English Coroner System Part 4: Sanctuary
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History of the Medieval English Coroner System By Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE

C R O W N E R
Part 4: The Right of Sanctuary

Seeking Sanctuary

Another fascinating aspect of the early Coroner system was "sanctuary". Criminals - or even merely suspects, who rightly had a cynical view of justice - often sought sanctuary after a crime had been committed. They were joined in this by many gaol-breakers as escape from custody was a very common practice in those days. Gaols were primitive affairs and unless situated within a castle, were usually ordinary buildings used on an ad hoc basis. The local community had to act as gaolers and their main incentive to be good ones was a heavy fine if they let the prisoners escape. Yet the costs in loss of working time and in feeding the prisoners were balanced by the feeling that these fines were an inevitable form of taxation. So their alertness was often minimal. The fugitive would usually make for the nearest church to claim sanctuary, knowing that the law declared him safe there, free from interference for forty days. This would give him breathing space to decide on his next move. He had a number of alternatives, two of which involved the Coroner. Firstly, he had a good chance of escaping again. The local folk were burdened with guarding and feeding him, so quite often they would turn a blind eye and let him slip away. Even though they knew the Coroner would put them up before the Judges for a stiff fine at the next Eyre. Secondly, he could surrender to the Coroner or Sheriff, but that almost certainly meant dangling at the end of a rope. Thirdly, he could decide to "abjure the realm", meaning he could avoid trial and execution by leaving the country under a set routine prescribed by the Coroner. The Coroner was responsible for arranging these "abjurations of the realm" for fugitives in sanctuary. He had to take their confessions without which they were not allowed to leave. He seized all their land and chattels, if they had any, and recorded all the details for presentation at the next Eyre.

There was a formal pattern to the whole procedure of sanctuary, almost like a religious rite, from which it had indeed descended. Of very ancient origin, the concept of sanctuary began with feelings of compassion for the hunted, aroused by early religious and ethical codes. The Hebrews had six Levitical cities of refuge, and in Greek and Roman times there were sanctuaries that ante-dated the Christian ethic of compassion. The Saxon Kings, especially Aethelbert, had strong views on the inviolacy of sanctuary and the Normans accepted and extended the Saxon scale of fines for the violation of churches to seize sanctuary-seekers. 12th century law states that anyone laying violent hands on a fugitive in a cathedral or abbey was subject to a fine of a hundred shillings, but a parish church merited only twenty shillings and a chapel a mere ten.

The criminal, suspect or gaol-breaker only had to reach a church, or even a religious building such as an Abbot's House, to claim sanctuary for forty days. It was not always necessary to enter the actual building, the churchyard was usually sufficient. In some places, a wide area around the church was equally safe, the boundaries being marked by special "sanctuary posts". For instance, around the Abbeys of Hexham and Beverley, crosses were erected at a distance of one mile to indicate the area of sanctuary. Other special devices were sometimes used, but were not strictly necessary: well-known examples being the "sanctuary knockers," like that on the great door of Durham Cathedral, onto which the accused could hold and "frith stools," like that in Hexham Abbey, on which the fugitive could sit. In Durham the fugitive had to wear a long black robe with a Cross of St. Cuthbert embroidered on the left shoulder. A toll bell formally declared his claim to sanctuary.

The fugitive had to come unarmed and was not have committed any sacrilege. For example, a thief in Buckinghamshire was chased to a church, where he stole the vestry keys to try to escape. For this sacrilege, he was legitimately hauled out of the church and beheaded in the roadway outside, the Coroner arriving in time to hold an inquest on his body. Incidentally, it was also the Coroner's duty to see the severed head was taken back to the county gaol! The Coroner's duties have changed a bit in recent years. Some felons, such as habitual robbers and night thieves, were denied sanctuary at certain places. Otherwise all manner of fugitives could claim this inviolate right to stay unharmed for forty days, the locals having to feed them at their own expense and see that they did not escape. Though, as with gaol, it was often cheaper to let them run away. The felon did not have to leave the sanctuary until his forty days were up, even where he had confessed to the Coroner in the interim. However, if he refused to leave at the end of that time, he was as good as dead. Although, in theory, he could not be dragged out, it became a very serious offence to aid him in any way. Indeed, it meant a hanging for any layman who even communicated with him after the forty days were up, though a priest was only banished for this offence. When he finally emerged (unless he died inside from hunger and thirst), he would be immediately seized and executed on the spot.

