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Ecclesiastical Prisons and Royal Authority in the Reign of Henry VII



After his appointment as chief justice of King's Bench in 1495, John Fyneux pressured the ecclesiastical hierarchy through indictments for escapes which explored which officials had responsibility for the prisons and how they were managed, and thereby successfully asserted the royal right of oversight. By the end of Henry VII's reign his bishops, faced with ruinous fines like other lords, had largely accepted their role as gaolers under royal authority, and thus contributed to the bureaucratisation of the hierarchy which Henry VIII would exploit to such good effect.



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The research for this article was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.



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1 Dudley, Edmund, The tree of commonwealth, ed. Brodie, D. M., Cambridge 1948, 24.

2 Harrison, C. J., ‘The petition of Edmund Dudley’, EHR lxxxvii (1972), 8299.

3 Gunn, Steven, ‘Edmund Dudley and the Church’, this Journal li (2000), 509–26. Anthony Goodman suggests that Henry's faith was conventional in a more continental model: Henry vii and Christian renewal’, in Robbins, Keith (ed.), Religion and humanism (Studies in Church History xvii, 1981), 115–25.

4 Gunn, ‘Edmund Dudley’, 511. The classic debate over Henry's financial rapacity remains Elton, G. R., ‘Henry vii: rapacity and remorse’, HJ i (1958), 2139; Cooper, J. P., ‘Henry vii’s last years reconsidered’, HJ ii (1959), 103–29; and Elton, G. R., ‘Henry vii: a restatement’, HJ iv (1961), 129.

5 Dudley argues in his petition that ‘it were against reason and good conscience, these manner of Bondes should be Reputed as perfect debtes: for I think verily his [Henry's] inward mynde was never to vse them’: Harrision, ‘Petition’, 87. Gunn notes that while Dudley collected over £38,000 from the Church between 1504 and 1508, only a third was in cash and the rest was in the form of bonds: ‘Edmund Dudley’, 518.

6 Bacon, Francis, The history of the reign of King Henry VII, ed. Weinberger, Jerry, Ithaca 1996, 133.

7 McGlynn, Margaret, The royal prerogative and the learning of the Inns of Court, Cambridge 2003; Palmer, Robert, Selling the Church: the English parish in law, commerce and religion, 1350–1550, Chapel Hill, NC 2002.

8 Both the number of compurgators and their status could vary, but it was usually around a dozen, and they were usually clerics.

9 Statutes of the realm, London 1816, ii. 538.

10 Claimants are included for the year in which they claimed clergy rather than the year in which they escaped.

11 This was the same kind of process that Henry used against his secular servants, so it is not surprising to see him using it against a spiritual one. Langton had been a diplomat and a courtier under both Edward iv and Richard iii and was on the wrong side in 1485. On 6 October 1485 Henry granted custody of the temporalities of his see and of the bishop himself to Peter Courteney, bishop of Exeter, because of his ‘many rebellions’. A month later Langton was given a full pardon, but he did not resume his political career and seems to have spent the rest of his life in his diocese: The register of Thomas Langton, bishop of Salisbury, 1485–93, ed. Wright, D. P., Oxford 1985, p. xi.

12 Ibid. 66–7.

13 TNA, KB9/388 mem. 80; KB27/919 rex mem. 8.

14 TNA, KB9/395 mem. 26; KB27/926 rex mem. 11. By the late fifteenth century £100 seems to have been standard. The boke of justices of peas, London 1505 (RSTC 14862), Bi, says explicitly that the fine for an escape from a secular prison is 100s. and ‘yf ony persone convycte and in the pryson of the Ordinary’ escapes the fine is £100. Readings at the Inns of Court varied: Reading E says the escape of a clerk convict or attaint will cost the Ordinary £100, but Readings B, C and G reduce the bishop's liability in the case of a clerk convict: The rights and liberties of the English Church, ed. McGlynn, Margaret (Selden Society cxxix, 2015), 39, 14, 20, 54. The abbey probably paid the fine in instalments: a surviving bond from 1494 may be associated with this: Westminster Abbey Muniments 33088.

15 TNA, KB27/996 rex mem. 18.

16 TNA, KB9/402 mem. 22.

17 Thomas Kebell noted that the guardian in spiritualities was the Ordinary when the bishop was dead, but did not mention vacancies: Rights and liberties, 25.

