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Right of Sanctuary

Sanctuaries or asylums, wherein people could find temporary protection, existed among many different peoples—e.g., the cities of refuge of the Jews. Christian sanctuaries, first recognized by Roman law in 399, were given further legal rights in 419 and 431. Justinian, however, in a statute of 535, limited the privilege to persons not guilty of the grosser crimes. Canon law later allowed sanctuary for a prescribed time to persons guilty of crimes of violence so that terms of compensation might be worked out and agreed. In English common law a person accused of felony could have sanctuary within a church, but once there had to decide between submitting to a trial or confessing the crime and leaving the country. If no decision was made after forty days, he was starved into submission. In the sixteenth century the right of sanctuary was severely curtailed throughout Europe. Henry VIII limited it to seven cities of refuge-Wells, Westminster, Northampton, Manchester (later Chester), York, Derby, and Launceston. In 1623 James I abolished sanctuaries in cases of crime; in 1697 the law was tightened by the “Escape from Prison Act,” and in 1723 a further act completed the work of extinction. In Scotland sanctuary was abolished at the Reformation, but certain debtors were accorded sanctuary around Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, until about 1700. In Europe the practice lingered on until the time of the French Revolution.

See further, J.C. Cox, The Sanctuaries and Sanctuary Seekers of Medieval England (1911).