CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Oxford petition homicide sanctuary rights abjuration justice
Subject: Petition to the king against sanctuary rights of a homicide
Original source: Archives of the borough of Bridgwater
Transcription in: H.E. Salter, ed. Snappe's Formulary and Other Records, Oxford Historical Society, vol.80 (1923), 252-53.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Oxford
Date: 1491


Your poor and grieving petitioner Margery Ludlow, widow of Thomas Ludlow, one of the sergeants of the town of Oxford, makes a complaint to Your Highness that late in the day on 23 December, one John Wells in his own house at that time (now in your prison of Bocardo, convicted of felony) killed one Robert Phylipson and straight away fled into the church. He thereafter found mainprise and was set at large, before the felony was reported to your coroners there. After it was reported and investigated, your bailiffs and fee-farmers there, together with your sergeants including the aforesaid Thomas Ludlow, in execution of the law entered the house of John Wells on 7 January last. John Wells, feloniously and in violent infringement of your laws, killed your sergeant Thomas Ludlow and inflicted an almost fatal wound on David Dier, one of your bailiffs and fee-farmers there, among other assaults and woundings. Whereupon John Wells again fled into the church, where contrary to the law he refused to make any acceptable confession to the coroners for purposes of abjuration. This being made known by the coroners to your constables there, they seized John Wells and brought him out of the church to your prison of Bocardo. Some now are making strenuous efforts to have John Wells put back into the church, which will result in numerous difficulties and troublesome expenses both to your grieving petitioner and to many others, unless Your Grace is informed of the way things stand. Therefore your poor petitioner, in all humility, beseeches Your Highness to show his grace through due execution of your laws and punishment of such murders, by ordering that royal letters be sent to Oxford – both to those who have spiritual jurisdiction and to those with secular jurisdiction – for the quashing of those efforts, for the reverence of almighty God, to whom your petitioners shall always pray for your royal majesty to live long and prosper.


The idea that those wrongly accused of a crime could appeal to divine justice by seeking sanctuary at sacred places existed in some pre-Christian societies, particularly those with underdeveloped juridical systems. Christianity added the concepts that all law derived from God (who was therefore the ultimate source of justice and mercy) and that sinners could be redeemed through repentance. From the fourth century, bishops were accorded some rights to intervene in civil trials and to request pardons or sentence reductions for criminals. At the Council of Orange (432) a territorial dimension was added, by the decision that the sanctity of churches demanded that anyone taking refuge there could not be delivered up to the authorities. From the beginning secular authorities tried to place restrictions on the right of sanctuary, and occasionally violated it.

In Anglo-Saxon England the purpose of sanctuary was to allow criminals a limited amount of time to negotiate monetary compensation in lieu of corporal punishment. Habitual criminals, or those already convicted of a crime, were not intended to benefit. The Danish and the Norman kings continued their Anglo-Saxon predecessors' respect of sanctuary. It was not until the twelfth century, however, that sanctuary became bound up with a new procedure: abjuration of the realm, whereby criminals were allowed to confess their sins and go into exile, in return for their lives being spared. This procedure, perhaps influenced by outlawry (itself a form of exile from society), was a compromise solution to the stalemate in which the secular authorities needed to punish criminals, but the Church had the obligation to defend the sanctity of its territory.

By the late Middle Ages, sanctuary had become a thorn in the side of the developing legal system. The period of sanctuary was, in theory, limited to forty days, after which the refugee was supposed either to surrender to the authorities or abjure. However, after the forty days had elapsed, authorities were at a loss to know what to do, except to keep a guard on the church in which sanctuary had been taken. The parish whose members had to undertake this guard duty found it burdensome, not least because they were subject to fine in the event of escapes, which were not uncommon. For habitual criminals escape may have been preferred to abjuring, in itself a punitive procedure risking murder en route to exile and little future prospects in the place of exile. Furthermore, the prospect of sanctuary was believed to be encouraging crime in urban areas, where churches were numerous: debtors used it as a means of evading creditors, thieves used sanctuaries as bases for nightly raids, convicted criminals who escaped from prison often headed for churches. Occasionally frustrated authorities entered churches to drag criminals out to punishment, some incidents turning so violent that church-state relations were strained as a result. Where criminals survived their forced removal, the Church insisted on them being returned to sanctuary.

Margery Ludlow, along with Robert Phylipson's sister who also sent a similar petition to the king, had cause to expect support from the king – although we do not know the outcome of this case. Henry VII was unsympathetic to sanctuary rights; his son restricted sanctuary to a limited number of places and substituted a form of imprisonment for abjuration.



The principal town gaol at Oxford.

"David Dier"
Bailiff in 1490-91.

main menu

Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003