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Sanctuary in medieval churches: how criminals found protection from capture and punishment

If you were convicted of a serious crime in 13th-century England, you could expect to be put to death – unless you made it to the sanctuary of a church first. Kenneth F Duggan reveals the attempts made by criminals to elude justice by fleeing to holy ground...

A 19th-century lithograph showing a medieval criminal claiming sanctuary by placing his arm through the ring on a church door (Picture by Bridgman)
Published: February 3, 2022 at 9:05 am
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Laurence Duket raced to the church of St Mary-le-Bow in London on 26 July 1284. Although only a handful of people initially knew why he sought sanctuary there that evening, everyone in London would come to know of Duket’s story when, five days later, his lifeless body was discovered hanging from a beam inside that church.

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Londoners heard how Duket had attacked Ralph Crepyn in the parish of Westcheap, giving him what the court records say was a “nearly deadly wound”. At the time, Duket thought he had killed Crepyn, an alderman and London’s first recorded town clerk, and fearing he would be hanged for committing homicide he immediately headed to the sanctuary of St Mary-le-Bow.

Running to a church for protection after committing a crime was not uncommon. People knew to do it. Sanctuary was recognised as a right granted specifically to criminals as an extension of Christ’s mercy. According to contemporary English law, no one could be forcibly removed from the sanctuary of a church – not even a criminal. And in many places a church’s sanctuary extended beyond the walls of the building and encompassed the entire churchyard.

By gaining sanctuary, Duket was protected from those bent on capturing and punishing him. So it was shocking to many that Duket was found dead in the church on the morning of 31 July.

Initially, Duket’s death was believed to be a suicide. Surely no one would dare to kill someone in a church. But before the coroner had an opportunity to examine Duket’s body and confirm the cause of death, sheriff Jordan Goodcheap had it cut down and buried in a ditch beyond the city walls.

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The story would have ended there had it not been for a boy who had witnessed what happened on the night of 30 July: Crepyn’s friends had snuck into the church, beat and stabbed Duket to death, cleaned the wounds, and then hanged him in an attempt to make it appear as if Duket had taken his own life.


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Murders in the church

Murders rarely occurred in medieval churches, but when they did, news of them travelled far and wide. William FitzHerbert, archbishop of York, died during mass in 1154 after he drank from a poisoned chalice. And the bishop of Hereford’s agent, Bernard, prior of Champagne, was murdered during mass in the episcopal chapel in 1252.

Arguably the most famous example of a murder in a church is the assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 – made all the more controversial by the fact that the killers apparently believed that they were acting on the orders of King Henry II.

The death of Becket was an exceptional case. Instead of being involved in murders within churches, medieval rulers were responsible for ensuring the safety of people in sanctuary, as well as the trial and punishment of those who killed in churches.

Upon hearing about Duket’s killers, the crown sent a special commission of justices to deal with “the Satellites of Satan” who had committed the heinous deed. For their felonious and sacrilegious act, seven men were publicly drawn and hanged. An eighth person, Alice of Gloucester (Crepyn’s mistress, who reportedly recruited the other murderers), was burned alive. Finally, Ralph Crepyn and the sheriff were imprisoned and forced to pay heavy financial penalties for their role in the concealment of the crime.

In early medieval England, offences such as homicide were dealt with through a system of feud and compensation. Family and friends of both offenders and victims settled matters largely on their own, without royal intervention.

Churches kept the peace by reducing instances of retaliation and providing protected spaces in which fugitives could remain unmolested while tempers cooled

In this environment, churches played a fundamental role in the maintenance of law and order. They reduced in- stances of retaliation, helping prevent feuds from erupting into violent, large-scale conflict by providing protected spaces in which fugitives could remain unmolested while tempers cooled. They also afforded wrongdoers’ families and friends time to negotiate peaceful (usually financial) settlements with victims and their family.

