About Sanctuary

For a full account of sanctuary in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England with all the usual footnotes and bibliography, see my book, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford University Press, 2017). This website features some 400 or so sanctuary seekers; for a full spreadsheet of all 1800+ sanctuary seekers I’ve identified in the surviving records (with graphs, etc), click here.

Below is a short “explainer” of the basic outline of the workings of sanctuary in England between the 1390s and the 1550s.

Though the general idea of sacred spaces as sites of refuge for accused wrongdoers went back thousands of years, Christian sanctuary developed through the medieval and early modern periods in ways specific to local situations in different parts of Europe and Latin America. In late medieval and early Tudor England, sanctuary had become part of the kingdom’s justice system, as one of several options available to a person fleeing from law enforcement, creditors, or political adversaries. By the fifteenth century, sanctuary in England had developed two main forms under the kingdom’s common law – sanctuary in a parish church followed by “abjuration of the realm”; and time-unlimited refuge in a “chartered sanctuary.”

Sanctuary and abjuration of the realm

The first, often now called abjuration after its final stage, and usually known in contemporary legal records as “taking church,” had roots in the early medieval period and solidified in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, at the same time as the law of felony was being established in the kingdom. Accused criminals could take refuge in any parish church, but such refuge was limited in time, usually to forty days. By the end of the forty days, the accused criminal had either to surrender to the king’s justice, or to abjure (literally, to “swear off” or foreswear) the realm, that is, to go into exile forever. Although abjuration was very common in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, use of this escape from execution declined significantly in the second half of the 1300s. This was not a permanent downturn, however, as this type of sanctuary privilege saw a half-century resurgence in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In response to this increase, several statutes between 1529 and 1536 changed the basis of abjuration, so that abjurers no longer went into exile but instead proceeded to the second form of legal asylum, chartered sanctuaries.

Chartered Sanctuary

The chartered sanctuary developed in England around 1400, and by the end of the fifteenth century it had become important legally and politically. This was an asylum unlimited in time, but only available in the precincts of a limited number of religious houses in the realm. This form of sanctuary developed when the ancient idea of churches as shelters for wrongdoers assimilated with the jurisdictional rights held by certain monasteries and cathedrals, rights which those institutions held by virtue of royal charters (hence “chartered” sanctuaries). Important for the development of permanent sanctuary was the inclusion amongst those jurisdictional rights of the ability to shelter debtors from their creditors, who could have them arrested and imprisoned for non-payment. In the late fourteenth century, Westminster Abbey began not only to welcome debtors in its precinct, but also to offer refuge to felons fleeing arrest for their crimes. This asylum was, of course, similar to that offered in any parish church, but instead of being required to leave or abjure after forty days, the felons were permitted to stay indefinitely, just as the debtors could. In the decades following 1400, some other ecclesiastical institutions – principally Beaulieu Abbey in Sussex; the collegiate church of St. John in Beverley, Yorkshire; the collegiate church of St. Martin le Grand in London; and Durham cathedral – followed suit in claiming this privilege. Confusions about the distinction between the privilege of sanctuary and jurisdictional independence meant that increasingly the secular properties of great ecclesiastical institutions – manors belonging to Westminster Abbey, for instance, or houses and properties owned by the Hospitaller Order – began also to serve as refuges for felons, too, although this was controversial and contested.

Sanctuary and royal justice

An important strain of late medieval English rhetoric about sanctuary emphasized the church’s partnership with the king in providing mercy to those facing the harsh justice of the courts, which ordinarily hanged anyone found guilty of felony, even small-scale theft or unintentional killing. This mercy was explicitly tied to the Christian idea of forgiveness of sins: it is important to recognize that in general medieval sanctuaries were not for the innocent and unjustly accused but instead for the guilty. Those who entered a sanctuary had to confess, in some detail, about the wrongs they had committed. Although sometimes historians have painted sanctuary as contrary to “law and order” (and, indeed, there is no doubt that it allowed some criminals literally to get away with murder), the development of this legal mechanism in the fifteenth century received the support not only of all the kings of the era but also of most lawyers and judges. The royal prerogative of mercy – exhibited through grants of pardons and support for sanctuaries – was an essential demonstration of the king’s power and magnanimity, as Krista Kesselring has argued (see below). And although there were obviously differences of opinion, most lawyers, judges, and politicians recognized that sanctuaries and other mitigations tempered the otherwise draconian capital penalties of English common law. By the end of the fifteenth century, sanctuary in both types (abjuration and chartered sanctuaries) was seen in legal writing as simply part of the common law, rather than as a process that circumvented the law.

