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’.