The Privilege of Sanctuary

Westminster Abbey was an extremely popular Sanctuary.

In medieval England, a criminal could go to a church and claim protection from the law. The authorities and the processes of criminal justice could not reach him. This was based on the idea that no force could be used on the consecrated and holy ground of the churches.

This privilege, called sanctuary, could be taken up by any criminals, ranging from murderers, rapists and thieves to the simple debtor who owed a sum of money.

The common law of the time stated that the privilege of sanctuary could only be used for up to 40 days. However, there were in existence some large sanctuaries (such as Westminster Abbey) that could house hundreds of criminals and had the facilities for them to stay indefinitely. When the criminals attempted to continue their criminal activities from the Abbey, the practice of these large sanctuaries was heavily frowned upon by the authorities and the public.

A criminal taking sanctuary had to, within the time limit of 40 days, decide on one of two courses of action. He could either turn up at the court and declare he was ready for a trial or he could elect to leave the country forever. He would then be escorted safely to the nearest port and would journey to a new country.

Judges attempted on several occasions to stop the proliferation of sanctuaries by stating that no new ones could be made without the King’s consent. However, many were already in existence and continued their activities.

There was a significant case between 1516 and 1520 regarding a large sanctuary at St John’s Priory. This led to calls for reform and Henry VIII declared that the ancient kings and old popes never had the intention of letting the sanctuaries be used to such a gross extent.

Henry proceeded to abolish almost all sanctuaries and removed the possibility of using the privilege for almost all crimes. The practice did not breathe its last until a statute of 1624 which stated ‘no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary to be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case’.


Filed under English Legal History

13 responses to “The Privilege of Sanctuary

  1. Pingback: History of Capital Punishment | English Legal History

  2. It is really cool to read things like this and know where some of the terms we hear a lot come from. It also makes you realize how much things have changed from then to now.


  3. Thanks for your comment Noah. I fully agree! It’s fascinating discovering the origins of a certain term or practice from English Legal History. It is also useful in informing modern understanding of an issue. If you understand something’s past, you better understand how it developed and how it applies today.


  4. David Lee Wise

    Yes, I too am glad to know the reasoning behind the term “sanctuary.”


  5. Debtor sanctuaries revived after the restoration. Whilst most were abolished by statute in 1697, Southwark Mint continued until 1723, succeeded by the short-lived Wapping Mint which was put down by 1725.

    I write about these sanctuaries at

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Robert Forrest

    The coroner had a significant role in sanctuary cases, arising out of his duty to garner property that might be forfeit to the Crown. For example, to to confiscate an outlaw’s or a suicide’s property. The coroner would have to negotiate the surrender to justice of the sanctuary seeker, or, if the sanctuary seeker decided to abjure the kingdom, to confiscate his property and set him on the road to the nearest port.


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