Uncertain Refuge: Sanctuary in the Literature of Medieval England 
by Elizabeth Allen.
Pennsylvania, 311 pp., £52, October 2021, 978 0 8122 5344 3
Show More
Show More

The best place​ to begin Elizabeth Allen’s study of sanctuary seeking in medieval England is the coda: ‘Sanctuary in Southwest Georgia, 1962’. Here Allen vividly recounts an incident from the American civil rights movement in which her father, Ralph Allen, played an important role. He was one of two white college students who joined 38 Black activists in a voting rights campaign. The Baptist church where they met to read scripture and sing spirituals was invaded by law enforcement officers, resulting in arrests, imprisonment and, ultimately, the burning down of the building. For her father, Allen writes, ‘suffering violence linked him to a sense of moral justification: attacks from angry white men who resented his presence in Georgia were proof of the worthiness of the fight for racial justice.’ The use of non-violent strategies early in the civil rights movement – and the violation of spaces activists claimed as sanctuary – resonates profoundly with Christian martyrdom, as well as a long tradition of symbolically charged political provocations and resistance.

This tradition endures: in the US, seven states and more than three dozen cities now claim sanctuary status, refusing to cooperate with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants. Churches serve as political sanctuaries, continuing a medieval custom: Francisca Lino, a Mexican mother of six, recently spent more than three years in a Methodist church in Chicago to avoid being deported by the Trump administration. Her strategy succeeded because even though sanctuary has no real status in US law, the federal government can’t force local jurisdictions to comply with immigration enforcement. Cases such as this demonstrate the continuing relevance of a tradition that is almost three thousand years old and is found in a wide range of societies. One of the oldest references to sanctuary comes in the Old Testament: six ‘cities of refuge’, from Kedesh in the north to Hebron in the south, are identified as places where those who had committed accidental manslaughter could escape blood vengeance. After a killer claimed sanctuary, he had to be put on trial and, if found innocent of intentional murder, returned without harm to his city of refuge.

Allen’s tightly focused study traces some implications of sanctuary in medieval England. As its title implies, sanctuary seeking led to tense, unpredictable situations. The most notorious case, Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170, was shocking not only because he was slain in his own cathedral, but because on returning from exile he had explicitly sought sanctuary there. Only the public penance of Henry II and an exceptionally rapid canonisation could satisfy burgeoning devotion to the new martyr. But Becket’s prominence was unusual, since most sanctuary seekers were poor and desperate. As a legal practice, sanctuary relied on what Allen calls ‘divine aegis’. A sacred space – any church, cathedral or monastery – carried a promise of divine protection for fugitives, but there were strict conditions attached. Sanctuary seekers were allowed to receive food and protection for up to forty days. At the end of this period, they had either to stand trial or (much more commonly) to abjure the realm. In the latter case they would confess their crimes, cede all their goods to the Crown and depart for an assigned port like pilgrims, barefoot and bare-headed, clad only in a shift and carrying a wooden cross. At the port, they had to board the first available ship or, if there were none sailing, walk into the sea every day as a token of good faith. This procedure was surprisingly routine. In the 13th and early 14th centuries, William Chester Jordan estimates, around five hundred people abjured the realm each year.

Before the Hundred Years’ War, abjurers departed most often from Dover and fled to France, where they might join immigrant labour gangs, seek pardon or continue their criminal careers. When the war and the Black Death made French exile less practical, England offered ‘permanent sanctuary’ in selected churches and ‘chartered sanctuary’ for the well-connected, who could pay a sizeable fee to remain in sanctuary beyond forty days and avoid abjuration. But the practice itself didn’t decline; in fact, it became more common under the early Tudors. Its eventual disappearance seems to have been an unintended consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries, as traditional sanctuary spaces ceased to be available. Still, the tradition of legal sanctuary clung on until Charles I finally ended it in 1623. A decade later, John Ford used sanctuary as a plot device in his play The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck (1634). Warbeck was a pretender who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the Tower murdered by Richard III. The new king, Henry VII, refers to pursuing the pretender in his quest for sanctuary: ‘How closely we have hunted/This cub, since he unlodg’d, from hole to hole.’ Sanctuary in Ford’s play has been ‘medievalised’ as a quaint though still dramatically potent relic of an era definitively past.

