© The British Library Board, Harley MS 4292.
A record of fugitives seeking sanctuary was kept between 1478 and 1539. It has survived and is a fascinating account of 493 people and their misdemeanors.
Who were the fugitives who came to Beverley throughout the middle ages? How did the town receive the influx of criminals? How were they treated by the Canons? Might you know someone who is a direct descendant of a felon or murderer who came to seek the ‘Peace’ of St John? Each person seeking sanctuary was, according to Alured (in about 1140), ‘received by the Canons or their Ministers with much humanity, allowed to tarry 30 days with food provided and a bed in the dormitory or house in the precincts’. The type of lodging may have depended upon the social status of the guest. It was then the duty of the Canons to secure pardon for the inmate but if this had not been achieved at the end of the 30 days then he was escorted to the outer limits of the sanctuary to meet the Coroner and undergo the process of outlawry. This often meant complete banishment from the country and it is said that the Coroner took the miscreant in sackcloth ‘ungirt, unshod, in his bare shirt as if to be hanged’ to the nearest port. At Durham the outlaw could gain special protection by wearing a black cloak with the yellow cross of St Cuthbert on the left shoulder as he was taken from the Cathedral to the coast. An Act of 1529 had required that the criminals be branded on the brawn of the thumb with the letter A showing that they swore to abjure the realm for life but this was soon changed because it was realised that many useful fighting men were being outlawed to the continent and were instructing men of other countries in the use of the secret weapon – the longbow!
Beverley offered the criminal a choice. He could remain in the town precincts as a ‘sanctuary man’ or a ‘grithman’. Offenders could obtain sanctuary at the Minster for a second period of 30 days but after the third stay the seeker must remain ‘a servant of the church for life’. He had to reside in the town limits and swear allegiance to the Minster and town authorities. The oath taken at Beverley (under the early Tudor kings) is one of only two of its type in existence and is in the British Library. The Bailiff was paid 2s. 4d. for each ceremony and the Clerk of the Court received 4d. for each entry in the records. This was the procedure:
The bailiff was directed to enquire of the refugee what man he killed and wherewith and both the names and then gar (get) him lay his hand upon the book (the bible) and saying in this wyse:
Sir Tak hede on your oath ye shall be trew and feythful to my loard Archbishop of York Lord of thso towne, to the Provost of the same, to the Canons of this church and other ministers thereof. Also ye shall bere gude to the Baillie and XIII Governors of this town to all burges (burgesses) and comyners of thes same. Also ye shall bere no pointed weapon, dagger, knife ne none other wapen ayenst the King’s pece. Also ye shalbe redy at all your power if ther be any debate or stryf or ot sothan (sudden) case of fyre within the town to help scess it. Also yes shalbe redy to obite of Kyng Adelstan at the dirge and at the messe if such tyme as it is done at the warning of the bellman of the town and do your dewte in rynging and for to offer at the messe on the morne so help you God and theis holy Evangelists.
The book records that 493 persons were given sanctuary in the 63 year period covered. This was almost 8 per year and compares with Durham whose records for 1464 – 1524 list 247 refugees at an average of four per year. Fugitives came to Beverley from all over the country. Yorkshire provided 173 but 24 came from far-off London and five travelled the considerable distance from Devon and others came from Wales. Only four English counties were not represented and even Durham, with its own sanctuary, was named by 16 persons as their home town. The detailed list includes the occupation of the fugitive and the crime committed.
Butchers came top of the crime ratings with 43 seeking aid. Other large groups were husbandmen (31), yeoman (20), and gentlemen (16). One wonders if the minstrel and ‘singing man’ named had offended sensitive ears! All society was represented, including one alderman and three surgeons. A breakdown of the crimes committed by the so-called ‘sanctuary rascals’ is shown below:
Debt 208, Manslaughter/homicide186, Felony 57, Coining 7, Horse stealing 1, Treason 1, Receiving stolen goods 1, Not defined 32.
Three women are included in the records. Elizabeth Beaumont of Hetton in Yorkshire confessed on the first Thursday in October 1479 to a murder committed on September 26th. Elizabeth Nelson, from Pollington near Goole, confessed to infanticide on 12th of March 1509. Ethelreda Weler was a felon who had journeyed from Lincoln.
Murder was commonplace in that violent, lawless society. William Hall, a taylor from York, had murdered his wife. Thomas Gene, a taylor, of York and pairs of brotherly murderers such as Thomas, a saddler, and William Robinson, a shoemaker, from Knaresborough would probably have passed the Killingwoldgraves cross. Robert and Edmond Henry were brothers from Stretbroke (Stradbroke) in Suffolk who admitted to murder. One local historian commented that ‘so many murderers availed themselves of the Chair of Peace that it verily became the seat of the scornful!’
The Grithmen living in the town were mentioned in a report written for Archbishop Lee of York in 1534. This noted that ‘the town of Beverley must at one time or another have harboured several of these grithmen. Life in Beverley must have been affected by these men, many of whom settled to a new life.’ The oath had required them to ring bells in the case of fire because the town was made up of wooden houses and the townspeople were always in fear of a repeat of the calamitous fire of 1188 which had destroyed the town. It would be too much to have expected criminals to reform overnight and during the Pilgrimage of Grace (a popular uprising that began in Yorkshire in October 1536) a band of rebels, including many from Beverley, besieged Hull. Some began to plunder and were led by ‘a naughty fellow, a sanctuary man from Beverley, a common picker (pickpocket).’ The more honest rebels objected to his behaviour and threw him in the river! That the feuding and discontent reached riotous proportions is recorded in a letter from Edward III (right) in 1337 to the town bailiff which stated that
‘whereas certain men were indicted at Beverley for diverse robberies and oppressions … thereafter the men of the community of Beverley with corporeal violence and burning of their houses … we take them under our special protection’.
One wonders if it was a grithman honouring his oath who rang the fire bell!
The townspeople made special provision for the sanctuary men in their daily lives. In the Guild Ordinances of 1416 it was ordered that ‘every butcher who is grithman and is not able to be a burgess, though willing to be, shall pay yearly as long as he follows the same craft for the common expenses of the craft aforesaid to the Alderman 12d to be paid without delay. Every Governor coming into the craft at his entry shall pay the Alderman three shillings and every sanctuary man at his entry 12d and so yearly 12d.’ The problem of grithmen becoming ‘burgesses’ was a vexed question. In 1429 Master John Ellycarr (Ellerker) and Sir Henry Broomfleet sent a letter to the town listing 12 proposed burgesses. The town governors noted that the list included William Gele, a fisherman, and reacted violently saying that he was ‘a grithman and therefore cannot be admitted to the liberty nor any grithman for ever. They then ordered that no Burgess who was ‘a grithman’ should for the future carry on him any knife or dagger (except with blunt points), nor club, or short sword on pain of forfeiture of his burgesship for ever’. In 1460 two bailiffs again made their feelings clear as they wrote ‘no grithman be a burgess even though he have the royal charter. Any indicated for felony shall not have his liberty until he has cleared the said felony’. As the sanctuary rights were about to be curtailed in 1536 the new burgesses were required to take an oath and one can almost hear, ringing down the ages, a bold and truculent Yorkshire voice proclaiming ‘Thys swer that I am fre and no grithman!’