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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(from the late Lat. sanctuarium, a sacred place), a sacred or consecrated place, particularly one affording refuge, protection or right of asylum; also applied to the privilege itself, the right of safe refuge. In Egyptian, Greek or Roman temples it was applied to the cella in which stood the statue of the god, and the Latin word for altar, ara, was used for protection as well. In Roman Catholic usage sanctuary is sometimes applied to the whole church, as a consecrated building, but is generally limited to the choir. The idea that such places afforded refuge to criminals or refugees is founded upon the primitive and universal belief in the contagion of holiness. Hence it was sacrilege to remove the man who had gained the holy precincts; he was henceforth invested with a part of the sacredness of the place, and was inviolable so long as he remained there. Some temples had peculiar privileges in this regard. That of Diana at Ephesus extended its inviolability for a perimeter of two stadia, until its right of sanctuary was refused by the Romans. Not all Greek and Roman temples, however, had the right in an equal degree. But where it existed, the action of the Roman civil law was suspended, and in imperial times the statues and pictures of the emperors were a protection against pursuit. Tacitus says that the ancient Germans held woods, even lakes and fountains, sacred; and the Anglo-Saxons seem to have regarded several woods as holy and to have made sanctuaries of them, one of these being at Leek in Staffordshire.

The use of Christian churches as sanctuaries was not based upon the Hebrew cities of refuge, as is sometimes stated. It is part of the general religious fact of the inviolability attaching to things sacred. The Roman law did not recognize the use of xxiv. 5 Christian sanctuaries until toward the end of the 4th century, but the growing recognition of the office of bishop as intercessor helped much to develop it. By 392 it had been abused to such an extent that Theodosius the Great was obliged to limit its application, refusing it to the publici debitores. Further evidence of its progress is given by the provision in 397 forbidding the reception of refugee Jews pretending conversion in order to escape the payment of debts or just punishment. In 398, according to contemporary historians, the right of sanctuary was completely abolished, though the law as we have it is not so sweeping. But next year the right was finally and definitely recognized, and in 419 the privilege was extended in the western empire to fifty paces from the church door. In 431, by an edict of Theodosius and Valentinian it was extended to include the church court-yard and whatever stood therein, in order to provide some other place than the church for the fugitives to eat and sleep. They were to leave all arms outside, and if they refused to give them up they could be seized in the church. Capital punishment was to be meted out to all who violated the right of sanctuary. Justinian's code repeats the regulation of sanctuary by Leo I. in 466, but Justinian himself in a Novel of the year 535 limited the privilege to those not guilty of the grosser crimes. In the new Germanic kingdoms, while violent molestation of the right of sanctuary was forbidden, the fugitive was given up after an oath had been taken not to put him to death (Lex. Rom. Burgund. tit. 2, § 5; Lex. Visigoth vi. tit. 5, c. 16). This legislation was copied by the church at the council of Orleans in 511; the penalty of penance was added, and the whole decree backed by the threat of excommunication. Thus it passed into Gratian's Decretum. It also formed the basis of legislation by the Frankish king Clotaire (511-588), who, however, assigned no penalty for its violation. Historians like Gregory of Tours have many tales to tell showing how frequently it was violated. The Carolingians denied the right of sanctuary to criminals already condemned to death.

The earliest extant mention of the right of sanctuary in England is contained in the code of laws issued by the AngloSaxon king iEthelberht in A.D. 600. By these he who infringed the church's privilege was to pay twice the fine attaching to an ordinary breach of the peace. At Beverley and Hexham i m. in every direction was sacred territory. The boundaries of the church frith were marked in most cases by stone crosses erected on the highroads leading into the town. Four crosses, each 1 m. from the church, marked the mile limits in every direction of Hexham Sanctuary. Crosses, too, inscribed with the word "Sanctuarium," were common on the highways, serving probably as sign-posts to guide fugitives to neighbouring sanctuaries. One is still to be seen at Armathwaite, Cumberland; and another at St Buryan's, Cornwall, at the corner of a road leading down to some ruins known locally as "the Sanctuary." That such wayside crosses were themselves sanctuaries is in most cases improbable, but there still exist in Scotland the remains of a true sanctuary cross. This is known as MacDuff's Cross, near Lindores, Fifeshire. The legend is that, after the defeat of the usurper,Macbeth, in 1057, and the succession of Malcolm Canmore as Malcolm III. to the Scottish throne, MacDuff, as a reward for his assistance, was granted special sanctuary privileges for his kinsmen. Clansmen within the ninth degree of relationship to the chief of the clan, guilty of unpremeditated homicide, could, on reaching the cross, claim remission of the capital sentence. Probably the privilege has been exaggerated, the fugitive kinsmen were exempt from outside jurisdiction and liable only to the court of the earl of Fife.

