Keys to the Past


Right of sanctuary

Medieval criminals could claim this right to gain time for a legal defence or passage to exile by reaching certain places. The places where a criminal had to reach were churches where the criminal had to touch an object and/or toll a bell, confessing his sins to any person present there. Sanctuary was given for certain crimes for a fixed period of time, such as a month, after which the criminal had to accept the legal charges against him, or accept banishment to a foreign country. The criminal was given continued sanctuary to the nearest port and the criminal put on the first ship abroad.

The legal authorities would then be bound, under threat of excommunication (being expelled from the church), to give the period of legal freedom before pursuit could be resumed. Sometimes these legal freedoms were ignored - John of Keteringham MP, was excommunicated in 1313AD for arresting men at the White Friars, Newcastle upon Tyne, (Tyne and Wear). Sanctuary could be given at large and small churches, from Durham Cathedral to North Gosforth chapel (Tyne and Wear). Sanctuary crosses would give the boundaries of the legal areas.

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