But things changed. The royal government increasingly took control over the punishment of crime away from local communities. By the 13th century, people in England were no longer permitted to settle criminal matters on their own through a system of feud and compensation.

All homicides and thefts of goods valued at 12 pence or more had to be brought to the attention of royal justices so that they could try and punish the criminals.

Returned to church

Yet the church remained a hugely powerful force in medieval England and, as such, individual churches retained the prerogative to act as sanctuaries for suspected criminals. In fact, the rules and practices of sanctuary became even more entrenched in English criminal law once the punishment for crime transitioned from compensation to execution.

The crown and its royal justices endeavoured to ensure that anyone who entered a consecrated church would not be removed from it unwillingly. If a person was forcibly removed from sanctuary, the justices would return that person to the church.

In 1277, Richard Hutte was captured in Wiltshire with stolen goods on him. But he escaped from custody and fled to the church of St Peter in Old Salisbury. While in sanctuary, Hutte’s pursuers pulled him from the church by force with the intention of making him stand trial. To their dismay, once the royal justices discovered what had happened they ordered “that he be restored to that church”.

Running from the law: three medieval criminals who sought sanctuary

Susan Pygburd

Crime: Murdering her husband

In c1249, a Wiltshire woman called Susan Pygburd told authorities that she had discovered her husband Roger’s dead body lying in his bed in the village of Eblesburn. He had been murdered. Susan soon came under suspicion and was put in custody. However, she had no intention of going to trial. She escaped and fled to a nearby church, where she confessed that she had killed Roger and was then permitted to abjure the realm.

Why Susan killed Roger is unknown. The only other detail we know about the case is that a man named Walter Scut was also accused of homicide. He fled and was later outlawed. Had Susan stood trial and been convicted, she would have been executed by burning.

John Franklin

Crime: Murder – then. failing to abjure the realm

John Franklin was an outlaw who, in c1287, had killed William Lench in Arlingham, Gloucestershire. Being an outlaw meant that anyone could kill him with impunity. But instead of living the remainder of his life in hiding, Franklin returned to Gloucestershire. People there recognised him and pursued him. Luckily for John, he was able to reach Cirencester church, where he confessed his crime and was permitted to abjure the realm.

It seemed that Franklin would elude justice because he had reached sanctuary before he could be captured. But instead of abjuring the kingdom, the outlaw returned to the county once again, at which point villagers from Arlingham chased him down and beheaded him.

Reginald Dunch

Crime: Thefts

Apprehended in Suffolk in c1286 on suspicion of having committed many thefts, Reginald Dunch was brought to gaol and, later, tried before royal justices in Ipswich. The verdict: guilty. After the case was heard, villagers from Barking were ordered to take Dunch to the gallows.

But on the way there they “led him through the middle of the churchyard of All Saints in Ipswich, and he remained there once he entered the churchyard and refused to leave until he abjured the realm”. Did the villagers walk Reginald to the gallows through a churchyard by accident or design? No one knows.

Considering that the punishment for committing a crime in 13th-century England was often death by hanging, it’s understandable that suspected criminals sought sanctuary. Yet they could not remain there indefinitely. They had 40 days to make one of two decisions: they could hand themselves over to the coroner who would have them gaoled (or sometimes bailed) until trial, or they could abjure the realm.

Abjuration was the process by which individuals in sanctuary confessed to a crime before a coroner and people from the neighbouring villages. Then, after their confession, they obtained licence to depart permanently from the kingdom under the crown’s protection.

As long as abjurers did not stray from the path leading to the port chosen for their departure, or remain in any place longer than one night, then they would not be captured and tried for their crime. However, if they wandered around or remained in one place too long they could be killed with impunity.

In c1275, Robert Gorwy claimed sanctuary in Fladbury church in Worcestershire. He summoned the coroner and confessed that he had killed David, son of Robert the Miller, by striking him in the head with a staff. After his confession, Robert was permitted to abjure the realm. But Robert had other plans. He failed to stick to the route that had been assigned to him. He was likely attempting to flee somewhere in England where he could set up a new life rather than leave the kingdom. Whatever the reason, it was a bad decision. He was captured and beheaded.