The canon law allowed the protection of sanctuary to those guilty of crimes of violence for a limited time only, in order that some compensation (wergild) should be made, or to check bloodvengeance. In several English churches there was a stone seat beside the altar which was known as the frith-stool (peace-stool), upon which the seeker of sanctuary sat. Examples of such sanctuary-seats still exist at Hexham and Beverley, and of the sanctuary knockers which hung on the church-doors one is still in position at Durham Cathedral. The procedure, upon seeking sanctuary, was regulated in the minutest detail. The fugitive had to make confession of his crime to one of the clergy, to surrender his arms, swear to observe the rules and regulations of the religious houses, pay an admission fee, give, under oath, fullest details of his crime (the instrument used, the name of the victim, &c.), and at Durham he had to toll a special bell as a formal signal that he prayed sanctuary, and put on a gown of black cloth on the left shoulder of which was embroidered a St Cuthbert's cross.

The protection afforded by a sanctuary at common law was this: a person accused of felony might fly for safeguard of his life to sanctuary, and there, within 40 days, go, clothed in sackcloth, before the coroner, confess the felony and take an oath of abjuration of the realm, whereby he undertook to quit the kingdom, and not return without the king's leave. Upon confession he was, ipso facto, convict of the felony, suffered attainder of blood and forfeited all his goods, but had time allowed him to fulfil his oath. The abjurer started forth on his journey, armed only with a wooden cross, bareheaded and clothed in a long white robe, which made him conspicuous among medieval wayfarers. He had to keep to the king's highway, was not allowed to remain more than two nights in any one place, and must make his way to the coast quickly. The time allowed for his journey was not long. In Edward III.'s reign only nine days were given an abjurer to travel on foot from Yorkshire to Dover.

Under the Norman kings there appear to have been two kinds of sanctuary; one general, which belonged to every church, and another peculiar, which had its force in a grant by charter from the king. This latter type could not be claimed by prescription, and had to be supported by usage within legal memory. General sanctuaries protected only those guilty of felonies, while those by special grant gave immunity even to those accused of high or petty treason, not for a time only but apparently for life. Of chartered sanctuaries there were at least 22: Abingdon, Armathwaite, Beaulieu, Battle Abbey, Beverley, Colchester, Derby, Durham, Dover, Hexham Lancaster, St Mary le Bow (London), St Martin's le Grand (London), Merton Priory, Northampton, Norwich, Ripon, Ramsey, Wells, Westminster, Winchester, York (Soc. of Antiq. of London, Archaeologia, viii. 1-44, London, 1787. Sketch of the History of the Asylum or Sanctuary, by Samuel Pegge). Sanctuary being the privilege of the church, it is not surprising to find that it did not extend to the crime of sacrilege; nor does it appear that it was allowed to those who had escaped from the sheriff after they had been delivered to him for execution.

Chartered sanctuaries had existed before the Norman invasion. About thirty churches, from a real or pretended antiquity of the privilege, acquired special reputation as sanctuaries, e.g. Westminster Abbey (by grant of Edward the Confessor); Ripon (by grant of Whitlase, king of the Mercians); St Buryans, Cornwall (by grant of Æthelstan); St Martin's le Grand, London, and Beverley Minster. "The precincts of the Abbey," says Dean Stanley, "were a vast cave of Adullam for all the distressed and discontented in the metropolis, who desired, according to the phrase of the time, to ` take Westminster.'" Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV., took refuge in the Abbey with her younger children from the hostility of Richard III. In the next reign the most celebrated sanctuary-seeker was Perkin Warbeck, who thus twice saved his neck, at Beaulieu and Sheen. John Skelton, tutor and afterwards court poet to Henry VIII., fearing the consequences of his caustic wit as displayed in an attack on Wolsey, took sanctuary at Westminster and died there in 1529.

The law of abjuration and sanctuary was regulated by numerous and intricate statutes (see Coke, Institutes, iii. I 15); but grave abuses arose, especially in the peculiar sanctuaries. The attack on these seems to have begun towards the close of the 14th century, in the reign of Richard II. During the 15th century violations of sanctuary were not uncommon; the Lollards were forced from churches; and Edward IV. after the battle of Tewkesbury had the duke of Somerset and twenty Lancastrian leaders dragged from sanctuary and beheaded.

