Vol 3 – No. 29 – July, 1889 – Sanctuary at Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral Sanctuary Knocker

One of the first objects which arrest the attention of the visitor to Durham Cathedral is the ponderous bronze knocker on the north door. The knocker itself is a large ring, held between the teeth of a grotesque head. This is the “sanctuary” knocker. It is now never used, for the privilege of sanctuary in churches is a thing of the past. But the knocker remains, a memorial of an ancient practice, which, whilst capable of being greatly abused, was also in very many cases a source of safety and a blessing.

The development of the laws relating to sanctuary would form a curious and interesting subject for investigation. Here, however, we have only space for the briefest possible sketch. The laws of Ina, King of the West Saxons, framed in 693, provide that if any one accused of a capital offence flee to a church, his life shall be spared, and he shall make compensation according to justice; and if anyone deserving stripes take refuge in a church, his stripes shall be forgiven. Alfred the Great, in 887, enunciated a law by which the privilege of sanctuary was given for three nights to anyone fleeing to a church, during which time he might provide for his own safety, or compound for his offence. If anyone should inflict bonds, blows, or wounds on the refugee, he was compelled to pay the price awarded by law to the injury he had done, and, in addition to this, 120 shillings to the ministers of the church. If a criminal fled to a church, no one should drag him thence within the space of seven days, if he could live so long without food, and had not attempted to force his way out. If the clergy had occasion to hold service in the church whilst the refugee was there, they might keep him in some house which had no more doors than the church had.

In the ecclesiastical laws of Edward the Confessor, as confirmed by William the Conqueror, in 1070, the privilege of sanctuary is defined. Wherever an accused or guilty person had fled to a church for refuge, from the moment when lie touched its threshold he was on no account to be seized by his pursuers, except by the bishop or the bishop’s servants. If in his flight he entered the priest’s house or, its court-yard, he enjoyed the same peace and security that he would have in the church itself, provided the house and court-yard were within the glebe of the church.

We see, then, that in the middle ages all churches possessed the privilege of sanctuary, though some churches possessed it in a much greater degree than others. The Cathedral of Durham was one of these more favoured churches. The reason of the greater privilege was, doubtless, in the case of Durham, because it contained the shrine of St. Cuthbert. Criminals who fled hither “besought the immunity of the said church and the liberty of St. Cuthbert,” just as, at Beverley, they came “to the peace of St. John of Beverley.”

When the claimant of sanctuary reached the cathedral of Durham, he proceeded to the north door, and, raising the bronze ring which hangs from the bronze monster’s mouth, knocked loudly for admission. When the echoes died away, he listened intently. Perhaps his avengers were close upon his track, and he feared every moment to hear their footsteps. Each minute that he waited would seem to him an age. But he had not long to wait. Day and night alike there were persons within the church ready to answer his knock. “There was certain men,” says the Ancient Rites of Durham, “that did lie always in two chambers over the said north church door, for the same purpose that when any such offenders did come, and knock, straightway they were letten in, at any hour of the night.” How the refuge seeker’s heart would beat when he heard the monks drawing back the long oaken bar which secured the door, and what a sense of unspeakable relief would he feel when he had entered the sacred edifice and the door was once more bolted!

“So soon as the refugee had entered the church he did run straightway to the Galilee Bell and tolled it, to the intent that any man that heard it might know that there was some man that had taken sanctuary.” The prior was informed with all speed of the culprit’s arrival, and there upon issued an injunction that he should keep within the limits of sanctuary, which, at Durham, extended to the bounds of the churchyard. He had also, in the presence of reliable witnesses, to make a full and explicit statement of the crime he had committed, giving names, place, and date, and, in cases of murder or manslaughter, stating the character of the instrument he had used. He was then furnished with a gown made of black cloth, on the left shoulder of which a yellow cross, “called St. Cuthbert’s cross,” was set, “to the intent that every one might see that there was such a freelige granted by God unto St. Cuthbert’s shrine, for every such offender to flee unto for succour and safeguard of their lives.” The sanctuary of Durham continued for very culprit for a period of 37 days, during which he was furnished with meat, drink, and bedding at the expense of the convent. His sleeping place was on “a grate” within the church, “adjoining unto the Galilee door on the south side,” that is, at the west end of the south aisle of the nave.

