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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45 replies on “Introducing Alsatia”

  1. 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


    • There was another liberty in the county of Essex called Havering Liberty which had special exemptions for it’s inhabitants. Notably to have a private army of 100 volunteers to proctect itself. The London Borough in the Romford area recalls this ancient entity in it’s title.

  2. 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. 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. 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.

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

  5. 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

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

  7. 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!

    • 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]

  8. see
    www. qbca .org/anderson-mason [Dead link]
    for a compilation of Alsatia & Ram Alley information

  9. 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.

    • 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.


  10. trying to research liberty courts and ciurts in session. Can you guys help me with finding ‘old’ books on the subject. Cheers

  11. You are right – it is complex. My ancestors, the Mashbornes, lived two doors down from the George on Dogwell Court. After the death of her husband Edward, Elizabeth Nash Mashborne married Edward Lloyd of coffeehouse fame. The neighborhood in the 1690’s had many printers and the London home of Sir Henry Chauncey — so it, as least this street, could not have been as bad as later writers made it out to be.

  12. I am sorry and angry to learn that criminals in Whitefriars are called Alsatians. This is very humiliating for us Alsatians and specially for tourists Paul Adolf

  13. Hi Paul
    Perhaps this Wiki explanation may help… Alsatia [in London] was named after the ancient name for Alsace, Europe, which was itself outside legislative and juridical lines, and, therefore, they were literally places without law.

    Dont worry, there are a few rogue Andersons out there I’d like to remove from our family tree 🙂

  14. This is fascinating, as it ties in with some research of my own into someone by the name of Richard Halkett Lord (1843–1892). I’ve found the following mention of him:-
    ‘Lord was poor, and escaped the debtor’s law only by having a room at the Temple’ (Maurice Bassan. 1970. Hawthorne’s Son: the Life and Literary Career of Julian Hawthorne. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press), p. 106).
    Have you come across any evidence that one could ever ‘escape the debtor’s law […] by having a room in the Temple’, and that this right of sanctuary was still being exercised in the 1870s, the legislation of the 1690s notwithstanding?

    • The status of the Temple eludes me at the moment. I think the area was, and still is, a ‘liberty’ with certain rights in regard to the City of London, and an extra-parochial area, outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. The legal communities based within it may also have had some professional rights, not to mention the means and knowledge to fight their case in court. Yet it does not seem to have been a debtors’ sanctuary to all-comers, as its neighbour Whitefriars did, and was not listed in the 1697 act.

      Two incidents I have found, relating to its status: a riot in 1669 against the Lord Mayor claiming it to be in his jurisdiction:
      and a court case from around 1697/8 arising from a rescue from the bailiffs:

      I’m very surprised at the date you mention, the 1870s. Sanctuary was generally taken to avoid prison, and incarceration for (civil) debt was abolished in 1868. Was there some other element involved, a charge of fraud for example?


  15. Thanks for responding so promptly. Your thoughts coincide with mine about the status of the Temple.
    Thanks, too, for reminding me that incarceration for civil debt was abolished in 1868. It was probably bells ringing about that which made me think that the statement was odd in the first place.
    I have no further information about the debt which obliged Lord to have ‘a room in the Temple’ in order to ‘escape the debtor’s Law’. All I’ve got is what I quoted. Bassan does not state what the source of his information is.

  16. My ancestor Elizabeth Mashborne owned a house on Dogwell Street in the late 1600’s/early 1700’s. Form the tax rolls it appears that she lived close to Sir Henry Chancy, a Sgt-at-Arms at the Temple, and to William Bowyer (the famous printer) who bought the building that once housed the George Tavern. Can anyone tell me the exact location of the George? Much later it was the offices of the publishers of Punch Magazine.

  17. I also had never heard of Alsacia. Why is this? I only looked it up after reading a mention of it in G M Trevelyan’s English Social History, 1944. (bought for 50centimos in a charity shop- bargain). He says”The privileged sanctuary of outlaws in ‘Alsacia’, so outrageous to the dignity of the neighbouring lawyers at the Temple, had indeed been abolished a few years before Anne came to the throne, (in 1702) but the fraternity of thieves, highwaymen and harlots had only been scattered….” over London. There is no note as to where he found his evidence for this and no bibliography as this was a book designed for the general public. Bibliographies seem to be more used today thank goodness.