Abjuration of the Realm

In most cases the fugitive confessed to the Coroner, then he "abjured the realm". The confession was usually taken by the Coroner at the gate or stile of the churchyard, or in the chancel, and it had to refer to a felony, not a lesser offence. In 1241, a Berkshire Coroner was himself hauled before the Justices in Eyre for allowing a man to "abjure the realm" for a petty larceny of corn worth only sixpence. The minimum amount for a felony was the theft of a shilling.

After confessing his crime to the Coroner on his knees in the presence of a jury, the sanctuary-seeker had to take the oath of abjuration, swearing on the Gospels that:

"I swear on the Holy Book that I will leave the realm of England and never return without the express permission of my Lord the King or his heirs. I will hasten by the direct road to the port allotted to me and not leave the King's highway under pain of arrest or execution. I will not stay at one place more than one night and will seek diligently for a passage across the sea as soon as I arrive, delaying only one tide if possible. If I cannot secure such passage, I will walk into the sea up to my knees every day as a token of my desire to cross. And if I fail in all this, then peril shall be my lot".

After taking this oath, the Coroner had to arrange for his departure. The most important matter was the choice of a port of embarkation. Many Coroners appeared perverse in the extreme, choosing ports that were as far as possible from the place of sanctuary. For example, many Yorkshire Coroners made their felons walk all the way to Dover, sometimes giving them an impossibly short time to get there. A Kent Coroner, in 1313, was censured by the Eyre for sending a felon to Portsmouth, when Dover was just down the road, though most similar acts by Coroners went unchallenged. Many different ports were used. Dover was the most frequent, as it was the shortest crossing to France, but many others, from Berwick to Yarmouth, from Rochester to Ilfracombe, were also employed.

Of course the law stated that felons must abjure the realm of England, so many went to Scotland, Ireland and even Wales, until the latter country was conquered by the English in 1282. There was a large flow of regular abjurors across the border into Scotland. Some Scots cattle raiders used sanctuary as a regular routine to avoid a hanging. They would come across the border, steal the cattle, abjure and then go home - and it was all legal!

The Coroner had to give formal instructions to the abjuror before he set off, in terms such as:

"You will cast off your own clothing, which will be conficated and sold. You will wear only an ungirdled garment of crude sackcloth and you will walk bareheaded, carrying a wooden cross before you, made with your own hands from wood in the churchyard. You will tell passers-by what you are and you must take care not to stray from the highway nor stay in one place more than one night. If you fail, people are justly entitled to treat you as the wolf and behead you. And if you ever set foot in England again, you will be outlaw and your head forfeit to any man who can lift a sword".

In some areas, a long white robe had to be worn instead of a sackcloth to mark the felon out to the public. The Coroner was also obliged to give a public warning to the local people, ordering them not to interfere with the abjuror en route, but this was often disregarded as soon as he went around the first bend in the road. Many were murdered before they got very far, usually by a vengeful relative who lay in wait along the roadside. Even if the fugitive dared use the footpath alongside the highway he was considered "as the wolf's head," as the expression went, and was fair game for decapitation or any other form of slaying. In the Bishopric of Durham there was a system whereby he was handed on from Constable to Constable along the route, but elsewhere the abjuror was at the mercy of the local people.

Probably only a small proportion ever reached their nominated port of departure. A large number simply disappeared and became outlaws. This was preferable to surrendering and meeting an almost certain death on the gallows. For the few who did get to the port, they had to go through the ritual of seeking a ship and wading in and out with the tide each day until a passage was possible. If they could not leave within forty days due to bad weather, then, in theory, they could seek new sanctuary in a local church and start the business all over again. However, there is no record of this ever happening. The majority just threw away their wooden crosses on a lonely stretch of road and melted away into the woods to take up a new identity or join the many bands of outlaws that plagued the country - and I suspect that half of Robin Hood's band were probably failed abjurors. The exile was theoretically for life but, in fact, many of them did come back.

The Coroner and his jury had to value the abjurer's goods and decide whether they were forfeit to the Crown. The Coroner also held inquests into escapers from sanctuary. Henry VIII introduced the branding of the letter 'A' on to the thumb of all abjurors and then stopped exile abroad, making them go, on pain of death if they emerged, to designated sanctuaries in England for the rest of their life. This was abandoned in 1603 and the whole process of sanctuary was abolished by James I in 1623. Recent attempts by illegal immigrants to avoid deportation by living in a church are therefore wholly without any legal validity.

Part 3: The Coroner's Inquest
Part 5: Trial by Ordeal

Readers interested in the activities of the medieval coroner should check out Bernard Knight's 12th century Mystery Novels featuring Crowner John de Wolfe, the first coroner for the County of Devon.



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