Mapping Durham’s Medieval Sanctuary Seekers

Posted by Krista Kesselring; 2 July 2018.

Speed Durham 3

Sanctuary-seeking today typically refers to the efforts of refugees fleeing war or persecution who hope for asylum in a safe place, usually across a national border. In medieval England, people in debt or who had broken the king’s law—people hoping to avoid imprisonment in deadly gaols or death at the end of a rope—sometimes sought sanctuary of a different sort. Churches offered refuge to fugitives and debtors in a practice that harkened back to both Mosaic and Roman law, and did so typically with the blessing of royal authorities: as Shannon McSheffrey explains in her recent book on the subject, an offender’s flight to sanctuary allowed tempers to cool in the aftermath of a fight, offering the chance for private compensation or judicial settlements rather than violent reprisals, and gave officials more flexibility in responding to crime.[1]  In England, sanctuary for criminal offenders came to an end in the 1530s. Until then, however, many a person had turned to these asylums. And in many cases, somewhat surprisingly, they travelled very long distances to do so.

sanctuary knocker 2I was lucky enough to spend the last few months in Durham, where I’d often pass by its great fortress of a cathedral and its forbidding hell-mouth of a sanctuary-knocker.[2] In the middle ages, people fearing for their lives ran to this cathedral for refuge. All churches could offer 37 to 40 days of protection, within which time the offenders might try to arrange their safe departure or orderly trial by law, or else ‘abjure the realm’ – leave the country with a promise never to return. Over the fifteenth century, some churches also came to claim a right to provide longer term refuge. Durham cathedral was one such sanctuary.

Unusually, in Durham, the confessions that the offenders made to secure permission to stay survive.[3] As I’m working on the history of homicide, I read through these petitions, which provide details about killings in a time and place for which we have few coroners’ inquisitions. In reading them, though, I also became curious about the places from which these people fled – it quickly became evident that many had travelled distances that seemed (to me, at least) surprisingly long. If they were in immediate danger of reprisal or arrest, they could have found refuge in any parish church, or they could have turned to a number of other northern churches that claimed the right to provide long-term sanctuary – Beverley minster had perhaps the largest and most generous sanctuary provision, but Ripon, Norham, and the priories of Hexham, Tynemouth, Wetherhal, and Armathwaite seem to have made such claims, too.[4] Nevertheless, the people who made these confessions had, in many cases, journeyed far from the scenes of their crimes to get to Durham, often bypassing other sanctuaries nearer at hand.

The collection includes petitions from 283 men who admitted to involvement in 195 homicides, from 1464 to 1524.[5] Some of the people who appeared at Durham cathedral confessed to killings done many long years before – one spoke of a killing committed 14 years previously, one 18, and one a full 26 years earlier. Most of the men admitted to much more recent crimes, though. One killing was very coldly calculated: Thomas Spense, of Bowes, York, sought sanctuary at Durham as he’d ordered the hanging of the Scotsman Thomas Meburn without any lawful trial and now worried that he might face punishment of his own for having done so.[6] Most of these people maintained that they had killed only in self-defence, though, or after being attacked by the victim. Most spoke of the sort of short-tempered brawls one might expect, with clubs, swords, staffs, daggers, etc., readily at hand to make the damage deadly. The clerks who recorded the confessions noted that some of the men spoke with much contrition when asking for protection: Thomas Huchenson and his son Robert, for example, fled to the cathedral after Robert killed someone in a fight and were recorded to have sought refuge with ‘great sadness of the heart’.[7]

Thomas and Robert came from Haydon Bridge, Northumberland – roughly 50 kms away from Durham if they travelled in a straight line, which they almost certainly did not. That’s a solid day’s travel, whether on horse or on foot. Four people confessed to killings near London. Men also travelled from places as far afield as Coventry and Ipswich.  Most had committed their crimes in the north, but still not in places terribly close to Durham.

To get a better sense of the distances travelled, I turned to Google Maps and plotted the 126 locations of killings mentioned in these confessions that I could easily identify.[8] A fixed image is included below, but this link takes anyone who’s interested to a version of the map that can be expanded or shrunk to show the full range of places from which these sanctuary-seekers travelled. This is just a quick and dirty bit of mapping for curiosity’s sake, but clearly, people came from far afield to claim refuge in Durham’s cathedral.

