1693: Francis Winter, at the Whitefriars sanctuary

Add comment May 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1693, Francis Winter was executed for the murder of a London sheriff.

Winter’s hanging takes us back to the last days (in England) of a queer old institution: sanctuary. Dating to centuries before the Norman conquest, this privilege of holy places to confer legal immunity upon fugitives was well into its dotage. In principle and sometimes in practice, a fellow could once upon a time frustrate the pursuit of the law by reaching such a sanctuary. However, most legally recognized sanctuaries had been eliminated with the Reformation.

Among the last of their breed was a dubious district between Fleet Street and the Thames, known as Whitefriars after the Carmelite monastery that had also germinated its zone of sanctuary. Though the Carmelites had been expelled in the 16th century and the right of sanctuary for criminals abolished in general during the 1620s, still Whitefriars held onto this association through the 17th century, gradually accumulating civil refugees such as debtors and an accompanying red light district bustling with taverns, brothels, thieves, and other accoutrements of the urban underbelly.*

This interesting place would come to be nicknamed “Alsatia”, tribute to the continental frontierlands between France and Germany which was controlled at the time by neither and thus perceived as lawless, and its reputation earned a literary profile to match: playwright Thomas Shadwell had a 1688 hit with his cant-heavy** portrayal of Whitefriars rogues (with evocative names like Cheatley, Shamwell, and Scrapeall) in The Squire of Alsatia.


Whitefriars retained its shady reputation long after the end of sanctuary: In William Hogarth‘s 1747 Industry and Idleness prints, the gallows-bound “Idle ‘Prentice” is seized by the authorities at a dive in the district’s Hanging Sword Alley. (Meanwhile, a murdered body is dumped into the cellar in the background.)

By this late date, “sanctuary” was a fading custom and was for that reason defended all the more vigorously by its claimants — all of whom shared a desperate interest in the crown’s maintaining a hands-off policy in “Alsatia”.

“The libertines, the rogues, and the rascals, who frequented its purlieus and committed abuses and outrages on peaceable citizens, made it a notorious place of criminal resort,” one history observes. “Bailiffs and officers of the law were afraid to enter its precincts to serve warrants or make executions.”

Our man Francis Winter was one of these fugitives bold enough to strike fear into the officers of the law.

In 1691, the Temple attempted to seal a gate connecting to Whitefriars. The Alsatians resisted this impediment to their movement, and when sheriffs showed up to control the situation the resistance turned into an outright riot. A lawman named John Chandlor was fatally shot in the fray.

This near-insurrection was far too much disturbance for a state whose tolerance for an open thieves’ district was very near its end. After some months evading arrest, Francis Winter would hang on May 17, 1693 for leading the angry mob. (He may or may not have personally pulled the trigger that killed Chandlor; given the chaotic situation, even contemporaries weren’t sure about it.)

Winter was a Cornish former ship’s captain who had commanded a vessel in England’s war against the Dutch a generation earlier; according to the Newgate Ordinary, Winter had then “behaved himself with a great deal of Candor and Courage.” Financial ruin later in life had driven him to Whitefriars where evidently he still retained the knack for leadership. Despite his offense against the public peace, Winter earned the Ordinary’s regard for accepting his sentence with pious equanimity.

Perhaps in respect for this frame of mind — or more probably, the better to orchestrate the demonstrative spectacle of an execution at the very gates of Whitefriars — Winter was reprieved from a May 8 mass hanging at Tyburn by Queen Mary II. (King William III was away, warring on France.) Then, upon the 17th,

he was put into a Coach at Newgate Stairs, and from thence Conveyed down Old Baily, and over Fleet-Bridge, to the Fryars Gate, in the way to which place, there were several Thousands of Spectators, who thronged to see him, when the Cart was settled under the Gibbet, and he put into it, (which was Erected there on purpose) he stood up, and spake as follows: I have no Publick Declaration to make here, my Thoughts being wholly taken up in the Concerns of my Eternal Welfare, for that is the Work that I am come here to do: Therefore I desire that I may not be interrupted. Then the Minister Prayed with him, and for him, and Recommended him to the Mercy of God, Etc.

The right of sanctuary was fully abolished in 1697.

* One notable denizen was the writer Daniel Defoe, who sought relief from his debts in Whitefriars in 1692.

** Including such charmers as “ready, cole and rhino for money; putt for one who is easily cheated; clear for very drunk; meggs for guineas; smelts for half-guineas; tatts and the doctors for false dice.” (Jonathon Green, The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang) One can read the play here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Rioting

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