Retro: Harsh punishment for medieval cattle thief

William le Freeman met Henry le Netdriver of Wansford on the bridge at Thrapston, driving four oxen, four steers and four heifers
William le Freeman met Henry le Netdriver of Wansford on the bridge at Thrapston, driving four oxen, four steers and four heifers
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Criminals used to have the choice of leaving the country instead of facing punishment for their deeds.

Here Neil Busby from Thrapston District Historical Society looks at the case of one particular thief from Aldwincle.

St James' Church, Thrapston, where William le Freeman sought sanctuary and confessed to being a thief

St James' Church, Thrapston, where William le Freeman sought sanctuary and confessed to being a thief

“Thrapston 1316. Christmas had been duly celebrated.

The townsfolk were back in their routine when suddenly there was something new to talk about.

William le Freeman of Aldwincle had sought sanctuary in St James’ Church, Thrapston, and confessed to being a thief.

The Coroner, Henry de Tichemers, heard his confession on January 11, which was made before representatives of the parishes of Thrapston, Titchmarsh, Clopton and Thorpe Achurch.

William had met Henry le Netdriver of Wansford one day between Christmas and New Year’s day, on the bridge at Thrapston, driving four oxen, four steers and four heifers.

Together they took the beasts to Higham Ferrers where William sold them in the market.

Unfortunately for William, the customer for the four oxen was the bailiff of the Earl of Lancaster, John del Honynton.

Perhaps he made inquiries, suspecting these two characters might be cattle thieves.

In any case, the theft was discovered.

William could not face the certain punishment of hanging, and chose instead to seek sanctuary.

In doing so he saved his life but lost everything else.

After confessing his crime William had to abjure the realm in the following words:

“I, William le Freeman, for the crime of stealing which I have committed, will quit this realm of England, never more to return, except by the leave of the Kings of England or their heirs, so help me God and His Saints.”

He was directed to leave the country via Dover.

Once sanctuary had been sought a fugitive was the responsibility of that parish, which had to feed him until he left for the coast.

It was a serious offence to interfere with a sanctuary seeker.

William’s possessions were valued at 4s 2½p and were confiscated.

The township of Thrapston was accountable to the Abbot of Peterborough for the value of William’s belongings.

No doubt a small crowd gathered to watch William leave Thrapston on the first stage of his journey to the coast.

He will have been dressed in a long white robe, bareheaded and carrying a wooded cross.

He was not allowed to stay more than one night in any one place.

He must never leave the King’s Highway and had to report to the constable at each stopping place, who was bound to provide him with food and shelter.

You may be sure that some of the good people of Thrapston made sure he obeyed the rules while he was within their parish.

If at any point on his journey he should leave the road and abscond, the people of that parish would be held responsible and fined for allowing the escape.

Arriving at Dover, he awaited a vessel to take him to France.

Every day he had to go waist-deep into the water as a sign that he was willing to leave the country as soon as a ship was available.

We do not know how William fared after transportation, nor do we know what befell his partner in crime, Henry le Netdriver.

In 1540 Henry VIII reduced the number of places allowed to give sanctuary to seven: Wells, Westminster, Northampton, Chester, York, Derby and Launceston.

An Act of Parliament in 1623 finally abolished “seeking sanctuary for a crime” as a way of avoiding punishment.”