The Commons debates Whitefriars, 1697

The following account of the Commons debate on the 1697 act abolishing the sanctuaries is taken from William Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, vol 5., London 1809, column 1161. From where he got his source material I don’t know. This piece is certainly written after the passing of the act, as it ends with the Alsatians fleeing the sanctuary (quite possible, but that is for another post).

Despite the brevity, there’s several notable points. It specifically makes a link to ‘Romish superstition’, implying a Catholic element to the mores and morals of the sanctuary dwellers. This may be an example of protestant paranoia of those heady times, but religious dissent is part of the history of Montague Close.

It also makes it clear that Whitefriars was the most notorious of the sanctuaries; that its inhabitants were debtors, under civil, rather than criminal, law; and that they were organized and actively resisting the law – truly, they were outlaws.

After Sir J. Fenwick’s business was over, the parliament, to the great satisfaction of the people, took care to remedy a Public Grievance of long standing. Several places in and about the city of London, which in the times of the Romish superstition, were allowed as sanctuaries to criminals and debtors, had ever since the Reformation, pretended a privilege to protect the latter; and one of these, called White Fryers, was become a notorious receptacle of broken and desperate men, in the very heart of the metropolis, whither they resorted in great numbers, and, to the dishonour of the government, and great prejudice of the people, defended themselves with force and violence against the law and public authority. This intolerable mischief the parliament redressed by an ‘Act for the more effectual relief of creditors in cases of escapes, and for preventing abuses in prisons and pretended privileged places’; wherein such effectual provision was made to reduce those outlaws, that, immediately after the act was published, they abandoned their posts to better inhabitants.

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