Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Abjuration and Its Demise: The Changing Face of Royal Justice in the Tudor Period

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Abjuration and Its Demise: The Changing Face of Royal Justice in the Tudor Period

Article excerpt

Sanctuary and abjuration of the realm, frequent topics in medieval chronicles, have not been entirely ignored by modern studies. Much of this work, however, has tended to focus on their demise under the early Tudors and to treat them as flash points in the conflict between church and state; scant attention has been paid to the social significance of these two long-lived customs.(1) This paper offers a partial corrective with a study of the practice, function and meaning of abjuration in the Tudor period. Furthermore, the restoration of this custom to its place in the history of law and order affords new insight into the reasons for its passing. Abjuration emerges as a cultural artifact that reflected contemporary assumptions about justice and mercy; its decline suggests that these assumptions were transformed over the Tudor period.

Abjuration of the realm was the usual result of sanctuary seeking. A combination of voluntary exile and banishment, it offered life to felons who might otherwise have earned death on the gallows. By law and custom, a felon in medieval England might take refuge for up to forty days in any church. At some point within this time, the coroner was summoned. The offender was to confess his or her wrongdoing to the coroner and swear to leave the country, never to return without the king's special license. Thomas Parker, for example, fled to a church in Leicester on 19 June 1527. When the two city coroners arrived, he told them, "I haue strykyn ... Thomas Otfield & gaff hym the wound wherof he died & therefor I, the seid Thomas Parker, clayme and aske this seyntuary for the saluacion of my lyff." Upon his oath to leave the king's dominions, he was sent to the port at Boston to find his passage.(2) If, on the other hand, the offender refused to abjure or to submit to royal officials, he or she was starved out of the church upon the termination of the forty day respite. A few monasteries with special charters provided indefinite sanctuary to offenders who reached their gates; here, no abjuration was necessary.(3) James VI/I saw both forms of sanctuary finally and fully abolished.(4) The parliaments of Henry VIII, however, passed laws that were a watershed for both permanent sanctuary and abjuration, and in effect caused the demise of the latter.

The story of abjuration has largely been subsumed under that of the permanent sanctuaries, and has received little attention of its own. R.F. Hunnisett has perhaps done the most to bring this element of medieval and early modern society to light. As a facet of his pioneering work on coroners, Hunnisett published a collection of medieval abjuration records taken from the coroners' rolls.(5) These detailed rolls died out, however, during the fifteenth century. The occasional submission from coroners, solicited by writ, made its way into the King's Bench indictment files. Only in the last quarter of the fifteenth century did coroners' records begin to appear in the central court files with any regularity: a law passed in 1487 required coroners to produce accounts of their inquests on sudden deaths for the justices of gaol delivery.(6) Although the crown never required coroners to submit any other records, those of the abjurations they supervised did begin to appear next to the inquests. Hunnisett published translations of the eleven Sussex abjuration accounts that survive from the reigns of Henry VII and his son.(7) These he offered up to illustrate the work of the coroner and to supplement the story of sanctuary's decline as it had previously been mapped out from the relevant parliamentary acts. This paper follows his example. The King's Bench files were searched for all abjuration records returned from all areas of England between 1485 and 1545. Select files from subsequent years were examined as well. One hundred and ninety records, describing the abjuration of 212 individuals, were found.(8)

This collection provides a good basis for a discussion of the practice, function, and meaning of abjuration in the early Tudor period. …

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