Minutes of the 355th meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 18th July 2017:
Speaker Arthur Dodds: Sanctuary in the Cathedral
Arthur is a retired Squadron Leader who later was a photo specialist and photo interpreter in
the security services. He had extensive experience of map making, particularly in
Bangladesh. He gave us an interesting talk on the history of sanctuary in churches.
Arthur started his talk with a picture of the knocker on the North door of Durham Cathedral.
This is a replica of the safely preserved original donated by Bishop Flambard in the early 12
century. If a sanctuary seeker was able to knock on the door after crossing the market place
he would be admitted by the two monks who were on duty day and night. At Hexham and
Beverley, Sanctuary could be claimed by sitting on the Frith stool. The principle of Sanctuary
was part of Common Law from the 6th to the 17th centuries. It predates the Christian era and
in 511AD, the Council of Orleans passed a decree on the right of Sanctuary. This was
confirmed in England by Kings Guthred and Alfred in the 9th century.
Sanctuary was only available for 37 days in Durham. After this period, a fugitive would no
longer be provided with food and would be faced with 3 choices: surrender, escape or
abjuration. The first of these was very unattractive. It would probably lead to execution. The
second resulted in the escapee becoming an outlaw who could be killed on sight. The third
was a choice to leave the country. On the orders of the coroner, the individual would be
passed from one constable to another until he reached the coast. Durham coroners used to
send abjurers to Hartlepool.
Between 1464 and 1524, 247 people sought sanctuary in Durham Cathedral – an average of
only 4 per year. Of these 195 were accused of homicide. 109 were from Yorkshire, 47 from
Northumberland but only 13 from Durham. Others came from as far away as Lincolnshire
and Essex. Churches were able to protect criminals from the King’s law, but this might suit
the King if Sanctuary enabled him to solve a difficult problem. Views began to change during
the reign of Henry II when Thomas a Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. 26
years later, in 1196 King Richard had appointed an Archbishop of Canterbury who was also
Chancellor of the Exchequer. He imposed a Poll Tax, which led to riots, led by William Fitz
Osbert who had to seek Sanctuary in the church of St. Mary le Bow. The Archbishop ordered
the church to be burned down and Fitz Osbert was dragged to Tyburn and hanged.
Tewkesbury Abbey was invaded by Richard III. However, the right of Sanctuary continued
until 1623 after the Reformation, with very severe punishments for violation. The Queen
consort of Edward IV, Elisabeth Woodville, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey
The clergy had the right to be tried by ecclesiastical courts rather than secular courts. This
was extended by Edward III to everybody who was literate. The proof of literacy was the
ability to read Psalm 51, but it was relatively easy to learn the words. The benefit of clergy
explains why the church was so powerful. The writer Ben Jonson took advantage of it when
he managed to escape the death sentence for murder. The presence of 26 bishops in the
House of Lords is a relic of the importance of the church in legal matters. The church and the
crown were both very powerful but they did depend on each other. However the Tudor
monarchs progressively reduced the church’s power. Henry VIII decreed that this benefit
could only be used once and Henry VIII stopped church courts from hearing most criminal
In reply to questions, Arthur explained that fugitives were fed by the monks for the limited
period of sanctuary. After that had expired, they had to look after themselves.