  18. Dear John,

    Interested to see one of the questions you had when your PhD group talked at Senate House asked if there were many ordinary people living in Alsatia during its sanctuary period. With my Whitefriars connection, I had the same feeling. Has anyone done any extensive study of the St Brides Rates of the period?

    • There are tax records for the four shillings in the pound aid for Whitefriars:
      which I have looked at. There’s a Widow Winter in there, which makes me wonder if that could be Francis Winter’s wife. But such taxes and rates would only apply to a small part of the population.

      The question of ‘ordinary people’ is a difficult one, even beyond asking who is ordinary. Indeed, given the inevitability of debt, a debtor can be as ordinary, as majority a situation, as one can get.

      In the sense that Alsatia and the Mint were especially attractive to people immediately threatened with imprisonment for debt, I would hazard a guess that they would make up the majority of the room- or bed- renting population, and the numbers on the relief list for the Mint in 1723 (circa 6,100 for quite a small area) support that.

      But at the same time, there was still an everyday life going on, of eating and drinking, making and selling, and so on.

      Still scratching my head over this. Thank you for the thought-provoking comment.


  19. My ancestors appear to be ordinary people. Elizabeth Mashborne married Edward Lloyd of coffeehouse fame and keep her Whitefriars house for several years at least. She later sold it to Jonathan Swift’s cousin. Next door was Willima Bowyer, England most famous printer. And several doors down was Sir Henry Chauncey. I don’t see how the neighborhood could have been THAT bad.

    • I think Whitefriars was quite well-to-do before the Great Fire, and after the abolition of sanctuary in 1697 recovered quite quickly. The printing industry set up there, and a famed glass makers too (which may have benefited from less stringent measures on pollution due to Whitefriars remaining as a liberty, even stripped of immunities against prosecution for debt).

      And the landlords did well during Whitefriars’ period as debtor refuge; an indication of a certain sort of normality.

      As per my reply to Ted Hill below, I’m still thinking about the ordinary and everyday aspects of life in the sanctuaries.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Ned Ward’s account of Whitefriars and Salisbury Court just after their abolition as sanctuaries

  20. I’m currently reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Near the beginning of Book the Second, Whitefriars is mentioned, and the footnote states that it is ‘also known as Alsatia’ which in turn led me to this page. Very interesting. I know a little of the history of Alsace, as I spent an academic year in Strasbourg 16 years ago.

