This is the story of the Sanctuary Ring, which has greeted visitors to Durham since the 12th century. It is likely that many visitors to the Cathedral before 1980 grabbed this original Ring and posed for a photo. For over 450 years, the Sanctuary Ring represented the possibility of safety and salvation, for all sorts of crimes. In this post, we will explore the story of the Sanctuary Ring, from its purpose to how it worked in practice.
The Sanctuary Ring at Durham Cathedral has a striking design. It is supposed to invoke the image of a Hellmouth, a popular medieval concept. Ours has the face and mane of a lion, which is slowly devouring a man whose legs are being eaten by snakes.
The practice of Sanctuary in England has evolved over time. In 693AD, Ina, the King of the West Saxons, recognised that if “…anyone accused of a capital offence flies to a Church, his life shall be spared, and he shall make compensation according to justice.” For less serious crimes, such as those that would normally result in a flogging, the punishment was forgiven.
Alfred the Great, in 887AD, granted three days of sanctuary to anyone who fled to a Church. According to Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, St. Cuthbert appeared in a vision, and sanctioned that anyone flying to him was to have peace for thirty-seven days and nights.
The 12th century account by the Reginald of Durham describes one of the first instances of Sanctuary at Durham. A youth in service of the Bishop of Durham was killed and the accused fled to the Cathedral. Friends of the youth formed an armed guard at all the entrances and exits to the Cathedral. While the monks were at supper, six armed men entered the Cathedral with two reaching the Shrine of Cuthbert where they found the accused in prayer. He was fatally wounded, which caused outrage. The Bishop absolved the accused, who then went on to have a miraculous recovery. One of the men who committed the attack fled instead of seeking sanctuary, but was caught three miles away when his horse refused to move. He was heavily ironed and put in a subterranean prison to await a terrible death.
There would have been a lot of myths and legends in the local area about criminals running away from armed men up the hill from the Market Place, desperate to reach the Cathedral and to grab the Sanctuary Ring to ensure their safety. In reality, the border of the city was marked with crosses to indicate the city and sanctuary limits, found around Gilesgate, Neville’s Cross, and two further south. This meant that once a fugitive crossed this border, they could claim sanctuary and make their way to the Cathedral where taking hold of the ring would alert the monks.
As soon as the fugitive made their way inside the Cathedral, the monks would ring one of the bells to announce that someone had claimed sanctuary. The fugitive would be placed in a cell below the south west tower. While they were in the Cathedral, they were easily identified through wearing a black gown with the yellow cross of St. Cuthbert on the shoulder.
England was unique in offering fugitives ‘abjuration’: a process by which they were allowed to leave the country on condition that they never return. Durham was a popular destination for Sanctuary seekers because there was regular access to a Royal Coroner enabled the process of abjuration to take place more smoothly. Once sanctuary was claimed at Durham, the local coroner would decide whether to abjure or submit to the legal system. It was also the job of the coroner to specify which port a person must leave from. In one instance, a coroner sent a man from Durham to Dover at a rate of thirty miles per day!
Not every person who claimed sanctuary left the country. Instead they used sanctuary as a way to avoid immediate retribution for their actions. This was especially common among those who admitted to either being an accessory to a crime or merely present when a crime was committed rather than the actual perpetrator.
The practice of sanctuary lasted until 1624 when James I ‘enacted that no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall hereafter be allowed in any case’. From that point on, the Sanctuary Ring became nothing more than a decorative symbol of a former function of the Cathedral and a useful hand hold for closing a very heavy door!
This blog is adapted from a Ten Minute Talk given by one of our Open Treasure gallery attendants earlier this year. These talks take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Open Treasure, the Cathedral’s outstanding museum experience, and give you the opportunity to learn more about the fascinating histories of our Cathedral and its collections. Full details of upcoming talks can be found at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/whats-on