Allen maintains that sanctuary played on an inherent ambiguity in medieval kingship. As a feudal lord, the king had both the right and the duty to enforce justice. But as a ruler sanctioned by divinity, he could extend exceptional, godlike mercy in response to a fugitive’s plea. Embodying the law in his own person, ‘he [was] its maker and performer and hence able to change the law at will.’ So kings often had a fraught relationship to sanctuary. A confident ruler might gain stature by extending mercy selectively to high-profile fugitives, while a child king trying to assert his majority and end a regency sometimes denied the privilege, usually paying for his petulance. The fugitive, meanwhile, was elevated to a highly charged but no less ambiguous position. During his liminal period in sanctuary, he possessed nothing but ‘bare life’ and attained a status equivalent to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer, both sacred and accursed. Having forfeited all the normal rights of a subject, he nonetheless couldn’t be sacrificed to the law. Yet sanctuary’s protection wasn’t fully secure: violence frequently erupted within the sacred space, as it did in Becket’s case, awakening popular sympathy for the victim. So, following a different model, that of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, a failure to respect legal sanctuary could refashion a felon as a martyr. Partly for this reason, John Wyclif vehemently opposed the practice, arguing that sanctuary made churches into dens of thieves, overthrew the king’s justice and opened a safe space for treason.

Whatever their outcome, sanctuary narratives converted violence into symbolic theatre, making them ideal literary vehicles for exploring justice and mercy, rebellion and public order. A 12th-century miracle of St Cuthbert illustrates the weirdly atavistic sacrality that could attach to sanctuary seeking. In this tale by Reginald of Durham, a magnificent stag – an animal often linked to the supernatural – takes refuge from its hunters in St Cuthbert’s churchyard, where it signals its intentions by genuflecting and then going peacefully to sleep. Acknowledging the space of sanctuary, the hunters and hounds suspend their pursuit until one young renegade is goaded into attacking the animal with a spear. It patiently endures this abuse for a while, but when a man blasphemes against Cuthbert it avenges the saint by killing the son of the man who incited the violence. The stag then leaves its sanctuary, allowing the hunters to resume their pursuit to the death.

But the tale doesn’t end there. As a sacrificial beast, the dead stag remains untouchable; no animal is willing to violate its corpse, which doesn’t decay. Six months later, a craftsman unaware of its story finds the stag and tries to use its antlers for his work, causing rivers of blood to flow from the long-dead body. Inexplicably, the man then has it carried on a litter to his house, where its presence causes the walls and roof beams to flow with blood. Having once sought the protection of St Cuthbert, the animal assumes his sanctity and retains it through life and death as it moves symbolically ‘between animal and human, between vulnerable, embodied creature and exceptional, rational actor’. Its miraculous, superabundant blood comes to represent Cuthbert’s unceasing protection of his haliwerfolc, the ‘people of the holy man’, who inhabit his patrimony in the environs of Durham.

Better known is the romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Allen reads through the unexpected lens of sanctuary. The narrative begins with an enormous emerald-green knight arriving at King Arthur’s court and challenging any of his men to exchange blows with him as a ‘Christmas game’. Taking up the challenge, Gawain easily beheads the ‘elvish man’, who then terrifies the court by picking up his head and riding off with it, after reminding the hero of his appointment with doom a year later at a place identified only as the Green Chapel. Having no idea where such a place might be, Gawain rides through the wilderness for months until, the next Christmas, he finds lavish hospitality at the court of Sir Bertilak and his seductive wife. Bertilak tells Gawain that the Green Chapel is ‘not two miles from here’, so he can enjoy a full week of courtly festivities before going to meet his death. The Green Chapel, Allen argues, represents an ‘anti-sanctuary’. Instead of being a Christian church, a sacred built space, it turns out to be an overgrown pagan barrow – just the sort of place, Gawain mutters, where ‘the Devil might say Matins’ at midnight. Although the hero escapes death in the end, the substitution of a threatening natural space for a protective chapel ‘evokes sanctuary in a paradoxical, self-cancelling form’. The connection may seem far-fetched, but Gawain raises questions about the meaning of sanctuary vis-à-vis the natural world. Like the miracle of the stag, it asks whether human institutions such as kingship, covenant and sanctuary can extend their reach into the realm of nature, beyond ‘civilised’ control.