During the days of sanctuary, the refugee might, if he could, compound with his adversaries. If he failed to do this, he was required to appear, clothed in sackcloth, before the coroner, confess his crime, and abjure the realm. The usual form of abjuration was as follows:

This hear thou. Sir Coroner, that I [mentioning his name] of [mentioning his previous place of residence] am a [mentioning the character of his crime], and because I have done such evils in his land I do abjure the land of our lord the king, and I shall haste me towards the port of [mentioning a port appointed by the coroner],and that I shall not go out of the highway; and if I do, I will that I be taken as a robber and a felon of our lord the king; and that at such a place I will diligently seek for passage, and that I will tarry there but one flood and ebb if I can have passage; and unless I can have it in such a place, I will go every day into the seas up to my knees assaying to pass over: and unless I can do this within forty days, I will put myself again into the church as a robber and a felon of our lord the king, so God me help and His holy judgment.  

As he travelled on his way to the port appointed for his departure, the culprit was conducted from place to place by the constables of the different parishes through which he passed.

Amongst the records of Durham Cathedral is a register of the persons who sought sanctuary there between 1464 and 1524. This register was printed more than fifty years ago by the Surtees Society. The entries, which, with one or two exceptions, are in Latin, give the name and place of abode of the claimant, the date and place of the commission of his offence, the name of the person he killed, robbed, or injured in any way, with other particulars. Each entry closes with the names of the witnesses who heard the culprit’s confession. Many incidental remarks in this register are interesting. For instance, “the ringing of bells” when the refugee urged his plea of sanctuary is frequently mentioned; showing the importance which was attached to the ancient practice. In one case the culprit desires “the immunity of the church aforesaid and the liberty of St. Cuthbert, between the Tyne and the Tees, for himself, his chatells, and all his goods.” The register to which I refer affords a most valuable picture of the state of society prior to the Reformation, and indicates the extent to which sanctuary was claimed and the nature of the crimes from the consequences of which it afforded a refuge to the perpetrators.

The instances in which persons claimed sanctuary for offences committed in Newcastle are rather numerous; but the following abstracts will not, perhaps, be quite without interest:

1477, 4th July. Christopher Holme desired sanctuary, and confessed that on the 24th April last, at Newcastle-on-Tyne, he, with Harry Stobbes and Humphrey Usher, met one William Marley, and grievously struck and wounded him with a staff called a “walshbill,” in consequence of which the said William died.  

1489-90, 13th January. Alexander Taylleyour desired sanctuary, because he, on the Wednesday after the feast of Epiphany, in the year aforesaid, in Newcastle, near Caylecrosse, had feloniously struck one Thomas Smyth, in self-defence, with a certain weapon, under the left breast, whence the said Thomas died the same day.  

1493, 4th August. Robert Grene, of South Shields, desired sanctuary, because he, on the 1st August, in the year aforesaid, in Newcastle, in a certain street called the Close, in consequence of an attack made upon him by one Robert Nicholson, of Winlaton, twice struck and feloniously wounded the aforesaid Robert in his chest, from which wounds he died.  

1495, 16th December. John Bonner, of Gateshead, desired sanctuary, because he, on the Sabbath Day next before the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula, 14 years before, attacked one Alexander Stevenson, near Dotland Park, in Hexhamshire, and feloniously wounded in him the chest with a dagger, otherwise called a “whinyard,” from which wound he immediately died.  

1502, 9th August. Roger Raw, merchant, of Newcastle, desired sanctuary, because he, on the 6th day of the month aforesaid, in the town of Newcastle, in a street commonly called the Side, with a Scotch axe, attacked one Antony Ray, and grievously wounded him in four parts of his body, viz., in the flank, and in the left breast, and in both arms.  

1503. 2nd August. Thomas Wylkynson, of Gateshead, desired sanctuary, because on account of an attack made on him by one John Rede, of Alnwick, on St. Michael’s Day, 1502, in self defence he struck the said John Rede with a whinyard, and mortally wounded him twice in the chest and also in the neck, from which wounds the said John immediately died.  

