On 16 April 1697 King William III of England gave his Royal Assent to a Bill just passed by his Whiggish Parliament, thereby making illegal a custom of very long standing in the history of English law and convention. During the Middle Ages the practice of imprisonment for debt had come into being through statutory enactments and through judicial procedure; parallel to it had grown the use of so-called ‘privileged places’, refuges to which delinquent debtors could flee and evade arrest for debt. While imprisonment for debt persisted as a legal process in England until the middle of the nineteenth century, sanctuary for debtors was legally abolished by this Act of 1697. That this Act was passed by a Whig-dominated Parliament is not without significance, for a substantial element in the Whig Party was the mercantile interest, the group most likely to suffer damage by the flight of debtors to these places of refuge.
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