Beverly, a sanctuary town

In July 2019, I visited Beverley for the first time: I was impressed to see the sanctuary town, including the purported “frith stool” in Beverley Minster.

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Alas, sanctuary seekers probably didn’t use this seat; but though our guide told me that tales of sanctuary at Beverley were invented by fanciful Victorian antiquarians, we do indeed have evidence for it, including in the Beverley register. (I’ll add that since my visit, the Minster has inaugurated a major project to showcase and display its sanctuary past. More to come on that!)

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Source

The earliest entries in a sanctuary register for St John’s Minster, Beverley, are in 1478: on 14 April, William Salvan esq, John Heghfeld gentleman, John Salvan, esq, George Walker, and John Hunt all took sanctuary.

They sought refuge for the death of Henry Hardwick, whom they had killed. That’s all the Beverley register indicates: no places of origin or location or circumstances of the crime; in general the Beverley register is regrettably laconic.

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Source

1478 does not, however, mark the earliest date of sanctuary for Beverley – there is evidence going back to the 13th century. The liberty of the minster had originally had the usual temporary sanctuary (in Beverley’s case 30 rather than 40 days), followed by abjuration.

Beverley was unusual amongst sanctuaries in that the sanctuary precinct encompassed the whole quite substantial town, the boundaries extending to the distance of a mile in every direction from the Minster church.

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The town of Beverley. Source

Beverley town ordinances in the 1420s regulating how ‘grithmen’ fit into the town’s guild structure suggest an evolving situation in the town, as permanent settlers supplanted or augmented previously transient seekers. (See here pp 37, 44–6, 75, 78)

The post-1478 register, which shows almost half the seekers were debtors rather than felons (very different from Durham), suggests that as in Westminster and St Martin le Grand asylum for debt in the Minster jurisdiction became assimilated to sanctuary for felony some time in the 15th century.

Beverley sanctuary seekers by 
1477-1540 
45%
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These pie charts come from my analysis of the cases in
Sanctuarium Dunelmense et Sanctuarium Beverlacense, Surtees Society 5 (London: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1837). Available at archive.org.

When precisely this transition occurred is not clear, although it was likely mid-15th century, as with other ecclesiastical bodies such as Durham cathedral: we just see it in full operation in Beverley by the 1470s with the register.

Top image: Beverley Minster. Source

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