1507, 9th June. John Sharparow, of Newcastle, desired sanctuary, because he, on the 6th of the said month, in consequence of an attack made on him by Edward Gallon, of the said town, feloniously struck the said Edward with a dagger, inflicting upon him a mortal wound on the right side of his neck, from which, the day after, the said Edward died.  

1508, 7th November. Edward Robson, of Tynemouth, desired sanctuary, because on the Sabbath before Palm Sunday, in a street commonly called Cloth Market, in the town of Newcastle, he feloniously struck one Edmund Tailyour on the shoulder with a dagger, of which he immediately died.  

1509, 31st March. Robert Bynks, of Newcastle, desired sanctuary, because on the last Sunday in Lent, in the house of a certain Thomas Sanderson, near the churchyard of St. Nicholas’s Church, he feloniously and mortally struck one Robert Tailyour in the right breast with a dagger, in consequence of which he died within five days.  

1512,11th October. Robert Lee desired sanctuary, because he, with others, was present when one John Fresill, between the walls of the town of Newcastle and the water of Tyne, and below the bridge of Tyne, mortally struck one William Wright with a dagger on his back between the shoulders, on the ninth day of the month aforesaid; from which wound he died the same day. Lee also declares that he aided and helped Fresill to escape from the hands of the bystanders.  

1514, 22nd May. John Horsley, of Newcastle, desired sanctuary. On the 13th December, 1513, on the Sandhill, in Newcastle, in consequence of an attack made on him by one John Taytte, he feloniously and mortally struck the said John Taytte with a dagger en the right side of the chest, inflicting on him a mortal wound, from which he immediately died. For which felony John Horsley was taken and arrested by the officers or servants of the lord the king in that town, and put in the prison there called Newgate, which prison the same John Horsley feloniously broke and escaped.  

1515, 5th September Colt, of Alnwick, shoemaker, desired sanctuary, because he on the day of the month of in the year aforesaid, feloniously broke and escaped from a certain prison in the town of Newcastle called the Newgate, where he with others was imprisoned, and because he is afraid, on account of such prison breaking and escape, to submit himself to the secular law.  

1515, 9th September. Roland Hall, of Marley-on-the-Hill, in the parish of Whickham, desired sanctuary because, in consequence of an attack made upon him, he struck one Thomas Herysby, of Whickham, with a sword, at the Close Gate, on the feast of Our Lady’s nativity, inflicting on him a mortal wound, of which he died the same day.  

It would be very easy to extend these extracts. They have a local interest, but in other respects are by no means so remarkable as are the records of persons who came from other parts of the country to claim sanctuary. By far the largest number of fugitives are homicides. A few are thieves, cattle and horse stealers are rather numerous; a smaller number are prison breakers; about the same number are burglars; whilst some only ask sanctuary from the claims of their creditors.

Amongst the most remarkable cases of murder are the following:

Jacob Manfield, who describes himself as a “gentilman,” accuses himself of having, about a month previously, with a Welch bill, murdered Roland Mebburn, the rector of Wycliffe, at Ovington. Roland Carlyll, a yeoman of the county of Durham, at Ashby, in the county of Lancaster, murders one John Cowton of that place, with a wood axe, then steals the murdered man’s horse, and very quickly makes off. A year and a half after he comes to Durham and claims sanctuary. Thomas Spence, “esquire,” of Bowes, in Yorkshire, has commanded Hebart Conyngham, probably his servant, to hang one Thomas Meburn, “a Scotchman,” without any legal trial, and the command has been obeyed. Doubtless, Meburn’s only offence was that of having come from over the Border. The Yorkshire squire becomes alarmed about the consequences of his rash act, and seeks sanctuary.

Three canons of Eglestone Abbey, near Rookby, accompanied by one of the abbey servants, are met near Lartington by one Richard Appleby, of Cutherstone, and his accomplices and adherents. Appleby and his followers attack the canons, whose servant strikes Appleby with a Welch bill, dealing him a blow on the back of the head, from which he died within twelve days. The servant claims sanctuary for the homicide he has committed, and the canons because they defended their servant.

