Sanctuary Spaces for Criminals in Medieval English Law

Photo by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

In medieval England, churches had a moral duty – and even a legal obligation – to protect the vulnerable.

By Dr. Elizabeth Allen
Associate Professor of English
University of California, Irvine

In medieval England, from at least the 12th to the 16th centuries, sanctuary was defined as a legal procedure within both canon law (the law of the church) and secular common law. It was a last resort for those accused of crimes, often under chase by the community.

However, once fugitives crossed the threshold into the churchyard, the community that had failed to capture them was legally required to keep them safe and even feed them for up to 40 days.

Sanctuary protection granted accused felons mercy from the king of England. When they “fled to the church,” fugitives avoided trial and either mutilation or execution. Sanctuary could also protect noblemen from political retribution – King Henry III’s right-hand man, Hubert de Burgh, kept his life by seeking sanctuary three times after losing his government post.

Sanctuary delayed legal decision, which enabled people to negotiate alternatives. Sometimes the fugitive turned out to be innocent, or as in Hubert’s case, publicly declared obedience and reconciled with his king.

Churches provided a safe sanctuary in medieval England. The Church of St John the Evangelist, Elkstone, Gloucestershire. / Spencer Means

Yet the upshot of most medieval sanctuary cases was what one scholar has called “fearsome mercy.” After 40 days, fugitives usually had to confess their crimes and give up everything they owned, travel barefoot to the nearest port and live in exile for the rest of their lives.

Such sanctuary practices saved lives, both by providing time for negotiation and by allowing people to go into exile rather than stand trial. But more than that, they had a symbolic value: In providing such bare-bones safety, medieval sanctuary marked people’s vulnerability and made protecting them a sacred duty.

Although sanctuary for felons was outlawed by James I in 1623, the use of sanctuary to claim protection for vulnerable people continued into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Originally published by The Conversation, 11.23.2016, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution/No derivatives license.