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Claiming ‘Sanctuary’ in a Medieval Church Could Save Your Life—But Lead to Exile

April 18, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

The . “It would be inappropriate in the extreme to carry weapons into the church or to arrest someone or to exercise force within the church.”

In addition, the church was “deeply suspicious about the punishments meted out by secular authority,” he says. Many early church leaders thought the Roman Empire was too concerned with punishing criminals as opposed to “restoring the moral balance between the wrongdoer and God.” Sanctuary was meant to address the latter. If fugitives claiming sanctuary weren’t already Christians, they were supposed to convert.

READ MORE: How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers

Murder and theft were the most common crimes for which fugitives sought sanctuary in medieval Europe. Once a fugitive entered a cathedral, their pursuers could lie in wait for them outside, but they couldn’t enter to capture anyone. In addition, fugitives couldn’t bring a bow and arrow into the church to attack their pursuers from the windows, or any other weapon that they might use to defend themselves once they left.

While safe inside, fugitives might work out an agreement with the people they wronged in order to leave safely. Yet more often, fugitives had to go straight from sanctuary into permanent exile from their city, region or country. This was especially true in England beginning in the 12th century, when the country legally regulated sanctuary more than any other region in Europe.

According to England’s laws during this period, fugitives who claimed sanctuary had to leave England for the rest of their lives unless they received a royal pardon, which was very difficult to obtain. And unlike most European churches, which didn’t have formal limits on how long a person could claim sanctuary, English people weren’t supposed to stay in sanctuary for more than 40 days.

A short sanctuary followed by exile was still better than a death sentence; and for many people, it was also better than prison. “Jails were a common place to die,” says Elizabeth Allen, an English professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies sanctuary in medieval England. “You weren’t eating well, you were given often just bread and water and disease was quite common.”

Though English sanctuary was the most heavily-regulated type in Europe, English people didn’t always follow the letter or the spirit of the laws. ln the 14th century, a London woman murdered a priest in a church and then tried …read more


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