Introducing Alsatia

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.

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More about this project

14 Responses to Introducing Alsatia

  1. Ted Hill says:

    Very interested to come across your website. Have been trying for years to find out more about Whitefriars. My 5 x great grandfather was christened at St Brides in 1714 and lived somewhere in Whitefriars. I have found a lot about him from 1743 on but nothing about his time in Whitefriars.

    Keep up the good work

    Ted

  2. bryan raper says:

    I came across the name by reading a noval The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn
    this is an excelent noval. I lived in London for years loved the History visited areas when i could .Did not know of this area wish i did when i lived there.
    Thanks Bryan.

  3. Barbara Parsons says:

    I am an avid doer of crosswords, and have come across the clue “Alsatia or Alsace” several times and have wondered what it was. Only now have I checked up and was fascinated to find out the facts about this generally little known place. Thank you for this very interesting article.

  4. I’m thrilled to find this site! I’ve been hoping to find out more about Alsatia for ages. Now I’ve got my Bank Holiday reading sorted. Can’t wait.

  5. Errol Anderson says:

    Hi, this helps put together the family puzzle.
    Ram Alley is where my GGGG-Grandfather George Mason was born in 1781 then christened at St Dunstan in the West. He married Mary Ann Satchell of Marylebone.

    There have been 3 plays (2 comedies) written about Ram Alley in the 1600′s.

    Hopefully by 1781 the area was a little more reputable :-)

    A very interesting area of London.

    • John says:

      Happy that this is of interest to you!
      I will be writing about Ram Alley at greater length, when time allows.

  6. Barry Slade says:

    I recently learnt about Alsatia from a book first published in 1931 – London Memories by St John Adcock with illustrations by Frederick Adcock , published by Hodder and Stoughton. It is a history of London written from a literary perspective and includes authors which are lesser known to the general public such as Dekker and Shirley. Alsatia is covered on pages 111 to 120 with much reference to Shadwell’s “The Squire of Alsatia”. There are a number of copies available on ABE books in the £5 to £10 range.You might want to include it in your Bibliography. I was delighted to find your site to get further information on the subject.

    Barry Slade

  7. Alsatia Thompson says:

    Just came across this site while randomly googling my name! Very interesting!

  8. Fascinating material, John. This is a brilliant topic for a PhD: complex and multi-faceted but also clearly defined and limited.

    If you, like me, are a bit obsessive when it comes to finding previous secondary sources, I’d just mention that I’ve wrote a couple pages about the Minters in the first decade of the 18th century in my book: God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660-1720 (2012), pp. 218-19. Obviously you know much more about this than I do, but my main point is that they should be seen as an exaggerated version of many others forms of local ‘economic community’ such as common land and tax riots.

    Good luck with the project!

    • John says:

      Thanks very much for the comment! Your book is on my to-read list, that great scroll of hopes dependent on the other readers in the British Library. Work on the list of Minters who applied for amnesty suggests that there was a very particular economic community – the weavers of the East End – at the heart of the Southwark sanctuary.

      Added Many Headed Monster to my list of links as well – great blog.

      • Interesting to hear that the weavers were important here. I’m also quite interested in the silk-weavers protests about calicoes in the 1690s to 1720s.

        If you’d like, I could send you a pdf of the proofs of my book. Just email me at [email redacted]

  9. Errol Anderson says:

    see
    http://www.qbca.org/anderson-mason
    for a compilation of Alsatia & Ram Alley information

  10. Colin says:

    Hello, very interesting article, I’ve read a few on this subject and one aspect of this arrangement still eludes me is to how it worked in practice. Were the debtors etc safe as long as they stayed within the bounds of the liberty or was it a case of as long as they technically lived there, they could venture safely to areas outside the liberty knowing they were protected. Otherwise I have a picture of criminals venturing out to Fleet Street or wherever constantly looking over their shoulder and getting into a race with the local law back to the liberty every time they were spotted.

    • John says:

      As far as I understand it, those debtors in the sanctuaries were only safe within those areas. There the bailiffs feared to tread. Outside their Alsatias, the debtors were vulnerable, save on Sundays when the bailiffs didn’t work. Those debtors confined to the ‘Rules’ of the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons, those areas outside the prison walls that inmates could pay to reside in, were confined to those zones and leaving was an offence in itself, but temporary permission to leave the Rules could be granted by the authorities. There’s talk of criminals – as opposed to debtors – taking advantage of the different jurisdictions within London and escaping into areas like St Martin’s Le Grand or Ely Place, but I’m not sure to what extent. Certainly, that practice was widely curtailed by the reformation and I haven’t found any examples for the post Civil War period.

      John

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