  21. I know I’m late to the party. But, I thought I’d mention that HG Wells talks about Alsatia or Alsatias as a way to get rid of prison. In “A Modern Utopia” he says:
    “No doubt for first offenders, and for all offenders under five-and-twenty, the Modern Utopia will attempt cautionary and remedial treatment. There will be disciplinary schools and colleges for the young, fair and happy places, but with less confidence and more restraint than the schools and colleges of the ordinary world. In remote and solitary regions these enclosures will lie, they will be fenced in and forbidden to the common run of men, and there, remote from all temptation, the defective citizen will be schooled. There will be no masking of the lesson; “which do you value most, the wide world of humanity, or this evil trend in you?” From that discipline at last the prisoners will return.
    But the others; what would a saner world do with them?
    Our world is still vindictive, but the all-reaching State of Utopia will have the strength that begets mercy. Quietly the outcast will go from among his fellow men. There will be no drumming of him out of the ranks, no tearing off of epaulettes, no smiting in the face. The thing must be just public enough to obviate secret tyrannies, and that is all.
    There would be no killing, no lethal chambers. No doubt Utopia will kill all deformed and monstrous and evilly diseased births, but for the rest, the State will hold itself accountable for their being. There is no justice in Nature perhaps, but the idea of justice must be sacred in any good society. Lives that statesmanship has permitted, errors it has not foreseen and educated against, must not be punished by death. If the State does not keep faith, no one will keep faith. Crime and bad lives are the measure of a State’s failure, all crime in the end is the crime of the community. Even for murder Utopia will not, I think, kill.
    I doubt even if there will be jails. No men are quite wise enough, good enough and cheap enough to staff jails as a jail ought to be staffed. Perhaps islands will be chosen, islands lying apart from the highways of the sea, and to these the State will send its exiles, most of them thanking Heaven, no doubt, to be quit of a world of prigs. The State will, of course, secure itself against any children from these people, that is the primary object in their seclusion, and perhaps it may even be necessary to make these island prisons a system of island monasteries and island nunneries. Upon that I am not competent to speak, but if I may believe the literature of the subject — unhappily a not very well criticised literature — it is not necessary to enforce this separation. [Footnote: See for example Dr. W. A. Chapple’s The Fertility of the Unfit.]
    About such islands patrol boats will go, there will be no freedoms of boat building, and it may be necessary to have armed guards at the creeks and quays. Beyond that the State will give these segregated failures just as full a liberty as they can have. If it interferes any further it will be simply to police the islands against the organisation of serious cruelty, to maintain the freedom of any of the detained who wish it to transfer themselves to other islands, and so to keep a check upon tyranny. The insane, of course, will demand care and control, but there is no reason why the islands of the hopeless drunkard, for example, should not each have a virtual autonomy, have at the most a Resident and a guard. I believe that a community of drunkards might be capable of organising even its own bad habit to the pitch of tolerable existence. I do not see why such an island should not build and order for itself and manufacture and trade. “Your ways are not our ways,” the World State will say; “but here is freedom and a company of kindred souls. Elect your jolly rulers, brew if you will, and distil; here are vine cuttings and barley fields; do as it pleases you to do. We will take care of the knives, but for the rest — deal yourselves with God!”
    And you see the big convict steamship standing in to the Island of Incurable Cheats. The crew are respectfully at their quarters, ready to lend a hand overboard, but wide awake, and the captain is hospitably on the bridge to bid his guests good-bye and keep an eye on the movables. The new citizens for this particular Alsatia, each no doubt with his personal belongings securely packed and at hand, crowd the deck and study the nearing coast. Bright, keen faces would be there, and we, were we by any chance to find ourselves beside the captain, might recognise the double of this great earthly magnate or that, Petticoat Lane and Park Lane cheek by jowl. The landing part of the jetty is clear of people, only a government man or so stands there to receive the boat and prevent a rush, but beyond the gates a number of engagingly smart-looking individuals loiter speculatively. One figures a remarkable building labelled Custom House, an interesting fiscal revival this population has made, and beyond, crowding up the hill, the painted walls of a number of comfortable inns clamour loudly. One or two inhabitants in reduced circumstances would act as hotel touts, there are several hotel omnibuses and a Bureau de Change, certainly a Bureau de Change. And a small house with a large board, aimed point-blank seaward, declares itself a Gratis Information Office, and next to it rises the graceful dome of a small Casino. Beyond, great hoardings proclaim the advantages of many island specialities, a hustling commerce, and the opening of a Public Lottery. There is a large cheap-looking barrack, the school of Commercial Science for gentlemen of inadequate training….
    Altogether a very go-ahead looking little port it would be, and though this disembarkation would have none of the flow of hilarious good fellowship that would throw a halo of genial noise about the Islands of Drink, it is doubtful if the new arrivals would feel anything very tragic in the moment. Here at last was scope for adventure after their hearts.
    This sounds more fantastic than it is. But what else is there to do, unless you kill? You must seclude, but why should you torment? All modern prisons are places of torture by restraint, and the habitual criminal plays the part of a damaged mouse at the mercy of the cat of our law. He has his little painful run, and back he comes again to a state more horrible even than destitution. There are no Alsatias left in the world. For my own part I can think of no crime, unless it is reckless begetting or the wilful transmission of contagious disease, for which the bleak terrors, the solitudes and ignominies of the modern prison do not seem outrageously cruel. If you want to go so far as that, then kill. Why, once you are rid of them, should you pester criminals to respect an uncongenial standard of conduct? Into such islands of exile as this a modern Utopia will have to purge itself. There is no alternative that I can contrive.”