18 TNA, KB27/936 rex mem. 7; KB27/939 rex mem. 4.

19 TNA, KB27/949 rex mem. 16. Langton appeared first in November 1498, but asked for a delay.

20 TNA, KB27/958 (Hil. 16 Hen. VII) in the fines section of the roll. The court said that it wished to be further advised on the fifth man.

21 TNA, KB27/939 rex mem. 4.

22 TNA, KB9/417 mem. 124.

23 TNA, KB9/417 mems 123, 124. The commission is dated 24 July 1498.

24 TNA, KB9/417 mem. 124; KB27/950 rex mem. 10.

25 TNA, KB27/952 rex mems 13, 14.

26 Fox was one of Henry vii’s closest advisors. Davies describes him as ‘a supremely competent statesman’ and an effective, if absent, bishop: C. S. L. Davies, ‘Fox, Richard’, ODNB, <>. By 1487 King was secretary to Henry vii and was largely an absentee bishop both of Exeter and of Bath and Wells, though Steven Gunn notes that he spent more time in his diocese after 1499: ‘King, Oliver’, ODNB, <>.

27 CPR Hen. VII, ii. 47 has the restoration of temporalities to King as the new bishop of Bath and Wells on 6 January 1496, but no record of a previous grant. In March 1498 King was pardoned for the escape of all clerks convict in his custody while he was bishop of Exeter: TNA, C66/581 mem. 24 (22); CPR Hen. VII, ii. 131.

28 The case was pushed off until Hilary term 1503 but then faded away without resolution. More than 90% of the clerks convicted in this period were laymen, and this may have contributed to Morton's willingness to make this argument.

29 The administration of a diocese sede vacante was an opportunity for profit for the metropolitan: Christopher Harper-Bill calculates that Norwich contributed £572 7s. 5d. to the archbishop's coffers between December 1499 and May 1500: The register of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury, 1486–1500, iii, Woodbridge 2000, 2. The archbishop of Canterbury had secured confirmations of his sede vacante rights from the pope as recently as 1494 and 1495, presumably in response to such grants as Henry's to Oliver King. The confirmation specifically recognised that the archbishops exercise great care in the foresaid churches and dioceses and incur great expense by their labours in visitation and the exercise of jurisdiction, and that he should receive the profit who bears the burden’: The register of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury, 1486–1500, i, ed. Harper-Bill, Christopher, Leeds 1987, 64.

30 TNA, KB9/433 mem. 9.

31 His argument was accompanied by a warrant from the king, in English, dated 6 November 1504, to accept his plea and discharge Bourchier for the escapes: TNA, KB27/974 rex mem. 6.

32 TNA, KB27/976 rex mem. 11. It was recorded in King's Bench in the summer of 1505.

33 YB Trin. 15 Hen. VII, p. 9, pl. 8; Robert Brooke, La Graunde Abridgement, London 1573 (RSTC 3827), Corone 53, cf. Corone 222.

34 McGlynn, The royal prerogative, 247–8.

35 YB Trin. 15 Hen. VII, p. 9, pl. 8.

36 TNA, KB27/930 rex mem. 7.

37 Rights and liberties, Reading B, 13. Reading A and E refer only to fresh suit, and Reading E argues that a sheriff shall not be liable for an escape if he has the accused available when he is required in court: Rights and liberties, 5, 44.

38 The case then fades from the records: TNA, KB9/431 mem. 24; KB27/993 rex mem. 10.

39 TNA, KB9/443 mem. 19.

40 TNA, KB27/993 rex mem. 18.

41 TNA, KB9/410 mem. 54.

42 TNA, KB9/410 mem. 53; KB27/941 rex mem. 8.

43 TNA, KB27/960 rex mem. 9.

44 Both were Cambridge men: Greybarn was a graduate of Clare College, admitted to his doctorate in 1470–1, Lupton of King's College, admitted to his doctorate in 1503–4: Emden, A. B., A biographical register of the University of Cambridge to 1500, Cambridge 1963, 268, 377.

45 The warrant is dated 3 December 1504 and is in English. Greybarn had died by February 1502: Emden, Biographical register, 268.

46 TNA, KB9/438 mem. 54; KB27/977 rex mem. 16.

47 TNA, KB27/978 rex mems 13–16.

48 Church was an experienced official: he spent time in the administration of Coventry and Lichfield, Lincoln, Rochester and Worcester, and was vicar-general to the absentee bishop of Bath and Wells: Reg. Morton, iii. 3.

