Was ever such impudence suffer’d in a Government? Ireland‘s Conquer’d: Wales Subdu’d: Scotland United: But there are some few spots of ground in London, just in the face of the Government, unconquer’d yet, that hold in Rebellion still. Methinks ’tis strange, that places so near the Kings Palace should be no parts of his Dominions: ‘Tis a shame to the Societies of the law to Countenance such Practices: Should any place be shut against the Kings Writ or Posse Comitatus?
Thomas Shadwell, The Squire of Alsatia, 1688.
In the seventeenth century, there existed, just outside the walls of the City of London, in the ward of Farringdon Without, from Fleet Street down to the banks of the Thames, between the Temple and St Brides, an area famed and feared for its lawlessness. This was the ‘sanctuary’ or ‘liberty’ of Whitefriars, colloquially known as Alsatia, named after Alsace, then undergoing the depredations of the Thirty Years War.
Following the dissolution of the Carmelite order that gave Whitefriars its name, the jurisdiction of this territory had become unclear. Ownership was uncertain; the authorities responsible for the area after the reformation ill-defined; and the entitlements attached to the monastery may not have disappeared with the monks. Most importantly, the right of ‘sanctuary’ was still a part of the law, and this area could still apparently grant immunity from arrest.
The charter granted in 1608 by King James I to the inhabitants of Whitefriars appeared to acknowledge a certain measure of self-government, and so it soon became populated with the criminalised, especially debtors seeking refuge from bailiffs. Notoriety followed, as tales of murderers hiding out and mobs repulsing sheriffs spread. It was not until 1697 that legislation and raids put an end to Alsatia. But even after that, there were still places in London that claimed to be outside the purview of the authorities.
Alsatia was not the only anomalous territory in London; there had been a number of religious spaces within the City granting sanctuary, many of which had been thrown into doubt with the reformation. There were liberties, where the residents had special privileges and exemptions, and peculiars governed by outside authorities. There were also ‘Mints’ around the Tower of London and in Southwark. Houses of detention such as Bridewell, Newgate and The Clink on the south bank had special positions within the legal system right into the nineteenth century. And suburbs deliberately grew up outside the walls to escape the powers of the City but benefit from the opportunities it offered. As London grew, it encompassed fields and pastures that had common rights attached to them.
This combination of overlapping authorities and customary rights opened up quasi-autonomous spaces, of which Alsatia is the most famous to the point that the word has entered the English language.
Yet little is known of it, or any of these places. The idea it represents is vague and ill-defined. Extravagant claims for criminality or intoxicating suggestions of pure anarchy are often made, but nearly always in passing, and rarely sourced. The main authority for these is often Walter Scott’s novel The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), written over a century after the fact and in fictionalised form. Exciting and witty as it is, the picaresque aspect obscures what is truly important about Alsatia: the inhabitants, their community, their politics, their everyday lives and their independant spirit. For as Shadwell says, whilst countries may be subdued and conquered, people can hold in rebellion still.
There is a great deal to learn about Alsatia and similar places. The project here is to gather the documents and materials, analyse them and seek to understand the part it played in the making of London.