Claiming sanctuary

As the concept of permanent chartered sanctuary established itself in the early fifteenth century, a procedure developed to claim status as a “sanctuary man” or “sanctuary woman.” Asylum seekers presented themselves to the administrator of the sanctuary, confessed their felony or other reason for requesting asylum, and swore to keep peace and faithfully observe all curfews, rules, and regulations. Once granted sanctuary, seekers could remain inside the boundaries of the sanctuary precinct as long as they liked, provided they met the requirements for the privilege. They were immune from arrest by royal, civic, or ecclesiastical officials. The seekers’ names and reasons for seeking sanctuary were recorded by the precinct’s administrator in a register or other document; unfortunately, only two such records survive, a sanctuary register for St. John’s Minster in Beverley, Yorkshire, and records for sanctuary claims included in the general register for the Durham Cathedral priory.

Although there was no time limit on the refuge these chartered sanctuaries offered to sanctuary seekers, once they had entered a chartered sanctuary, the sanctuary men and women had to remain strictly within the geographical bounds of the precinct, or they were liable to be seized by arresting officials, political opponents, or creditors. They were thus obliged to find a place to live (leasing or sub-leasing a room or tenement within the ecclesiastical precinct), and a way to support themselves while in sanctuary. Paid work and other economic opportunities within the precincts was scarce, and not surprisingly, for some the financial challenges of extended periods of time in the chartered sanctuaries were daunting. Some sanctuary seekers, supported by outside resources, stayed in sanctuaries for decades, but many others for only a matter of days, having escaped immediate arrest for their crimes and then likely running off in the night after the pursuit had cooled.

This new form of permanent or chartered sanctuary developing around 1400 was, as far as the records tell us, relatively little used by felons through the first half of the fifteenth century. Similarly, as above, the much more long-standing practice of abjuration also fell off dramatically in the decades following the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century. Both kinds of sanctuary, however, became more common again in the second half of the fifteenth century, especially the last two decades. As the evidence for sanctuary seeking between 1400 and 1550 shows, the development of the chartered sanctuaries allowed the general idea of sanctuary to adapt successfully to the shifting legal and political landscape in England in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Sanctuary thrived and indeed grew under the early Tudor regime – that is, it flourished until abruptly, within less than a decade, it virtually ceased. The records show a distinct decline in resort to sanctuary in the last half of the 1530s, and after 1540, it falls to a trickle. The dissolution of the monasteries as part of the English Reformation, which was accompanied by a tightening of jurisdictional privileges of other ecclesiastical bodies, effectively spelled the end of this form of mitigation.

Further Reading

Allen, Elizabeth. “Once and Future King: Sanctuary, Sovereignty, and the Politics of Pity in the Histories of Perkin Warbeck.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 47, no. 2 (2017): 327–58.

Baker, J. H. The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volume VI, 1483-1558. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Freeman, Jessica. “And He Abjured the Realm of England, Never to Return.” In Freedom of Movement in the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the 2003 Harlaxton Symposium, edited by Peregrine Horden, 287–304. Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2007.

Helmholz, R. H. The Ius Commune in England: Four Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Jordan, William Chester. “A Fresh Look at Medieval Sanctuary.” In Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe, edited by Ruth Mazo Karras, Joel Kaye, and E. Ann Matter, 17–32. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

———. From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Kesselring, Krista. “Abjuration and Its Demise: The Changing Face of Royal Justice in the Tudor Period.” Canadian Journal of History 34, no. 3 (1999): 345–58.

———. Mercy and Authority in the Tudor State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

———. “Mapping Durham’s Medieval Sanctuary Seekers.” Legal History Miscellany (blog), July 2, 2018. https://legalhistorymiscellany.com/2018/07/02/mapping-durhams-medieval-sanctuary-seekers/

Lambert, T. B. “The Evolution of Sanctuary in Medieval England.” In Legalism: Anthropology and History, edited by Paul Dresch and Hannah Skoda, 115–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

McGlynn, Margaret, ed. The Rights and Liberties of the English Church: Readings from the Pre-Reformation Inns of Court. Selden Society 129. London: Selden Society, 2015.

Shoemaker, Karl. Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.

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