A Month of Betrayal – Toni Mount on The Privilege of Sanctuary

Today I am absolutely delighted to have Toni Mount, author of the brilliant ‘Sebastian Foxley’ medieval murder mystery series, here on the blog for the next part of her Month of Betrayal Tour. Her new novella, The Colour of Betrayal, is out now.


The Colour of Betrayal is the latest whodunit in the popular ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval murder mysteries by author and historian Toni Mount. Inspired by a true story from the 13th century, this new story involves the murder of a London goldsmith whilst he was ‘in sanctuary’ at St Mary le Bow church.

The privilege of Sanctuary  

In medieval England, anyone accused of a crime could, in theory at least, go to a church and claim protection from the law so the authorities couldn’t touch him. This action was known as ‘claiming the privilege of sanctuary’ and could be applied by murderers, thieves, those in debt, and, of course, those who were innocent and wrongly accused. The law stated that the privilege could only be used for up to forty days but there were some large sanctuaries able to accommodate hundreds of criminals where they could stay indefinitely. Among the most famous – or notorious – were Westminster Abbey, St Martin le Grand Abbey in London, St John’s at Colchester in Essex and St John’s at Beverley in Yorkshire. At Beverley, the jurisdiction of sanctuary extended over a mile in every direction from the abbey. The trouble was that some criminals continued their nefarious activities from these abbeys, a practice that could hardly be approved by the authorities or the public.

The principle went back to ancient times but, in England, the Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, Ethelbert, drew up the laws regulating sanctuary in his code of 600 AD in the book now known as the Textus Roffensis, kept in Rochester Cathedral, Kent. By Norman times, two kinds of sanctuary were recognised. Firstly, all churches had the basic version which could be claimed by grasping the door knocker [as at Durham Cathedral] or touching the altar or, as at Beverley and Hexham [in Northumberland] sitting on the frith stool. But that did not always offer as much safety as hoped. The accusers could surround the building and blockade it, as happened to Hubert de Burgh who sought sanctuary in Brentwood Church, Essex and was starved into surrender on the orders of King Henry III.

Secondly, only the churches licensed by the king had full rights which applied to the churchyard and glebe [church] land around. The fugitive had to come unarmed and must not commit sacrilege. For example, a thief in Buckinghamshire fled into a church and stole the vestry keys to try to escape. For this sacrilegious theft, he was dragged out and rightfully killed on the spot. Some re-offenders were denied sanctuary but, generally, they had forty days of grace. The locals were expected to feed the fugitive at their own expense and make sure he didn’t escape but sometimes it was the cheaper option to let him sneak away. Once the forty days were over, he had to leave and, if he refused to come out, it was now an offence to aid him, such that anyone communicating with him could be hanged, so he would likely die of thirst or hunger. If he did now leave, he could be executed immediately. More usually though, the fugitive confessed to the crime and was then required to ‘abjure the realm’. This meant he had to swear upon the Gospels to:

…leave the realm of England and never return without the express permission of my Lord the King or his heirs. I will hasten by the direct road to the port allotted to me and not leave the King’s highway under pain of arrest or execution. I will not stay at one place more than one night and will seek diligently for a passage across the sea as soon as I arrive, delaying only one tide if possible. If I cannot secure such passage, I will walk into the sea up to my knees every day as a token of my desire to cross. And if I fail in all this, then peril shall be my lot.

After the oath was sworn, it was the king’s coroner who had to make arrangements for his departure from a port but sometimes it seems the official would make the journey to the port of embarkation a punishment in itself. Some coroners in Yorkshire made the criminal walk south to Dover in Kent, giving them a matter of days to walk the distance of over two hundred miles. In 1313, a Kentish coroner sent a man to Portsmouth in Hampshire, even though Dover was only a few miles away. Any port could be chosen but Dover was closest to the continent and so most often used but ports as far apart as Berwick and Bristol could be stipulated. Since the law specified that the felon must abjure the realm of England, some were sent to Wales, Scotland or Ireland. Quite a few crossed into Scotland and Scottish raiders regularly used sanctuary as a means of avoiding hanging. They would cross the border, steal cattle and, if they were caught, they’d simply claim sanctuary, abjure and get sent home!

However, if abjuring was done properly, the felon had to remove his clothes which were sold off and wear a sackcloth garment instead. Bareheaded, he was to walk, carrying a wooden cross that he’d made himself, and tell everyone he met along the way who he was. He had to keep to the highway and could only rest one night at each place. If he did otherwise, that made him an outlaw to be treated as a wolf. This meant anyone could slay him, remove his head and take the gruesome prize to the authorities and claim a reward. The same would apply if he ever returned to England.

The problem of sacred buildings with full privileges of sanctuary could prove a difficulty for kings. After his victory at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Yorkist King Edward IV found that his defeated Lancastrian enemies had fled into sanctuary at the nearby abbey. Declaring that Tewkesbury Abbey didn’t have his license, which wouldn’t apply to those guilty of treason, even if it had, Edward marched into the church, fully armed, and had the Lancastrians dragged out, killing some in the process. This ‘pollution’ as they called it required the abbey to be reconsecrated a month later before it could be used again for divine service.

In the reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII, it was the Yorkists who discovered sanctuary was not as safe as they hoped. After their king, Richard III, had been slain at Bosworth in 1485, three Yorkist survivors of the battle, Francis, Viscount Lovell, and the brothers Sir Thomas and Sir Humphrey Stafford, took sanctuary at Colchester Abbey in Essex and began inciting rebellion against Henry. In April 1486, all their efforts had come to nothing and Lovell fled to Burgundy. However, the Staffords tried again to claim sanctuary, this time at Culham Abbey, near Henley-upon-Thames. King Henry had them forcibly removed and tried for treason before the Court of King’s Bench, the justices concluding that sanctuary didn’t apply in cases of treason, just as Edward IV had said. Although both brothers were convicted, only Sir Humphrey was executed. Henry’s son, Henry VIII, abolished almost all sanctuaries and removed the possibility of using the privilege for almost all crimes. The practice wasn’t finally ended until a statute of 1624, in the reign of James VI/I, which stated ‘no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary to be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case’.

Toni Head Shot 1Toni Mount is a popular writer and historian; she is the author of Everyday Life in Medieval London and A Year in the Life of Medieval England (pub Amberley Publishing)  and several of the online courses for www.medievalCourses.com

Her successful ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval whodunits is published by MadeGlobal.com and the latest book in this series The Colour of Betrayal is now available as a paperback or on Kindle. myBook.to/Col_Betrayal



1 thought on “A Month of Betrayal – Toni Mount on The Privilege of Sanctuary

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