    • Thanks for this – was quite unaware of it.
      I’ve a hunch that, if not quite the sanctuaries, then the ‘Rules’, the areas outside some prisons where inmates, for a price, were allowed to live, fed into ideas of prison reform, such as ‘open prisons’, the first of which was established in 1933. This piece suggests there might be some mileage in the idea.


  22. I recently became aware of the word Alsatia from a song made by a Japanese metal band, Garneryus’ “Alsatia”. The lyrics tell the story well enough to drive me to learn more about the place. Wonderful that I found this website!

  23. Last post? Doubt it. Too fascinating a subject.
    Note that Alsatia is the Birthplace that Hugh Walpole gives to his 17th century protagonist Katherine Christian in the last (sadly unfinished) Herries novel.
    Was it from a love of Walter Scott mentioned above?

  24. Any chance you might know of a printer named Thomas Childe (possibly Childe) of Dogwell Court, Whitefriars at the time of the Great Fire 1666? It would be of value to know whether his address is within ‘Alsatia’ – and what the hell he was doing there when most printers were further east around Little Britain, Aldersgate and near the river in Thames Street. Any information you can offer will be mightily appreciated. Great Site by the way.

  25. Thanks for all your efforts putting this website together. You’ve really saved me a shedload of time – esp trying to locate 18th Century Irish statutes. I’m going to find this invaluable in the next few months for the research I’m doing – really, really useful!

    With best wishes


  26. Reading ExLibris by Ross King came across the name but can see his research lacked a bit or was just writers…

  27. I am in charge of the Fleet Street Heritage project, which has so far produced 50 information panels and web pages about the people, places, newspapers and ideas which have shaped Fleet Street. I have been very interested in Alsatia, and I am looking for someone to write a 500 to 700 word article about it, which would obviously list this excellent website as a source or for further reading. Would you, John, or someone else in this community be wiling to do this. We pay an honorarium of £100 per page. It would obviously be much better e to have someone steeped in Alsatia doing it.

  28. Many thanks for your excellent website. I am hoping that you might be able to help me with regard to some research I am doing.

    The starting point is a trial held at the Old Bailey on 28 August 1685 of John Collins (subsequently found to be mis-transcribed – it’s actually John Cozins) who ‘was indicted of a Misdemeanor, for that he, with one George Shipside, not yet taken, did conspire to poison Thomas Plume Dr of Divinity’.

    My interest is with George Shipside who was a relative by marriage of Dr Plume. What remains of the trial papers are in the London Met Archives but don’t shed much additional light on this case unfortunately.

    George Shipside was a member of the Grocers’ Company and was imprisoned at least once for debt in the late 1670s. He later ran a coffee houses in the parish of St Mary Woolnoth and St Margaret Lothbury. By 1692 he was resident in Ram Alley – the significance of which I had not appreciated until I found your website! He ran a coffee house there until at least 1699.

    My questions are these:
    The trial record says that George Shipside is ‘not yet taken’. Would his residence in Whitefriars have given him immunity from criminal prosecution as well as preventing him being arrested for debt?
    In March 1699 the overseers of the poor in the parish of St Dunstan in the West which covered Whitefriars secured a removal order for George Shipside and his family to the parish of St Margaret Lothbury where he claimed residence having rented a property there for over a year for more than £10. Although this was contested it would appear that the family were at some stage physically removed to St Margaret Lothbury, even though they may then have returned to Whitefriars. Additionally a Chancery Case in 1706 makes it clear that George Shipside no longer runs the coffee house in Ram Alley, although where he was living is not made clear. If he were to go outside the precincts of Whitefriars, why is it that he never seems to have been arrested for the attempted poisoning? Were the authorities simply not equipped to keep track of people some time after an offence had been committed?

    Any thoughts you might have on these questions or pointers for further research would be much appreciated.
    Best wishes

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