Medieval Criminals Could Avoid Persecution By Claiming Sanctuary In Churches

Breaking the law during the Middle Ages was very easy and crimes were common. You could be punished for almost anything.

If a person committed a crime, he or she could avoid persecution by claiming sanctuary in a church.

In Medieval times, women could be punished for gossiping and witchcraft. One way of punishing a gossiper was to force the person to wear the Mask of Shame.

Men were often punished for not working hard enough, being drunk, theft, and murder. In some cases, men could also be punished for witchcraft. The worst kind of crime anyone could permit was high treason against the King.

Some churches had special knockers that a fugitive had only to touch to be safe. There was also a special “safe area” often marked with stone crosses that extended beyond the church. As soon as a criminal reached the sacred safety area, he or she was safe.

How long a criminal could stay in a sanctuary varied. There were churches that offered permanent sanctuary, but in most cases the time of stay was limited to 40 days. During this time, the criminal had two choices. One option was to stand trial. The other possibility was to leave the country.

A person who decided to leave the country was given a special outfit to wear, a cross or staff to carry and instructions how to get to a specific port.

The sanctuary rules changed in 1486. It was now declared that sanctuary did not apply to cases of treason.

This led to the execution of many people. Among them was Sir Humphrey Stafford (1402-1460), who took part in the war of the Roses on the Yorkist side and was executed by Henry VII for his support of Richard III. Sir Stafford had sought sanctuary in Culham Church in Oxforshire. Stafford was arrested, removed from the Church and executed.

Life of medieval criminals became even more difficult when shortly after this Pope Innocent VIII declared that second offenders could no longer claim sanctuary on sacred ground. Both King Henry VIII and James I limited the right of sanctuary until it finally disappeared in the 18th century.

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