From Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 1-21.

stylized border engraving of vases and interlacing vines [1]

The Right of Sanctuary

manuscript letter A PLACE where criminals and political offenders could find refuge was called a Sanctuary. It is generally agreed that in this country the privilege of sanctuary was instituted on the recognition of Christianity. From an early time down to the days of Henry VIII., fugitives were safe for certain periods in all the churches and churchyards of the land.

The origin of the usage is extremely remote. Most probably it existed among the Israelites before Moses gave directions for the establishment of cities of refuge, when the children of Israel settled in the Promised Land. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and American Indians had their places of refuge.


In England the laws respecting this subject are both numerous and curious. A code of laws made in the year 693 by Ina, King of the West Saxons, contains a recognition of the right of sanctuary. It is therein stated that, if any one accused of a capital offence takes refuge in a church, his life shall be spared, but the criminal is directed to make compensation for his crime. It the guilty one deserved stripes, they were not to be inflicted. According to Alfred the Great’s laws of the year 887, those guilty of slight offences were allowed to flee to a church, and there remain for three nights. Thus time was given them to compound for their misdemeanours, or to make suitable provision for their safety. Stringent measures were taken to guard against the violation of the sanctuary. The person who violated the sanctuary and inflicted bonds, blows, or wounds upon the refugee, had to pay the price set upon his life, and to the officiating ministers of the church, one hundred an twenty shillings, which was a large sum in those days. “If a criminal,” says the Rev. J. R. Boyle, F.S.A., in a carefully prepared paper on this theme, “fled to a church, no one should drag him thence within the space of seven days, if he could live so long 3 without food, and had not attempted to force his way out. If the clergy had occasion to hold service in the church whilst the refugee was there, they might keep him in some house which had no more doors than the church had.”

The law of sanctuary was clearly defined in the year 1070 by William the Conqueror. The privilege of sanctuary was only temporary, and during the time of sanctuary, which was within forty days, the refugee might, if able, come to an agreement with his adversaries. If he failed to compound for his crime, he had to appear before the coroner, clothed in sackcloth, confess his crime, and abjure the realm. In an act passed in the year 1529, in the reign of Henry VIII., it is directed that “immediately after his confession, and before his abjuration, he was to be branded by the coronner with a hot iron upon the brawn of the thumb of his right hand with the sign of the letter A. to the intent he might be the better known among the king’s subjects to have abjured.” If the offender failed to make a confession of his crime to the coroner within forty days, and remained in the sanctuary, any one found furnishing him with food was regarded as guilty of felony.


Sir William Rastall, who was Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, in his “Collection of Statutes now in force,” London, 1594, supplies a copy of the form of confession and abjuration usually employed. It is as follows: —

“This hear thou, Sir Coroner, that I ................................................... of ...................................................... am a ................................................... , and because I have done such evils in this land, I do abjure the land of our lord the King, and shall haste me towards the port of [mentioning a port named by the coroner], and that I shall not go out of the highway, and if I do, I will that I be taken as a robber and a felon of our lord the King, and that at such place I will diligently seek for passage, and that I will tarry there but one flood and ebb, if I can have passage; and unless I can have it in such a place, I will go every day into the seas up to my knees assaying to pass over, and unless I can do this within forty days, I will put myself again into the church as a robber and a felon of our lord the King, so God me help and His holy judgment.”

The constables of the parishes through which the culprit passed conducted him over their highways to the port from whence he had to embark. 5 We gather from “England in the Fifteenth Century,” by the Rev. W. Denton, M.A., that sanctuary men sent from London to Dover “frequently broke their promise to cross the Channel, betook themselves to the forest, and joined the bands of thieves who made the greenwood of the Weald of Kent their home.”

