Sanctuary, Violence, and Law in Late Medieval England

Abstract

In its medieval form, sanctuary law granted a wrongdoer who fled to a church protection from forcible removal as well as immunity from capital or corporal punishment.  The fugitive might be required to pay a fine, forfeit his goods, perform penance, or go into exile, but almost without exception his body and his life were to be preserved.  Laws carving out sanctuary protections appear in every major medieval legal tradition.  Late fourth-century Roman law recognized sanctuary, ensuring that it was part of the legislative traditions that medieval Europe received from Rome.  Ecclesiastical canons reiterated it, backing sanctuary with the Church’s spiritual authority.  In the early Middle Ages, a host of royal legislative commands repeated it, mooring sanctuary to images of pious and benevolent kings.  In later medieval England, sanctuary traditions were incorporated into the routine administration of royal law, providing a resolution to all sorts of felonies until Tudor reforms all but abolished the privilege.  In many cities on the Continent sanctuary remained a central feature of feuding, exile, and dispute resolving processes until the sixteenth century. 

Scholars have long associated sanctuary protections with social violence; assuming that sanctuary protections thrived where public authority was too weak prevent feuding practices.  Yet, the evidence from the early English common law suggests that sanctuary protections thrived were centralized authority was relatively strong.  This paper examines the legal and ecclesiastical discourses that linked sanctuary protections to strong kingship and social stability in twelfth-century England, and shows that the Crown actively sought to incorporate sanctuary protections into the processes of royal law.