Sanctuary seekers came from all walks of life
Some were gentlemen, but the rest were ordinary people. Butchers, weavers, tailors, shoemakers and labourers were the most common trades. There were also husbandmen and yeomen.
On arrival at the Minster, the clerk of the court recorded the details of the person seeking sanctuary.
One of the clerks was called John Wright, a local fisher.
John Wright will tell you how people sought sanctuary at Beverley Minster.
But what had they been accused of?
Almost half the people seeking Sanctuary were accused of murder. Medieval society was far more violent than today. The murder rate is thought to have been 20 times higher than it is today. One reason is because weapons were more readily available as everyone carried their own personal knives. An argument could quickly escalate into something more serious. Like today some murders were planned. All kinds of people were involved in murders, even clergymen. Women were also very vulnerable. Viewed as a man’s property domestic violence was never challenged.
- Sir John Holland, the Minster’s most high profile Sanctuary Seeker. His half-brother was Richard II.
- William Adamson was out walking when he was attacked.
- Margaret Hall lived with her husband John Hall in York.
Elizabeth and Robert Beaumont
Elizabeth Beaumont was a gentlewoman from Hetton in West Yorkshire. She was rich and did not have to work. Robert was her relative perhaps her brother or son. He was a literatus or a learned person, like working in a university today. They sought sanctuary for killing Thomas Aldirlay of Almondbury. He lived near to them. We don’t know anything of the circumstances of the murder.
If they had not sought sanctuary, they would have been executed. Most likely Elizabeth would have been burned at the stake and Robert would have been hanged or beheaded. They were probably banished and went to live abroad.
The penalty for thefts over the value of 12d was death. About 10% of the people seeking sanctuary had been involved in some kind of theft. This included stealing from shops, robbing people on the road or stealing horses.
William Greene lived in Northampton. He broke into William Goughe’s shop and house. He stole some linen material, the equivalent of stealing some designer clothes today. He sought sanctuary in a local church and asked to seek sanctuary in Beverley.
He is not recorded as having arrived in Beverley. Perhaps he sneaked off on the journey and started to live quietly somewhere else.
Around 40% of sanctuary seekers were fleeing creditors. The debts owed varied from £5(£2500 today) to £100 (£50,000 today). Most of the debtors were butchers by profession. It is thought that this is because Beverley Minster was a centre for sheep and other livestock trades. People came to Beverley hoping they could stay and start a new life.
Protection from Others
Some sanctuary seekers came because they feared that they would be attacked. We have no idea if they had committed a crime or if they were afraid for some other reason.
A few people sought sanctuary for coining or forging money. This was considered a very serious crime and was considered to be treason as you were stealing from the King. If you were caught you would be hung, drawn and quartered – the most violent way to die.
The Evil Day Riots
On 25 May 1517 a man called Pollerd sought sanctuary on 25 May 1517 for debt. It appears that he was also accused of participation in the Evil Day Riots. These London riots were against immigrant traders who were living and trading in London under the King’s Protection. Locals saw the immigrants as impoverishing the native population and over a crowd of over 1000 people, mainly servants, apprentices and young men assembled in Cheapside. They freed men who had been imprisoned in Newgate jail for assaulting the traders and went on to attack houses in Leadenhall and beyond. Pollerd denied any involvement.
The Pilgrimage of Grace
In 1536 there was a rebellion Henry VIII to stop the dissolution of the monasteries that took place in Lincolnshire and the East Riding. The leader, William Stapleton, accused a local man, Barton of stealing from the stores. He was punished by being hauled under water and then banished from the rebel’s company. Barton is described as a Sanctuary man. It is likely that Barton had sought sanctuary and then stayed in the Beverley area. We don’t know why he initially sought sanctuary.
What happened to the Sanctuary Seekers?
After 40 days in the Minster Grithmen would go to meet the Coroner at the boundary of Beverley. They had several choices:
- Go to trial and accept the punishment, probably execution.
- Leave the Minster and become an outlaw. You lived outside of the law. If anyone killed you, they would not be punished.
- Be banished from England, known as abjuring. Abjurers went to the nearest port and got on the first boat leaving to start a new life abroad. By the 16th century abjurers would have an “A” branded on their thumb. This made it hard to settle in new countries. People knew they had confessed to a serious crime.
Beverley’s sanctuary area is exceptionally large, beginning two miles beyond the town. It is thought this enabled some people to stay and start a new life. It is likely that these would be debtors who would try to re-establish their trade.