In the reign of Henry VIII. several acts were passed dealing with this subject. The reason why one of the acts was passed was the loss of the strength of the country by persons taking sanctuary and abjuring the realm, teaching foreigners archery, and also of disclosing the secrets of the realm. To prevent such loss, “it was enacted that every person abjuring was to repair to some sanctuary within the realm, which himself should choose, and there remain during his natural life; and to be sworn before the coroner upon his abjuration so to do.” If a sanctuary man left his retreat without being granted his discharge by the King’s pardon, he ran the risk of being tried for his original crime, and was prohibited from the protective power of the sanctuary. It was usual, in bygone times, for men to wear swords, but when any one took sanctuary he had to give up his weapons, and 6 only use a knife at meal times to cut his meat. The governors of the sanctuaries directed the men under protection to wear a bade or cognisance “openly upon their upper garment, of the compass, in length and breadth, of ten inches,” under pain of forfeiting all the privileges of sanctuary. If they left their lodgings between sunset and sunrise it was at the peril of losing all right of protection. In the same reign, it was decreed that persons guilty of high treason, and pirate, should be excluded from the right of sanctuary. The most important measure bearing on this subject, passed in 1540, clearly indicates the adverse attitude assumed by Henry VIII. towards the privilege of sanctuary. He took away the rights from all places except parish churches and their churchyards, cathedrals, hospitals, and the sanctuaries at Wells, Westminster, Manchester, Northampton, Norwich, York, Derby, and Launceston. A year later, Chester was substituted for Manchester. It is stated that the inhabitants of Manchester were much troubled by the influx of dissolute persons seeking sanctuary. They intimated to Parliament that the refugees injured their trade, and further, that as they had “no mayor, sheriff, or bailiff, no walls, and no gaol for 7 the confinement of offenders,” they prayed to have the privilege withdrawn. In the statute of 1540, the privilege of sanctuary was “abolished in cases of wilful murder, rape, burglary, highway robbery, or wilful burning of a house or barn containing corn.” Not more than twenty persons were to be sheltered in a sanctuary at one time.

An act passed in 1624, in the reign of James I., nominally abolished all privileges of sanctuary in England. It did not completely close all sanctuaries, for in them remained lawless characters, who had long been there, and whom it would not be deemed prudent to have at large. It is asserted that the sanctuary regulations were frequently broken, and that the refugees committed robberies and other crimes in the immediate neighbourhood of their sanctuaries.

In the case of debtors, sanctuaries in a modified form existed down to the reign of William III., when, in the year 1697, an Act of Parliament abolished them.

English history furnishes many instances of sanctuary laws being disregarded. A familiar example is that of four Lancastrian knights flying from the battlefield of Tewkesbury, in 1471, and taking refuge in a church not far distant from 8 the place. Edward, sword in and, was about to follow them, and violate the sanctuary, but the priest who was celebrating mass refused to permit him to enter, until he agreed to pardon the knights. He made the promise, whereupon the refugees left the church. Subsequently they were made prisoners and executed.

The first time the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey was violated was in the year 1378. It was not only violated, but murder was committed. The particulars of the case are as follow. In one of the campaigns of the Black Prince, two esquires, named Frank de Hawle and John Shakle, made captive a French or Spanish Count. The prisoner had a friend in John of Gaunt, and he directed the captors to give up their prize, but they refused. John of Gaunt, without delay, imprisoned in the Tower the two men who had disobeyed his injunctions. They made their escape, and fled to Westminster Abbey, but were closely pursued by Sir Allan Boxhull, Constable of the Tower, Sir Ralph de Ferrers, and a band of fifty men in arms. It is believed that the two esquires made their way into the choir of the Abbey, and at a time when high mass was being celebrated. “The Deacon,” says Dean Stanley, 9 “had just reached the words of the Gospel of the day, ‘If the goodman of the house had known what time the thief would appear ——,’ when the clash of arms was heard, and the pursuers, regardless of time or place, burst upon the service. Shakle escaped, but Hawle was intercepted. Twice he fled round the choir, with his enemies hacking at him as he ran; and, pierced with twelve wounds, he sank dead in front of the Prior’s Stall — that is, at the north side of the entrance of the choir.” It is also recorded that his servant and a monk fell at the same time. Hawle was looked upon as a martyr to the injured rights of the Abbey. His remains were laid to rest within its walls, a most unusual honour at that period. The spot where he fell was marked with an inscription engraved on a stone, and over his grave was a brass effigy and a long epitaph, which remained till within the last century. The desecrated Abbey was closed for four months, and the Members of Parliament suspended their sittings within its precincts for fear of pollution. The two chief assailants were excommunicated.

