Today my theme is sanctuary, worth a blog post for the sheer pleasure of typing the name Dyfnwal, the Bald and Silent. Dyfnwal was an early Welsh king credited with inventing the concept of sanctuary. Did he, or didn’t he? We may never know, but it’s a great name anyway, Dyfnwal. Better even than Ethelred, the Ill-Advised.
|frith-stool, Hexham Abbey|
Sanctuary inside a church had become an established right in England by the 11th century. It gave an alleged criminal breathing space to decide how to plead, or a political fugitive time to consider his options. Some foundations - York Minster, Battle Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey to name just a few - offered a broader interpretation of sanctuary than simply the interior of the church; a kind of Super Sanctuary. In those specially licensed places as long as you were within the area bounded by sanctuary stones and as long as you hadn’t committed high treason or sacrilege you were safe from arrest.
|Sanctuary Stone, Beverley Minster|
Every place of sanctuary had its own rules. Some had a stone seat, called a frith-stool, which you had to reach in order to enjoy the benefit of sanctuary. Some had a door knocker you needed to touch and shout ‘Pax!’ This reminds me of those truce words children used to use during street games. If your shoe lace was undone or your mother was hollering for you to go in for your dinner, you needed time out from the game. Where I grew up, in the Midlands, we used to cross our fingers and cry ‘skwogs!’ Do today’s children, accustomed to the pause button, still use such words, I wonder? But in wondering I have wandered from my theme.
Once you were inside a place of sanctuary and had surrendered any weapons you had forty days in which to decide whether a) to stand trial or b) to forfeit all property to the Crown and abjure the realm, allowed to return only if pardoned by the King, otherwise on pain of death. If you chose exile you were required to declare it publicly - ‘Quick, everybody down to the church, Jethro Juggins is about to abjure the realm.’ It would have been a hot ticket.
The coroner would then tell you which port you must sail from and you would be despatched, barefoot and carrying a wooden cross, instructed to keep to the King’s highway, not to dally and to sail on the first available vessel. Of course some fugitives never made it to their designated port. Some went on the run, some fell foul of summary justice meted out along the way by aggrieved victims or their relatives.
People also sought sanctuary for political reasons. This was particularly true during the Wars of the Roses when fortunes swung back and forth according to the outcome of each battle. Edward IV’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary twice in Westminster Abbey. On the first occasion she was pregnant and gave birth there to her first son of that marriage, the future Edward V. After her husband’s death she ran for sanctuary again and took a quantity of furniture with her. Sanctuary didn’t necessarily mean privation.
The right to sanctuary was finally abolished in 1623 but there were other places that afforded a person some immunity from being seized and thrown into prison: The Liberties. Liberties were little enclaves where the King’s writ didn’t run and the law was whatever the mesne lord said it was. London had several until they were gradually abolished in the 19th century. One of the most famous was the Liberty of Clink, now home to Michelle Lovric of this parish.
The Clink Liberty was the fiefdom of the Bishop of Winchester. It had its own prison which gave its name to prisons in general. And among its other claims to fame was a very accommodating view on the licensing of brothels and theatres. The Globe and Rose theatres were both situated within the Liberty of Clink and its bawdy houses were serviced by women known as Winchester Geese. Pandarus speaks of them in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
My fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss,
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases
And at that time, bequeath you my diseases.
Sanctuary, Liberties, both places where once upon a time a person could go to earth, buy a little time, enjoy a bit of leeway, as long as he knew where to go. I suppose these days there’d be an App for it.
I read your post with interest, especially after a night of guilty dreams - thank you!
Guilty dreams, Joan? Is there something you want to tell us?
Thank you, Laurie, and I am very much enjoying the Liberty of the Clink these days, and today of all days, more than most!
I really enjoyed reading this - I love little nuggets of information like this. Thanks
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