Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Sanctuary was a right of the English Church whereby cathedrals, abbeys, churches, and churchyards could serve as places of refuge for criminals, debtors, victims of abuse, and political refugees.

In theory, a person claiming sanctuary could remain unmolested in the sanctuary precincts for forty days, after which time the person had to either stand trial for his offense or confess and swear to abjure (i.e., leave) the realm. If the latter, the offender was escorted from sanctuary to the nearest port by a local constable. If no ship was immediately available, the person had to daily wade into the sea up to his knees and cry out for passage until a vessel could be found to transport him. During the Middle Ages, certain English liberties (i.e., jurisdictions exempt from royal authority) and certain sanctuaries possessing papal or royal charters were accepted as permanent places of refuge. Although the right of sanctuary was found throughout Christian Europe, it was nowhere so widely used or so highly formalized as in England.

During the WARS OF THE ROSES, the concept of sanctuary for political offenders and political refugees was both widely applied and widely violated. Queen Elizabeth WOODVILLE fled twice into sanctuary at Westminster. From October 1470 to April 1471, during the READEPTION of HENRY VI, the queen remained unmolested at the abbey, even giving birth there to her son, the future EDWARD V. Elizabeth’s second period in sanctuary, from May 1483 to March 1484, was occasioned by the death of her husband, EDWARD IV, and the ensuing political coup of her brother-in-law, Richard, duke of Gloucester, who seized custody of Edward V to prevent the establishment of a government dominated by the WOODVILLE FAMILY. In June 1483, Gloucester either pressured or compelled Elizabeth to send her son Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, out of sanctuary and into the duke’s custody. The queen herself remained at Westminster until finally coaxed from sanctuary by a promise of support for her daughters, who had shared her confinement.

Several times during the wars, victors on the battlefield violated sanctuary to seize and execute losers. Edward IV had Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset, and other Lancastrian survivors of the Battle of TEWKESBURY forcibly removed from Tewkesbury Abbey. Two days after the battle, Somerset and most of his sanctuary companions were condemned and then beheaded in Tewkesbury marketplace. In April 1486, Francis LOVELL, Lord Lovell, and the brothers Sir Thomas and Sir Humphrey Stafford, adherents of RICHARD III who had been in sanctuary since the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD in the previous August, emerged from their refuge to incite rebellion against HENRY VII. When the Staffords returned to sanctuary in May after the rebellion collapsed, Henry ordered them seized and brought out for trial, an action that resulted in the condemnation of both and the execution of Sir Humphrey. The Stafford case led to the first legal limitations on the right of sanctuary; after much debate, the Stafford judges ruled that sanctuary did not apply in cases of treason or for second offenses.

Further Reading: Gillingham, John, The Wars of the Roses (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); Goodman, Anthony, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Dorset Press, 1981); Kendall, Paul Murray, The Yorkist Age (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962); Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987).

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