A final example, the legend of Robin Hood, reverses the terms. The earliest extant ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1460), is an anarchic tale of sanctuary denied. The outlaw takes refuge in a church, apparently intending to do penance, but is betrayed by the sheriff of Nottingham and an evil monk. Fighting for his life, he slaughters twelve of the sheriff’s men in the church before escaping to the woods with the help of Little John. Predating the later legend of redistributive justice, the ballad glorifies its hero’s violence as it celebrates the anti-institutional trickery of his men. The representatives of church and state are mocked, as is the idea of sanctuary itself. More interesting, however, is the early modern transmutation of Robin Hood into a folk hero who robs the rich to help the poor. This Robin and his ‘merry men’ have their own sanctuary, the Greenwood – an idyllic, utopian space that resembles an egalitarian commune. Robin’s Greenwood anticipates Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, where the virtuous exiles in As You Like It find refuge from persecution. In these stories, it’s not the church but the natural world that offers sanctuary from the corruption of courts, kings, sheriffs and other self-serving institutions.

There’s a modern twist in the tale: the idea that, far from being able to provide sanctuary, nature itself requires it. Wildlife ‘sanctuaries’ have existed since antiquity; King Tissa of Ceylon is said to have founded one in the third century BCE. Ancient cultures in West Africa designated reserves in which hunting was prohibited; these were often safeguarded by taboos so that violators would face the revenge of spirits. But the first modern nature sanctuary was established by Charles Waterton in 1821 in West Yorkshire, followed in 1872 by Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, held to be the world’s first national park. Other sanctuaries now offer asylum to animals rescued from farms, circuses or roadside zoos. This modern sanctuary movement aims to transform relationships between humans and the natural world, establishing equality among all resident species. Like Robin Hood’s refuge in the Greenwood, the new nature sanctuaries are opposed to authority, and, like St Cuthbert’s stag, they carry their own mystique. The sacred, manifest in and through the animal, still rebukes human presumption to assert a primordial right.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 44 No. 15 · 4 August 2022

In her discussion of sanctuary from medieval to modern times, Barbara Newman doesn’t include the secular equivalent of churches as places of sacred refuge: foreign embassies (LRB, 21 July). Embassy buildings are protected from the reach of the host country’s law enforcement, as codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, but the custom is centuries old. In the medieval period, as Newman writes, churches were in effect intermediary locations for those seeking sanctuary, who were forced eventually to take refuge abroad if they were to avoid trial. Later, in a world with many more diplomats, but where the sovereignty of the Church was greatly reduced, it made sense to cut out the ecclesiastical middle man. Embassies were multiplying in European capitals just as church sanctuary was being banned. Today, wanted people in a global city such as London have nearly two hundred foreign outposts at which to try their luck. But it does depend on the good graces of the ambassador, as Julian Assange discovered.

Hassan Damluji
London NW8

Barbara Newman is concerned with the literature of medieval England, but few places in Britain offered sanctuary for longer than Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. Founded in 1128, even in later Presbyterian times the ruined abbey and its precincts gave shelter to debtors who were known as ‘Abbey lairds’, including the Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVI and the future King Charles X of France, and Thomas De Quincey, who ended his days in the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s Church at the west end of Princes Street. The inmates were allowed to leave briefly on Sundays since it was not permitted to arrest debtors on the Sabbath. The availability of sanctuary at Holyrood continued at least theoretically until the abolition of jail for debtors in the 19th century.

Harry Watson
Edinburgh

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences