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Claiming sanctuary

Posted in Architecture, Historical articles, History, Law, Religion on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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A man being given sanctuary at Durham Cathedral after grasping the door knocker, by Peter Jackson

There are many misconceptions regarding sanctuary, largely because the mediaeval church and state recognised different levels of protection. The basic concept of safety from arrest on sacred ground is not quite the same as successful avoidance of trial and sentencing. Once granted, sanctuary, which was subject to common law, lasted for forty days, during which time the felon, thief, murderer or whatever had to surrender and stand trial, or confess to their guilt and go into exile. If the latter, the guilty surrendered their property to church and state, had their heads shaved, and were given a wooden cross-staff as a symbol of church protection as they were escorted to the nearest port town or city. Many, of course, escaped at this point, and simply disappeared back into the community. The first laws to define and regulate sanctuary were made by King Ethelbert in 600, and further modifications led to a two-tier system which was firmly in place after the Norman Conquest. Smaller churches could only offer sanctuary in the church buildings proper, but larger churches and the great minsters and cathedrals offered sanctuary within their surrounding lands. To avoid confusion the tradition of boundary stones or markers was soon adopted by the authorities, and many of these can still be seen in parishes throughout the land. For criminals it was often a desperate race against time to reach a particular roughly hewn stone and claim sanctuary. Larger churches were given charters underpinning their legal position, and numbered well over twenty, including Beverley Minster, the sees of Ripon, Durham, Norwich, Wells, Winchester, York Minster and Westminster Abbey. In some places specific rituals obtained, and there might be a special bell to ring or door knocker to grasp before safety was assured. At Durham Cathedral one such knocker still exists. There were many changes made to the laws of sanctuary in the next few centuries, and the vestigial mediaeval system was finally abolished by James I in 1623.

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