In 1232, the sanctuary of the church at Brentwood, Essex, was violated by orders of the boy king, Henry III. He had allowed 10 himself to be persuaded that the brave Hubert de Burgh had sold his country for French gold, and armed men were sent to make the stout knight prisoner. Hubert took refuge in Brentwood Church. His enemies broke in, dragged him from the very altar, and a smith was ordered to shackle him. “I will die any death,” said the smith, “before I put on the man who freed England from the stranger, and saved Dover from France!” so Hubert’s feet were tied below his horse, and he was carried to the King. A remonstrance from the Bishop of London caused the refugee to be replaced in the sanctuary, but his foes were still determined to have him. The Sheriff put stakes round the churchyard watched day and night, until hunger compelled a surrender, when Hubert was thrown into prison, and there died.

Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of Edward IV., twice found shelter in the sanctuary of Westminster. Here was born, on April 9th, 1470, Edward V. Skelton, our earliest Poet-Laureate, remained in this stronghold, in safety, writing furious invectives against Cardinal Wolsey. If he had not had the protection of sanctuary, it is believe he would have been doomed to destruction. 11 “It was impregnable,” says Dean Stanley, “even by all the power of the Cardinal at the height of his grandeur.”

A curious example of the violation of a sanctuary occurred at Stafford. In the year 1300, a complaint was laid before the King by the Dean and Chapter of St. Mary’s, Stafford, to the effect that two men imprisoned for felony in Stafford gaol had escaped, and taken refuge In the church. The men were followed into the church, captured, and re-imprisoned. The prison authorities were directed to restore the men to the Dean and Chapter.

It may not be without interest to give some details of two important north country sanctuaries, Durham and Beverley. On the north door of the Cathedral of Durham is a ponderous bronze knocker, of which we give a drawing.

Door Knocker in the shape of a Barbarian/monster head with radiating locks of Hair and the Ring in his mouth.



It will be noticed that the knocker is in the form of a ring held between the teeth of a monster’s head. The person claiming sanctuary raised the ring of the knocker, and sounded it to obtain admission to the church, where, for a time, he felt safe out of the reach of his avengers. In the sacred building two men were on duty night and day, ever ready to quickly open the door. A bell was next tolled to make known the fact that a man had taken sanctuary. When a refugee sought protection an early intimation was made to the prior, who gave injunctions that he was to keep within the limits of the churchyard, which formed the bounds of the Durham sanctuary. In presence of a witness, a detailed account had to be given of the crime committed, dates, names of persons, places, etc., had to be given, and they were carefully noted. In cases of murder and manslaughter, the weapon employed had to be mentioned. A gown of black cloth, having on its left shoulder a cross, known as “the cross of St. Cuthbert,” was given him to wear. The badge was, we are told, “to the intent that every one might see that there was such a freelige granted by God unto St. Cuthbert’s shrine, for every such offender to flee for succour and safeguard of their 13 lives.” The refugee at Durham was allowed the right of sanctuary for thirty-seven days, and provided with food and drink and bedding at the expense of the convent. If within that time he failed to make peace with his adversaries, he had to abjure the realm. He lost his property by this proceeding, but saved his life, or evaded some barbarous form of punishment which often resulted in mutilation of a most painful character.

The Surtees Society, on the 7th December, 1836, resolved to print the Records of he Sanctuaries of Durham and Beverley, and shortly afterwards the work was issued. The Durham notices are reproduced from the ordinary Registers of the Cathedral, and extends from 1464 to 1524. The following shows the number of crimes, and the calling of the men taking refuge: —

Murder and Homicide. —: Crimes, 195. Persons implicated, 283. Trades of fugitives: — Husbandmen, 8; Labourers, 4; Yeomen, 4; Gentlemen, 4; Ecclesiastics, 3; Merchants, 2; Tailor, 1; Plumber, 1; Carpenter, 1; Tanner, 1; Baxster, 1; Glover, 1; Sailor, 1; Apprentice, 1; Under-Bailiff, 1; Servant, 1; Knight, 1 (an accessory). The occupations of the remainder are not mentioned. Debt, 16. Of these — Shermane, 1; Horslibber, 1; 14 Merchant, 1; Flesher, 1. Horse-stealing, 4. Of these — Yeoman, 1. Cattle-stealing, 9. Escaping from Prison, 4. Of these — Shoemaker, 1; Housebreaking, 4; Rape, 1. Theft, 7. Of these — Yeoman, 1; Ecclesiastic, 1; Goldsmith, 1. Backward in his accounts, 1. For harbouring a thief, 1. For failing to prosecute, 1.

