Friday 8 May 2015

'The Sanctuary That Made Heads Spin' by Karen Maitland

St John of Beverly on the Minster.
Photo: Graham Hermon
Yesterday (7th May) was the Saints Day of St. John of Beverley, one of the few men who can claim to have frightened William the Conqueror, even though John died 345 years before the Battle of Hastings. According to legend, King William sent Toustain, one of his most ruthless men, to loot Beverley Minster in Yorkshire and drag out the people who had taken refuge in there. But, the moment Toustain approached the altar, St John felled him to the floor with a blinding light, all his limbs swelled up and his head revolved in a full circle.
William the Conqueror invasion of England

The reason for the saint’s anger was that Toustain had violated the ancient right of sanctuary granted to Beverley by King Æthelstan (the first Saxon King of all England) in 938, who attributed his victory over the Scots to the intervention of St. John. In gratitude, he had a firth stool placed in Beverley and the sanctuary area extended for a mile and half in any direction from that stool. If someone was accused of a crime which carried the death penalty, they could temporarily save themselves by claiming sanctuary there. If their accusers attempted to seize them within this holy circle, they would face a huge fine, and dragging a man away from the altar or off the frith stool itself was punishable by death.

The word frith comes from the Old Englifh fiðu meaning peace, protection and safety. It has many different associations in Anglo-Saxon culture, but friþgeard, meaning sanctuary, was an enclosed sacred space where the gods were worshipped.

After the Norman Conquest, there were two kinds of sanctuary. The first was general sanctuary within any church, which could be claimed in some cases by grasping the door knocker or in others by touching the altar. But that did not always offer as much safety as you might hope, because although the church was supposed to feed and protect you if you claimed sanctuary, in practice you would often be hounded out, since your accusers would surround the building and blockade it. This happened to Hubert de Burgh who’d taken sanctuary in Brentwood Church, Essex and was starved into surrender on the orders of the boy king Henry III.

Frith stool at Beverley Minster
The second kind was the wider sanctuary area, like that at Beverley, which might extend to a mile or more around the church, but which was only granted to a few places by charter. These including Battle Abbey, Beverley, Colchester, Durham, Hexham, Norwich, Ripon, Wells, Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and York Minster.

Sanctuary crosses or stones in the town marked the boundary of the sanctuary area around these churches. The period of sanctuary granted varied between churches, but most were between 30 to 40 days. Anyone accused of a capital offence could claim sanctuary, unless they were accused of heresy or they were a serf, a Jew or had been excommunicated. Of course, there are many instances throughout the centuries of powerful men simply ignoring the rights of sanctuary, such as when John of Gaunt’s men murdered Frank de Hawle  by stabbing him twelve times in Westminster Abbey when he claimed sanctuary there.

When period of sanctuary was ended, the fugitive could try to escape or, in Beverley, he could opt to
Sanctuary Stone or cross marking the medieval boundary of
the St John of Beverly Sanctuary
become a Frithman of Beverley, by swearing to serve the Church and surrendering all he owned to the Crown. But this meant he could never leave the town again.

The third option to those leaving sanctuary from any church was to plead guilty and swear to ‘abjure the realm’ in order to escape the death penalty. If this was accepted, the guilty man was instructed to walk barefoot to a designated port along the king’s highway, dressed in penitential clothes and carrying a cross-staff as a symbol that he’d been granted safe passage. Once there he had to stand knee-deep in the sea during the hours of daylight until he could find a ship willing to take him out of the country. Obviously, the victim or victim’s relatives would try to ensure he never reached the ship alive and many felons ran off, the moment they were out of sight of the authorities, to become outlaws. But they would then be declared wolf’s heads, which meant anyone could kill them with impunity and claim a bounty.

But this right to sanctuary had some interesting consequences for other towns. The sanctuary at Beverley brought a host of criminals to the little town of Barton on the opposite side of the wide river Humber, where it opens into the North Sea. There was a ferry at Barton, but the strong tides and currents in the estuary meant it could only operate every twelve hours. So if a fugitive could clamber aboard just before it sailed, he could leave his pursuers fuming helplessly on the bank, while he was rowed to safety. If he could get hold of a horse, he could reach Beverley before those hunting him could cross. Large numbers of thieves, murderers and innocent men too must have hidden up in Barton and the surrounding countryside waiting for their chance to make it to the ferry, very like modern asylum seekers. Many were caught, but many escaped, including one resident of Barton in the 1300’s, Elias de la Hill, who had struck Richard de la Hill and found himself fleeing for his life to Beverley.

As for William the Conquerer, after he heard what had happened to Toustain, he wisely decided to leave Beverley’s sanctuary unviolated. Even he knew he couldn’t defeat a saint. The 1,000 year old frith stool is still inside Beverley Minster, though if you were thinking of committing murder I must warn you that the right to sanctuary there was abolished by Henry VIII in the 1530’s.
7th Century Frith stool in Hexham Abbey
Photo: Mike Quinn


Sue Purkiss said...

Well, I'm glad somebody frightened William the Conqueror. I've just been reading about him - what an unpleasant man! And Harold doesn't seem to have been any better - the Ladybird book about 1066 I read as a child seems to have painted a very rose-tinted picture of the pair of them!

Penny Dolan said...

I knew a little about sanctuary but what an informative post this is, Karen, especially if you live in Yorkshire! It's hard now to imagine that pursuers (whether "good" or "bad")would respect/fear the spiritual powers of this law but many must have done.