Sanctuary knocker, Durham Cathedral – safety, at a terrible price

By: shortfinals

Jul 01 2011

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Category: British Isles, England, Great Britain, Museums, ships


Focal Length:50mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:NIKON D40

The concept of sanctuary, as practiced in the Middle Ages, was quite startling. It didn’t represent a rendering of justice, or even forgiveness, but indeed was closer to the action of an amoeba in expelling waste, or a dangerous foreign particle, from its single cell. Imagine its the Middle Ages, and you have just got into a drunken brawl outside an alehouse in the city of Durham. Unfortunately, the man you are fighting falls and breaks his neck.  Almost before you can collect your befuddled thoughts a passerby sees what has happens and raises a ‘hue and cry’ – this means that he starts to pursue you and calls out to anyone within earshot to seize you. Recognizing that there is little likelihood of mercy at the hands of the mob, and more chance of you suffering rough justice than being handed over to the representatives of the Prince Bishop (for Durham was a County Palatine, with the Bishop wielding temporal as well as spiritual power), you take to your heels. You are literally running for your life, trying to keep ahead of the mob as you flee uphill in the direction of Durham Cathedral. Sprinting past the entrance to the Prince Bishop’s Castle and across the Castle Green you spy your goal, the iron-bound North Door of the Cathedral, complete with a grotesque brass door knocker. Reaching the door a few hundred yards ahead of the mob, you pound on the door knocker as if your life depended on it (which it does), screaming one word, over and over again, at the top of your lungs…..’Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!’ One of the two priests assigned to watch the door flings it open, drags you inside, and slams it in the face of your pursuers. Then it sinks in, and you fall to your knees, not with exhaustion, but with mounting horror as you realize that you have bought your life, but at a terrible price………..

All churches in the Middle Ages had a limited right of sanctuary in that an individual could shelter within and be temporarily safe from attack or pursuit, but only a few designated churches had a higher level of protection against the most serious crimes such as adultery, horse stealing or forgery of the King’s coinage. However, it was usually murder which drew the fugitive to these churches. Once inside, and claiming sanctuary, the criminal had a short period to decide whether to give himself up to the local authorities (and face trail and punishment) or confess his crimes and beg for forgiveness. What followed was laid down in the law of the land.

In Durham Cathedral, venerated in the North of England because of the tombs of St. Cuthbert and St Bede, the fugitive would be stripped and made to wear a plain black garment, which bore the symbol of St Cuthbert, a yellow cross on the left breast. Charity, in the form of simple food and drink, was provided but after his confession a countdown began. The fugitive, having decided to admit his guilt before God and the authorities, had a total of 37 days to leave England – forever! Of course, the only way to do that was by sea, and also by a designated port. This was usually the small North Sea port of Hartlepool, the official port of the County Palatine. Although this was little more than an overgrown fishing village, by the Middle Ages some cogs (an early form of  trading vessel, usually with a single large sail) would be visiting the port on a regular basis.

As soon as it could be arranged, the fugitive had to leave, on foot, carrying a cross, and accompanied by constables. He was handed over at each parish boundary to the next set of constables. Under no circumstances was he allowed to leave the designated highway – to stray would be counted as an attempt to flee, and he could be instantly put to death. On reaching Hartlepool, he would be put onboard the first vessel leaving for Continental Europe, never to return, on pain of death.

The sanctuary knocker you can see here on the North Door of Durham Cathedral is a modern copy of the 12th century original, correct down to the last detail, the original being far too precious to leave exposed to the elements; even the copy has suffered corrosive weathering, showing a patina of verdigris (a mix of copper carbonate and other salts of copper), which is typical of copper objects, or the copper alloys of brass and bronze. The original is on exhibition inside the wonderful Treasury Museum, located in the cloisters of the Cathedral.

This hideous mask of the beast, staring out from the North Door of the Cathedral, would remind the potential fugitive of the awful fate which was in store for him.

4 comments on “Sanctuary knocker, Durham Cathedral – safety, at a terrible price”

  1. Great post – the story you imagine at the start takes us right back to the medieval period. You might also be interested in other traditions and rituals attached to the Cathedral at the same time. For instance, did you know about the history of Boy Bishops? Or that the cathedral allegedly houses a dragon-killing sword? More about these hidden histories, and other folk traditions across the North East, in an exhibition running over the next month:


  2. […] in order to sort out their legal trouble or confess and face exile. There is an excellent blog post here giving more detail of what that […]


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