Medieval Sanctuary

Church Porch at Boxgrove Priory

Church Porch, Boxgrove Priory

I had almost finished writing a post about outlaws when I realised that it wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t also write about sanctuary. The post was already quite long, so I didn’t want to do it within the post.The dastardly deeds of medieval outlaws will have to wait until next week.

Sanctuary was the protection provided to a person fleeing arrest for committing a serious crime, that is, one with the death penalty. There were, sadly, a large number of crimes in that category. The criminal could take refuge inside a church for up to forty days. This meant, in theory, that he (or she) was safe from those trying to arrest him for that period. In practice that protection was often illusory, especially in more remote areas. In order for the sanctuary to be valid, the person claiming it had to confess their crime to a witness.

It was only a temporary respite, however. As soon as he left sanctuary he could be hanged, unless he promised to leave the country. He was supposed to go to the nearest port and take ship. If he managed to evade his enemies’ revenge on the way, he probably took another name and went to live in another part of the country, or become an outlaw, if he wasn’t one already.

Once the person was inside the church the pursuers had to set a guard to make sure that he did not escape. They were not permitted to starve him out, and he was supposed to be allowed to leave the church to relieve himself and return.

You can probably see many ways in which this could go wrong for the person inside the church. People were often physically removed from the church and killed. If, for some reason, they could not be removed from the church, they could be denied food. Should they survive the forty days they could be killed on leaving the church. If that didn’t happen, they could be killed on their way to the coast. The odds were very much against them surviving to become an outlaw, or anything else.

Sometimes the crime was so bad that the person responsible was refused sanctuary. Isabella de Bury killed a priest in 1320 and the bishop of London said that the church would not shelter her. She was taken from the church where she had sought sanctuary and hanged.


Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

25 responses to “Medieval Sanctuary

  1. I bet the Equadorian Embassy wishes it was still so 😊 cool post April.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I was always fascinated by the idea of sanctuary and the idea a righteous mob would just stop at the door…though I guess as you point out sometimes they didn’t. I had’nt realised there was a time limit…though if there hadn’t been I guess there would be whole families living in churches still. I wonder is sanctuary still technically operational now…? (Asking for a friend…) ( 😀 )

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think you’re right about a recent use of sanctuary, possibly a case of trying to save someone from deportation. My memory is also hazy!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d thought (wrongly, I see) that sanctuary might have been handy for someone wrongly accused of a crime. Forty days could have given their friends time to get active on their behalf. Having to confess in order to be eligible would have put a stop to that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s what I thought, too. It’s all very complicated and, at some point, I’m going to have to do the reading and write a post about the legal system. I’m a little bit confused at the moment, because it looks as if the people doing the accusing were also the ones doing the judging, which can’t always have been the case. There are judges who seem to have been appointed by the king, but there are also local juries, who also seem to accuse and judge. There are also coroners and I don’t think they limit themselves to deaths, but I’m not sure. I might have gone about this backwards.


  5. It does sound complicated, and I suppose there were overlapping systems? Common law/ecclesiastical law/feudal law? And would there have been customary ‘hangovers’ from pre-Norman times in rural areas?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it was mostly common law or church law, with a few statutes thrown in. Common law varied from manor to manor, which makes it even more complicated. I’m writing a novel in which there are outlaws, so I ought to learn what I can about the law. I might not be able to use it, but it’s better to know more than you use than the other way round.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Regarding your last sentence: so true. Research, however, can have peculiar side effects. About 3 years ago I was working on a novel where a family’s fortune turned upon a wardship, so I started researching the laws relating to wards and marriage.
        Then I was waylaid by a young ward’s cat…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The gypsy girl Esmerelda claimed sanctuary from a mob that threatened to kill her. The hunchback fellow fell in love with her.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. We’re seeing a lot of requests today in the US, as people are trying to avoid being deported. Some things linger…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Fascinating, as usual, April. Really enjoy your posts. Have a wonderful Christmas and 2018 – all the best, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. The 40 day limit on sanctuary was only in England. Many people seem to think that England made up the entire medieval world which was not the case. Nor were people in Sanctuary generally attacked. In fact, there was a duty to place guards to protect them. Attacking someone in a church, including a sanctuary seeker, was a serious crime and would also get one excommunicated, so people were not eager to do this. Attacking the person once they left sanctuary, whenever that did happen, was much more likely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think that England made up the entire medieval world, but I’m English and I live in England, so it’s English history I write about. Occasionally my sources are not as precise as I would like, bu I try to limit myself to what was going on in England in the fourteenth century.


      • jrtomlin

        There is nothing wrong with sticking to the history you know, but you might want to make it clear that you are only discussing English history. People can easily get the idea that what you describe was the way sanctuary worked everywhere. There were definitely differences.


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