Durham sanctuary map

Why travel so far for sanctuary if a place nearer at hand might do? When first reviewing the Durham records, a few possibilities came to mind. Many of the confessions – as written, at least – specifically invoke St. Cuthbert, the patron saint of the cathedral and the region more generally. Did the unusual degree of respect and veneration accorded this saint perhaps account for some people’s decisions to flee to his shrine?[9] More prosaically, were offenders perhaps hoping to benefit from the jurisdictional immunities afforded by Durham’s distinctive status as a palatinate, governed by prince-bishops with a striking degree of independence from royal courts of law? Or maybe the men who staffed this large, busy monastic and diocesan centre of activity had simply acquired a reputation for effectively managing sanctuary-seekers and their claims?

But perhaps it wasn’t unusual to travel so far. A register for Beverley’s sanctuary survives, too, from 1478 to the 1530s. Its entries tell us less often of the place of the homicide (and give far fewer details overall), but the claimants do identify their place of origin. Mapping a combination of these locations for about 110 of the people who sought sanctuary there for homicide shows a similar skew of dots on the map. Again, we see travellers arriving from far afield, or at least from a long hard day or two’s ride away, to find safety from arrest or reprisal.

As such, we might not need reasons specific to Durham or to a given place to explain the long journeys. Maybe people just thought themselves likelier to evade attack or capture if they went somewhere other than the nearest sanctuary. It may be no more complicated than that. Nonetheless, I still find it striking how far people travelled to get to these places of refuge. And if nothing else, when we remember that the dots on these maps all stand in as proxies for fatal encounters, indicating not just the starting points for sanctuary-seekers’ journeys but also the places where victims of violence came to their ends, the images seem all the more striking. Providing sanctuary honoured a biblical injunction, true, but must also have seemed a vital necessity for interrupting cycles of violence in a dangerous time and place.

Durham and Beverley

[Detail of map of Durham sanctuary-seekers’ homicides (red) and of Beverley sanctuary seekers’ places of origin or killing (green).]

Image credits:

Seventeenth-century maps of Durham from John Speed’s ‘The Bishoprice and Citie of Durham’, The Theatre and Empire of Great Britaine (1611/12), courtesy Cambridge University Libraries.

Author’s photo of Durham’s new sanctuary knocker.

Main maps produced using Google Maps.


[1] Shannon McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in England, 1400-1550 (Oxford, 2017). See also Karl Shoemaker, Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500 (New York, 2011). An older survey, still useful in some respects, can be found in J. Charles Cox, The Sanctuaries and Sanctuary Seekers of Medieval England (London, 1911).

For the later history of refugee relief – first in the post-Reformation conflicts for co-religionists in peril and then, by the nineteenth century, for people in danger more generally – see Caroline Shaw’s book, Britannia’s Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief (Oxford, 2015).

[2] The knocker now on the exterior of the cathedral–and shown in the photo — is a modern reproduction, but the original is displayed inside.

(My thanks to Durham’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and University College, as well as the EU, for making the stay possible.)

[3] They are scattered amongst other items in the registers of priory business, but helpfully, James Raine collated and published them: Sanctuarium Dunelmense et Sanctuarium Beverlacense, ed. J. Raine. Surtees Society Publications, vol. 5. (London, 1837). For reasons not yet known, the last petition in the registers dates from 1524, before the end of sanctuary elsewhere.

[4] Cox, Sanctuaries, pp. 150ff.

[5] There are confessions from some people who sought sanctuary for other offences, too; I’m only mapping the killings here. Also, while all the people in this group were men, a few women are recorded as having claimed sanctuary elsewhere. See, e.g., ibid, p. 113, for Etheldreda Weler’s claim of sanctuary at Beverley for unspecified felony.

[6] Ibid, p. 26.

[7] Ibid, p. 68.

[8] In some of these confessions, the place of the killing wasn’t mentioned, but if the killer and victim were both identified as being from the same place, I’ve treated that as the scene of the crime.

[9] Christian Liddy examines the special relationship between the saint and the people of the region (‘Haliwerfolc’) in The Bishopric of Durham in the Late Middle Ages: Lordship, Community, and the Cult of St Cuthbert (Woodbridge, 2008).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s