At the Reformation general and peculiar sanctuaries both suffered drastic curtailment of their privileges, but the great chartered ones suffered most. By the reforming act of 1540 Henry VIII. established seven cities as peculiar sanctuaries. These were Wells, Westminster, Northampton, Manchester, York, Derby and Launceston. Manchester petitioned against being made a sanctuary town, and Chester was substituted. By an act of James I. (1623), sanctuary, as far as crime was. concerned, was abolished throughout the kingdom. The privilege lingered on for civil processes in certain districts which had been the site of former religious buildings and which became the haunts of criminals who there resisted arrest - a notable example being that known as Whitefriars between Fleet Street and the Thames, E. of the temple. This locality was nicknamed Alsatia (the name first occurs in Shadwell's plays in Charles II.'s reign), and there criminals were able to a large extent to defy the law (see Sir Walter Scott's Fortunes of Nigel and Peveril of the Peak), arrests only being possible under writs of the Lord Chief Justice. So flagrant became the abuses here and in the other quasisanctuaries that in 1697 an act of William III., known as "The Escape from Prison Act," finally abolished all such alleged privileges. A further amending act of 1723 (George I.) completed the work of destruction. The privileged places named in the two acts were the Minories, Salisbury Court, Whitefriars, Fulwood's Rents, Mitre Court, Baldwin's Gardens, The Savoy, The Clink, Deadman's Place, Montague Close, The Mint and Stepney. (See Stephen, History of Crim. Law, i. 113.) In Scotland excommunication was incurred by any who attempted to arrest thieves within sanctuary. The most famous sanctuaries were those attaching to the Church of Wedale, now Stow, near Galashiels, and that of Lesmahagow, Lanark. All religious sanctuaries were abolished in the Northern Kingdom at the Reformation. But the debtor found sanctuary from "diligence" in Holyrood House and its precincts until late in the 17th century. This sanctuary did not protect criminals, or even all debtors, e.g. not crown debtors or fraudulent bankrupts; and it was possible to execute a meditatio fugae warrant within the sanctuary. After twenty-four hours' residence the debtor had to enter his name in the record of the Abbey Court in order to entitle him to further protection. Under the Act 1696 c. 5, insolvency concurring with retreat to the sanctuary constituted notour bankruptcy (see Bell, Commentaries, ii. 461). The abolition of imprisonment for debt in 1881 practically abolished this privilege of sanctuary.

A presumptive right of sanctuary attached to the royal palaces, and arrests could not be made there. In Anglo-Saxon times the king's peace extended to the palace and 3000 paces around it: it extended to the king himself beyond the precincts. At the present day Members of Parliament cannot be served with writs or arrested within the precincts of the Houses of Parliament, which extend to the railings of Palace Yard. During the Irish agitation of the 'eighties Parnell and others of the Irish members avoided arrest for some little while by living in the House and never passing outside the gates of the yard.

The houses of ambassadors were in the past quasi-sanctuaries. This was a natural corollary of their diplomatic immunities (see Diplomacy). The privilege was never strictly defined. At one time it was insisted that the immunity accorded an ambassador included his house and those who fled to it. At an earlier date sanctuary had actually been claimed for the quarter of the town in which the house stood. At Rome this privilege was formally abolished by Innocent XI. (Pope 1676-1689), and in 1682 the Spanish ambassador at the Papal Court renounced all right to claim immunity even for his house. His example was followed by the British ambassador in 1686. Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and Venice abolished by express ordinance in 1748 the asylum-rights of ambassadorial residences. In 1726 the Spanish government had forcibly taken the duke of Ripperda out of the hotel of the English ambassador at Madrid, although the Court of St James had sanctioned his reception there. At Venice, too, some Venetians who had betrayed state secrets to the French ambassador and had taken refuge at his house were dragged out by troops sent by the senate.

In Europe, generally, the right of sanctuary survived under restrictions down to the end of the 18th century. In Germany the more serious crimes of violence were always excepted. Highwaymen, robbers, traitors and habitual criminals could not claim church protection. In 1418 sanctuary was further regulated by a bull of Martin V. and in 1504 by another of Julius II. In a modified form the German Asylrecht lasted to modern times, not being finally abolished till about 1780. In France le droit d'asile existed throughout the middle ages, but was much limited by an edict of Francis I. in 1539, Ordonnance sur le faut de la justice. At the Revolution the right of sanctuary was entirely abolished.

Bibliography. - T. J. de Mazzinghi, Sanctuaries (Stafford, 1887); J. F. Stephen, Hist. of Criminal Law of England (3 vols., London, 1833); Luke Owen Pike, History of Crime (2 vols., 18 751876); Aug. von Bulmerincq, Das Asylrecht (Dorpat, 1853); Henri Wallon, Droit d'asile (Paris, 1837); Samuel Pegge,"Sketch of History of Asylum or Sanctuary," Soc. of Antiq. of London, Archaeologia viii. 1 -44 (London, 1787); A. P. Stanley, Memorials of Westminster Abbey (London, 1882); Bissel, The Law of Asylum in Israel (1884); Graszhoff, "Die Gesetze der rOmischen Kaiser fiber das Asylrecht der Kirche," in the Archiv f. kath. Kirchenrecht, Bd. 37; E. Lining, Geschichte des Kirchenrechts, i. 37; ii. 355.

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Sanctuary'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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