The list of weapons, etc., employed by the murderers is as under: —

Indefinite, 12; Armicudium, 1; Arrow, 5; Baselard, 3; Bastard-sword, 1; Bill, 3; Carlisle Axe, 3; Club-staff, 11; Crabtree-staff, 1; Dagger, 56; Dicker, 1; Egelome, 1; Forest-bill, 1; Halbarde, 2; Hanging, 1; Hynger, 3; Iron-fork Shaft, 1; Kendal-club, 2; Lance, 10; Lance-staff, 4; Lang Pike-staff, 1; Long Plane-staff, 1; Pike-staff, 12; Plane-staff, 1; Pychyng-staff, 1; Pugio (a dagger), 1; Scotch-Axe, 2; Small-staff, 1; Spear-staff, 2; Staff, 14; Staff, with a pummel, 1; Stone, 2; Sword, 21; Trodden to death, 1; Turf-spade, 1; Welsh-bill, 6; Whynyard (a short dagger), 6; Wood-axe, 3; Wood-knife, 1.

The right of sanctuary was granted to the church of St. John, Beverley, by Athelstan, and near the altar was placed a Fridstol, or chair of peace, denoting that here the refugee might find 15 peace. According to Camden and Leland, the chair once bore a Latin inscription which has been translated thus: “This stone chair is called the Freed Stool, i.e., the Chair of Peace, to which what criminal soever flies hath full protection.” There is not at the present time any trace of an inscription on it. We only know of two sanctuary chairs which are still preserved in England, namely, one at Beverley and the other at Hexham.

An engraving of the Fridstol, or Chair of Peace, it is a carved stone chair, simple in design with a half circle shape with a flat seat halfway down carved from a half squarish block of stone with rounded corners.


The extent of the Beverley sanctuary was a circle round the church having a radius of about a mile, with the church as a centre, 16 marked by stone crosses erected on the four principal roads leading to the town. “If a malefactor,” says Oliver, in his “History of Beverley,” “flying for refuge was taken or apprehended within the crosses, the party that took or had hold of him there, did forfeit two hundreth; if he took him within the town, then he forfeited four hundreth; if within the walls of the churchyard then six hundreth; if within the church, then twelve hundreth; if within the doors of the quire, then eighteen hundreth, besides penance, as in case of sacrilege; but if he presumed to take him out of the stone chair near the altar, called Fridstol, or from among the holy relics behind the altar, the offence was not redeemable with any sum, but was then become sine emendatione, boteles, and nothing but the utmost severity of the offended church was to be expected, by a dreadful excommunication, besides what secular power would impose for the presumptuous misdemeanor.” There is a foot-note in Oliver’s book, on the authority of Richard Prior, of Hagulstad, saying that “the hundreth contained eight pounds; so that the last penalty was most immense, nearly as much as the weregild for killing a crowned head in Wales; and, indeed, every act of violence 17 committed against the right of sanctuary was esteemed a breach of the churches’ peace, a high crime, and a species of sacrilege.”

The particulars of the persons who took sanctuary from about the year 1478 to 1539, published by the Surtees Society, is drawn from a thin folio volume, preserved among the Harleian MSS. This important manuscript contains a copy of the oath taken by those who sought sanctuary at Beverley. The Bailiff of the Archbishop, by whom the oath was administered, had to enquire of the refugee: —

“What man he killed, and wher with, and both ther names, and than gar him lay his hand uppon the book, saying on this wyse —

Sir, take hede on your oth — Ye shalbe trew and feythfull to my Lord Archbisshop of York, Lord off this towne, to the Provest of the same, to the Chanons of this Chirch, and all other ministers thereof.

Also, ye shall bere gude hert to the Baillie and xij governars of this town, to all burges and comyners of the same.

Also, ye shall bere no poynted wepon, dagger, knyfe, ne non other wapen ayenst the Kynge’s pece.

Also, ye shalbe redy at all your power, if ther 18 be any debate or stryf, or order so than case of fyre within the twone, to help to surcess it.

Also, ye shalbe redy at the obite of Kyng Adelstan, at the dirige and the messe, at suche tyme as it is done, at the warnyng of the belman of the towne, and doe your dewte in ryngyng, and for to offer at the messe on the morne. So help you God and thies holy Evangelistes. And than gar hym kyss the book.”

The Bailiff’s fee on this occasion appears to have been two shillings and fourpence, that of the Clerk of the Court, for inscribing the name of the refugee in the register, fourpence.

