The Sanctuary Ring

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St Sylvester's Sanctuary Ring

The sanctuary ring was a metal ring attached to the door of a church. A fugitive from the law had only to touch the knocker in order to claim the right of sanctuary. This allowed him to stay in the church, free from prosecution, for a period of time, usually 40 days. The most famous sanctuary knocker in Britain is that at Durham Cathedral, which is quite ornately carved, with a lion’s face, but a sanctuary knocker could equally well be a simple iron ring, usually set on a round iron plate affixed to the door. The right of sanctuary was abolished by law in the early 17th century.

Sometimes the criminal had to get to the chapel itself to be protected, or ring a certain bell, hold a certain ring or door-knocker, or sit on a certain chair (“frith-stool”).

Church sanctuaries were regulated by common law. An asylum seeker had to confess his sins, surrender his weapons, and permit supervision by church or abbey organization with jurisdiction. They then had forty days to decide whether to surrender to secular authorities and stand trial for their alleged crimes, or to confess their guilt, abjure the realm, and go into exile by the shortest route and never return without the king’s permission. Those who did return faced execution under the law and/or excommunication from the Church.

If the suspect chose to confess their guilt and abjure, they did so in a public ceremony, usually at the church gates. They would surrender their possessions to the church, and any landed property to the crown. The coroner, a medieval official, would then choose a port city from which the fugitive should leave England (though the fugitive sometimes had this privilege). The fugitive would set out barefooted and bareheaded, carrying a wooden cross-staff as a symbol of protection under the church. Theoretically they would stay to the main highway, reach the port and take the first ship out of England. In practice, however, the fugitive could get a safe distance away, abandon the cross-staff and take off and start a new life. However, one can safely assume the friends and relatives of the victim knew of this ploy and would do everything in their power to make sure this did not happen; or indeed that the fugitive never reached their intended port of call, becoming a victim of vigilante justice under the pretence of a fugitive who wandered too far off the main highway while trying to “escape.”

Knowing the grim options, some fugitives rejected both choices and opted for an escape from the asylum before the forty days were up. Others simply made no choice and did nothing. Since it was illegal for the victim’s friends to break into an asylum, the church would deprive the fugitive of food and water until a decision was made.

Henry VIII changed the rules of asylum, reducing to a short list the types of crimes which were allowed to claim asylum. The medieval system of asylum was finally abolished entirely by James I in 1623.