thriving population of debtors, accused felons, and perhaps most numerously alien craftsmen, all seeking for various reasons to avoid civic or royal jurisdiction.5 The dissolution of religious houses which accompanied the English Reformation greatly lessened, although did not altogether eradicate, the privileges of St. Martin’s.

Underpinning the practice of sanctuary in late medieval London was a complicated amalgam of Christian ideology and political gamesmanship. In a legal sense, the theory and practice of sanctuary straddled a number of legal regimes—the canon law of the Church; the law of the royal courts both criminal and civil; and local customary jurisdictions of manor, town, or city. As Richard Helmholz has delineated, the English practice of sanctuary, as granted by royal charter and upheld by royal courts and by statute, had an uneasy and imprecise relationship with the medieval church’s legal definitions of sanctuary and asylum. Much of the prior scholarship on English sanctuary assumed that disputes about sanctuary were another episode in battles between an overpowerful medieval church and a modernizing and finally triumphant state. Helmholz, by contrast, demonstrates that the scope of medieval English sanctuary, as accepted by the royal courts and government, was actually rather wider than that allowed by official church law.

The English practice of temporary sanctuary, for instance, where an accused criminal who sought sanctuary in a church had to leave the church and abjure the realm within forty days, did not derive from canon law and was in some ways inconsistent with it. Such inconsistencies were not, however, at the root of late medieval conflicts over sanctuary; English canonists, recognizing the extent to which sanctuary privileges bridged the canon law/common law frontier, did not object to these “customs of England,” as they termed them. Similarly, the late medieval English practice whereby debtors and alien craftsmen took advantage of the idea of a church’s immunity from secular jurisdictions in order to escape their creditors and guild supervision was a stretch of the original spirit of the church’s immunity claims. Ecclesiastical immunity was meant to protect the church and its members from violence rather than to allow escape from legal processes for debt or economic regulation. Late medieval English conceptualization of sanctuary effectively combined the English concept of the liberty—a territory, ecclesiastical or secular, exempt from other jurisdictions (privileges that St. Martin’s had long had, perhaps since the Anglo-Saxon era)—with the holy space of the church protected by ecclesiastical immunity. The interpenetration of these ideas, tying the jurisdictional exemptions of the liberty to the church ground’s sacrality, underlay the extension in the fourteenth century of sanctuary’s jurisdictional exemptions not only to crime but to debt litigation and guild regulation.

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