49 TNA, KB9/438 mem. 54; KB27/977 rex mem. 16.

50 TNA, KB27/978 rex mem. 13.

51 TNA, KB27/978 rex mems 13–16.

52 TNA, KB27/978 rex mem. 13; KB27/978 rex mem. 16. Fuller was also convicted of two burglaries: KB27/978 rex mem. 14.

53 Cavill, P. R., ‘“The enemy of God and his Church”: James Hobart, praemunire, and the clergy of Norwich diocese’, Journal of Legal History xxxii/2 (2011), 127–50. Harper-Bill argues that after Morton's death Hobart carried out a ‘sustained campaign against ecclesiastical jurisdiction’, including praemunire proceedings, encouraging charges against clergy at quarter sessions and an attack on Bishop Nykke's probate jurisdiction: Reg. Morton, iii. 20. Steven Gunn notes that Hobart was replaced as attorney-general in July 1507 with no compensating promotion and in November he paid Dudley £533 6s. 8d. in cash for a pardon, suggesting that Hobart did not come out on top in the battle: Henry VII's new men and the making of Tudor England, Oxford 2016, 286. Cavill agrees with Ives that Hobart's resignation is probably not directly connected with the praemunire cases: ‘The enemy of God’, 147.

54 It is striking that two of the very few examples of pardons for clerks convict recorded in the patent rolls came from Norwich, Henry Denby in 1502 and John Parker in 1506: CPR Hen. VII, ii. 273, 466; Calendar of close rolls Henry VII, London 1963, ii. 42. It is tempting to speculate that in Parker's case at least Nykke's fight to prove the due purgation of these men in 1505 made him more concerned to have records of the legal exit of every clerk from his custody.

55 TNA, C66/600 mem. 17 (7); CPR Hen. VII, ii. 484. The pardon was dated at Westminster on 26 April 1506.

56 TNA, KB27/958 rex mem. 2; KB27/965 rex mem. 7; KB9/448 mem. 38; KB9/431 mem. 23; KB9/431 mem. 24; KB9/433 mem. 9; KB9/438 mem. 54; KB9/442 mem. 33; KB9/442 mem. 82. The bishop of Hereford was also pardoned for the escape of two men in 1499: CPR Hen. VII, ii. 154.

57 The register of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury, 1486–1500, II: Variae sede vacante, ed. Harper-Bill, Christopher, Woodbridge 1991, 1415.

58 Ibid. ii. 161–3.

59 Borthwick Institute, York, Abp Reg 26, fo. 74v. The commission noted that if there were objectors to the purgations the convicts should be returned to the prisons, which was standard procedure, so Bainbridge did intend to maintain the canonical process, even if the men in question would be released far sooner than normal.

60 For Fyneux see Gunn, ‘Edmund Dudley’, 524; he refers to Nykke's description of Hobart in ‘Edmund Dudley’, 516, and Cavill takes it as the title of his article on the praemunire proceedings against Nykke. It has been suggested that both Henries were less hostile to sanctuary than traditional accounts imply: Kaufman, Peter, ‘Henry vii and sanctuary’, Church History liii (1984), 465–76; McSheffrey, Shannon, Seeking sanctuary: crime, mercy and politics in English courts, 1400–1550, Oxford 2017. I will develop that argument and extend it to benefit of clergy in The king's felons (forthcoming).

61 The most recent iteration of the extensive literature on anti-clericalism began with Haigh, Christopher, ‘Anti-clericalism and the English Reformation’, History lxviii (1983), 391407. Haigh's characterisation of it as a ‘convenient fiction’ is challenged for the pre-Reformation period in Cavill, P. R., ‘Anticlericalism and the early Tudor parliament’, Parliamentary History xxxiv (2015), 1429.

62 Daniel Frederick Gosling outlines the increase in praemunire cases in the reign of Henry vii and Fyneux's involvement with them: ‘Church, State and Reformation: the use and interpretation of praemunire from its creation to the English break with Rome’, unpubl. PhD diss. Leeds 2016, 158–71.

63 Shagan, Ethan, Popular politics and the English Reformation, Cambridge 2003.

The research for this article was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Ecclesiastical Prisons and Royal Authority in the Reign of Henry VII



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