Abjuring from the realm

Sometimes abjurers were killed even when they followed the rules. Aylmer l’Escot was abjuring the realm after he had killed a man with an axe and claimed sanctuary in Westmorland. In c1256, while heading to the port he was forced off the road and beheaded. Similarly, two burglars from Yorkshire named Alan, son of Roger and John Carpenter were seized on the king’s highway and beheaded while they were abjuring in c1257.

Technically, those who killed abjurers could be charged with murder – but when they could claim that the abjurers had strayed from the path to the port, this was often difficult to prove. Consequently, those who killed abjurers often received lenient penalties, if they were punished at all. Imprisonment until a fine was paid or the confiscation of their chattels rather than execution, was often the highest price they could expect to pay.

Most abjurers didn’t meet the same grisly fate as Aylmer l’Escot. They did, however, lose everything they owned. The crown confiscated the goods and lands of all people who fled from royal justice (whether they were guilty or not). This included the goods of any person who claimed sanctuary.

Additionally, abjurers could never return to the kingdom. If they did, they risked summary execution. This was the price they had to pay to avoid trial and death by hanging.

What the authorities did when confronted with someone who refused to quit sanctuary is less clear. One technique, employed by Hubert Walter against William Fitz Osbert in 1196, involved smoking out the fugitive by starting a large fire near the church. (Some records state that the church itself was actually set on fire.)

But this was a unique situation. Walter was both the archbishop of Canterbury and the justiciar. The dispute had begun when Walter had ordered a group of men to arrest William, the leader of a popular uprising of Londoners against the oppressions of taxation. On their arrival, a fight had broken out and William had killed one of the men, after which he had fled to the church of St Mary-le-Bow in London (the same church in which Laurence Duket would be killed decades later).

In 1196, Hubert Walter smoked out a fugitive by starting a large fire near the church

William’s freedom was short-lived. When Walter’s fire forced him from the church, William was stabbed by the son of the man he had killed. He survived – but not for long. After being captured, the would-be revolutionary was tried, convicted, dragged behind a horse to the gallows, and hanged.

Technically, Walter did not break the rules of sanctuary with his underhanded tactic, and the sources suggest that King Richard I was pleased with the handling of the disturbance in London. Nevertheless, few would dare to repeat Walter’s actions. Surprisingly, the records reveal that few people stayed beyond the 40-day limit, and there’s little evidence to indicate that those who did were removed from sanctuary against their will.

Hopscotching bandits

Once a person claimed sanctuary, the neighbouring villages were notified so they could guard the church to prevent their escape (the crown did not want bandits and outlaws using sanctuaries to hopscotch around England in safety). In fact, whenever someone in sanctuary escaped, these villages were forced to pay a hefty financial penalty.

Escapes happened, but they were uncommon: more than 90 per cent of sanctuary seekers went through the process of abjuration. This demonstrates the power of sanctuary and the respect that people in medieval England had for it. Yet it also shows that medieval churches could be a nuisance to royal justice. Churches, in effect, prevented the crown from trying and punishing its subjects.

More than 90 per cent of sanctuary seekers went through the process of abjuration. This demonstrates the power of sanctuary and the respect that people in medieval England had for it

While complaints about criminals’ use of sanctuary were few and far between, the fact that there were murders in churches suggests that sanctuary was a source of resentment for some people. This was probably the case with Laurence Duket’s murder. He had so angered Ralph Crepyn and his cronies in London that they might have thought abjuration too lenient. So they broke the rules of sanctuary and murdered him.

Ironically, the eight people who were executed for murdering Duket could have saved their own lives had they remained in the sanctuary of St Mary-le-Bow church after committing their heinous crime.

Kenneth F Duggan is a professor in the Department of History at Vancouver Island University

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This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine

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