As we have previously stated, the Beverley register, published by the Surtees Society, commences about the year 1478, and extends to 1539. A summary of the crimes and the trades, etc., of refugees is as follows: —

Crimes. — Indefinite, 35. Persons concerned, 35. No trade described, 10; Labourers, 3; Tylers, 2; Tailors, 2; Masons, 2; Dyers, 2; Yeomen, 2; Merchant, 1; Husbandman, 1; Smith, 1; Clerk, 1; Butcher, 1; Chapman, 1; Gentleman, 1; Draper, 1; Skinner, 1; Shoemaker, 1; Haberdasher, 1; Litster, 1. Murder and Homicide — Crimes, 173. Persons implicated, 186. No trade 19 or occupation described, 52; Tailors, 19; Husbandmen, 17; Yeomen, 16; Labourers, 14; Weavers and Websters, 11; Shoemakers, 8; Butchers, 6; Gentlemen, 6; Mercers, 3; Barbers, 3; Brewers, 3; Servants, 2; Esquires, 2; Surgeons, 2; Millers, 2; Mariners, 2; Smith, 1; Shearman, 1; Spinster, 1; Carpenter, 1; Painter, 1; Chapman, 1; Maltster, 1; Cartwright, 1; Gentlewoman, 1; Chandler, 1; Minstrell, 1; Cooper, 1; Literate, 1; Saddler, 1; Shepherd, 1; Carrier, 1; Tanner, 1; Cook, 1; Hatmaker, 1; Felony. — Crimes, 51. Persons implicated, 54. No trade described, 3; Labourers, 8; Tailors, 6; Husbandmen, 4; Butchers, 4; Glovers, 3; Goldsmiths, 3; Cutlers, 3; Tylers, 2; Plumbers, 2; Yeomen, 2; Merchant, 1; Smith, 1; Clerk, 1; Physician, 1; Spinster, 1; Grocer, 1; Gentleman, 1; Pinner, 1; Mariner, 1; Shoemaker, 1; Fishmonger, 1; Fuller, 1; Brickmaker, 1. Horse-stealing, 1, a Labourer. Treason, 1, a Butcher. Receipt of stolen goods, 1, a Haberdasher. Coining, — Cases, 6; persons, 7. No trade described, 1; Yeomen, 2; Fleshers, 2; Tailor, 1; Weaver, 1. Debtors, 208. No trade described, 36; Butchers, 31; Labourers, 12; Merchants, 9; Husbandmen, 9; Gentlemen, 9; Mercers, 8; Tailors, 6; Weavers and Websters, 5; 20 Dyers, 5; Yeomen, 5; Glovers, 4; Drapers, 4; Shearmen, 3; Chapmen, 3; Pewterers, 3; Smiths, 2; Grocers, 2; Fishers, 2; Bakers, 2; Chandlers, 2; Wheelwrights, 2; Coopers, 2; Pouchmakers, 2; Vintners, 2; Fishmongers, 2; Bowyers, 2; Tapper, 1; Alderman and Grocer of London, 1; Carpenter, 1; Wax Chandler, 1; Painter, 1; Goldsmith, 1; Clothier, 1; Waiter, 1; Maltster, 1; Surgeon, 1; Pinner, 1; Skinner, 1; Fustain Shearer, 1; Capper, 1; Mason, 1; Haberdasher, 1; Salter, 1; Carrier, 1; Tanner, 1; Woolman, 1; Purser, 1; Singingman, 1; Woodmonger, 1; Cook, 1; Wooldriver, 1; Hatmaker, 1; Bedmaker, 1; Barber, 1.

The weapons employed in cases of murder are seldom named in the Beverley records.

The right of sanctuary was, perhaps, a blessing in the time it existed. Hallam, in his “State of Europe in the Middle Ages,” says that right of sanctuary might as often be a shield of innocence as an impunity of crime. “We can hardly regret, on reflecting on the desolating violence which prevailed, that there should have been some green spots in the wilderness, where the feeble and the persecuted could find refuge. How must this right have enhanced the veneration for religious 21 institutions! How gladly must the victims of internal warfare have turned their eyes from baronial castle, the dread and scourge of the neighbourhood, to those venerable walls, within which not even the clamour of arms could be heard to disturb the chaunt of holy men and the sacred service of the altar.”