Ambiguities of sanctuary

Another Durham case with interesting evidence about the ambiguities of sanctuary – how permissible was it to help a felon escape to asylum? Was it an act of Christian charity, or accessory to felony?

In August 1484, John Hudson, a shoemaker of Ripon, came to Durham because a week before he and others had assaulted Stephen Wylson, a barker also of Ripon, giving him a mortal wound with that apparently ubiquitous weapon, the Welsh bill.


A witness to Hudson’s sanctuary oath was one Richard Wright. Most of the entries in the register have a list of witnesses, including cathedral clergy, masons who happened to be around working on building and repairs, and others whose identity isn’t clear.


We would not easily know why Richard Wright had been present when Hudson took his oath, except that four years later, in 1488, Richard Wright, glover of the city of Durham, also asked for asylum at Durham, for the same homicide.

Wright confessed that he had helped Hudson when he assaulted Wylson back in 1484, and also that when people of Ripon had tried to arrest Hudson for the murder, Wright had helped him “evade the hands of the bystanders.”


Wright must have done more than just help him get away in the short term; as he was present with him a week later at Durham as a witness, Wright must have led Hudson from Ripon to his own home town of Durham and then to the cathedral door.


Usually we can’t tell if the witnesses were bystanders or men accompanying the seeker, but Wright is unlikely to have been the only example of the latter: some have the same surname as the seeker and were probably relatives.


The recording of the names of men like Wright on the document of the seeker’s confession shows a fundamental ambiguity about sanctuary seeking. It was, on the one hand, an act of Christian mercy for the seeker to be granted “protection of their lives” from the severe sanctions of the king’s courts. Sanctuary was a lawful remedy and those who witnessed the oath were taking part in a ceremony both religious and legal. On the other hand, however, anyone who helped a felon after the act was an accessory to felony and liable to the same penalty of hanging.

That ambiguity is encapsulated in Richard Wright’s two appearances in the sanctuary register: once when he guided a man to the precinct to seek sanctuary, and the second time when he needed the sanctuary’s protection himself as an accessory to the same crime.

SDSB 14, Memorials of Ripon 310.

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