Three men from Calton, in Yorkshire, claim sanctuary, two of them, in December, 1510, and one in July of the following year, because they were present when one Richard Horsley, of Calton, was forcibly taken from his mother’s house, carried into a neighbouring field, and so seriously wounded that he died within a month.

In October, 1510, one Thomas Gy or Gye, of Wistow, near Selby, claims sanctuary for having, eleven days before, killed one William Pynchsbek, at Wymersley. The sanctuary is granted, and Gye is able to make such arrangements as permit him to remain in England. But three month later he re-appeared at Durham, this time, however, to confess both to an older and a more recent crime. In the previous May he had stolen twenty heifers and calves from the forest of Gawtress, near Easington. These he had driven off to Bridlington, selling two of them on his way, and disposing of the remaining eighteen to the Prior of Bridlington. On the last day of November, that is, shortly after his previous visit to Durham, he had gone once more to the forest of Gawtress, and had stolen four calves, which he sold at Welton to one Gilbert Gye, doubtless a relative. Yet, for his repeated offences, Durham afforded him protection from secular law.

A most singular feature of many of the cases recorded is the length of time which elapsed after a crime was committed before the criminal sought sanctuary. For instance, a man at Carlisle kills another with a Carlisle axe, and comes to Durham for sanctuary twelve years afterwards. A murder at Ripon is confessed at Durham thirteen years after the event. Four brothers named Hayden, of Whickham, attack a man with swords on the banks of the Dryburn in Allandale, and kill him. Eighteen years afterwards one of the Haydens seeks sanctuary at Durham; and his example is followed two and a half years later by one of his brothers. But the most extraordinary instance is that of a man who kills a stranger at Shoreditch, near London, “with a pitchingstaff,” and confesses his crime at Durham twenty-six years afterwards.

A considerable number of persons claimed sanctuary for crimes committed in poaching affrays of one kind or other. In one case five men, evidently poachers, four of whom came to Durham together for sanctuary, murdered a gamekeeper by striking him with a crabstaff in Huntington Park, in Cheshire.

Amongst cases of horse-stealing, the following is the most interesting: John Tod, of Swine, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, confesses that at Westminster, “near London,” nine years before, he had stolen a horse, and certain moneys, to the amount of five marks, from N. Dale, a priest, the seneschal of the Lord of Hastings.

One entry I have determined simply to translate, inasmuch as it throws considerable light on the ceremonies observed when a fugitive abjured the country:

Be it remembered that, the 13th day of the month of May, Anno Domini, 1497, one – Colson, of Wolsingham, in the county of Durham, was detected in the act of theft, and by reason of this theft was taken and thrust into prison, and detained, yet, escaping from prison, he fled to the Cathedral Church of Durham, on account of the immunity to be had there, and whilst he stood near the shrine of St. Cuthbert, he requested that a coroner might be appointed for him. John Raket, coroner of the ward of Chester-le-Street, therefore came to him, and to him the same Colson confessed the felony, he taking oath to abandon the kingdom of England, and leave it with all the speed that he conveniently could, and never to return to it; which oath he took at the shrine of St. Cuthbert, before George Cornforth, Sacristan of the Cathedral Church of Durham, Ralph Bows, knight and High Sheriff of Durham, John Rakett, Robert Thrylkett, Under Sheriff, Hugh Holland, Nicholas Dickson, and many others then present. By reason of which renunciation and oath all the ornaments of the aforesaid Colson, in due right, pertained to the aforesaid sacristan: and his office; for which reason Coleon was commanded that he should take off his garments even to his shirt, and deliver them to the aforesaid sacristan. This he did, and placed those garments at the disposal of the aforesaid sacristan, and the sacristan, when those garments had been delivered and placed in his possession, graciously returned and gave him all his ornaments in which he was at that time vested. And afterwards the said Colson retired from the church, and was delivered to the nearest constables by the aforesaid High Sheriff, and afterwards from one party of constables to another, carrying a white cross made of wood, as a fugitive, and being led to the nearest seaport, in order there to take ship, and never to return. These things were done in the year of our Lord, the month, day, and place aforesaid.

By several Acts of Parliament, passed in the reign of Henry VIII., the privileges of sanctuary were considerably abridged; and, after being further limited in 1603, they were completely abolished in 1624.


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