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.