From Academic Kids

This article is about the sanctuaries, for the band, see Sanctuary (band).

Sanctuary has multiple meanings. A sanctuary is the consecrated (or sacred) area of a church or temple around its tabernacle or altar. In medieval law, a sanctuary was a place of religious right of asylum for felons on the run from the law. An animal sanctuary is a place where animals live and are protected.


Sanctuary as a sacred place

In Europe, Christian churches were usually built on a holy spot, generally where a miracle or martyrdom had taken place or where a holy person was buried. Examples are St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Albans Cathedral in England, which commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Peter (the first Pope) and Saint Alban (the first Christian martyr in Britain), respectively. The place, and therefore the church built there, was considered to have been sanctified (made holy) by what happened there. In modern times, the Roman Catholic Church has continued this practice by placing in the altar of each church, when it is consecrated for use, a box (= sepulcrum) containing relics of a saint. The relics box is removed when the church is taken out of use as a church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the antimension on the altar serves a similar function. It is a cloth icon of Christ's body taken down from the cross, and typically has the relics of a saint sewn into it. In addition, it is signed by the parish's bishop, and represents his authorization and blessing for the Eucharist to be celebrated on that altar.

The Altar

The area around the altar was also considered holy because of the physical presence of God in the Eucharist (= communion bread, which Catholics considered to have been 'transubstantiated" into the actual body of Jesus), both during the Mass and in the tabernacle on the altar the rest of the time. So that people could tell when Jesus was there (in the tabernacle), the "sanctuary lamp" would be lit, indicating that anyone approaching the altar should genuflect (= bow by bending the knee and inclining the head), to show respect for Him. In most Eastern Orthodox churches, the sanctuary is separated from the nave (where the people pray) by an iconostasis, literally a wall of icons, with three doors in it. In many Roman Catholic churches, altar rails mark the edge of the sanctuary.

The area around the altar came to be called the "sanctuary," and that terminology does not apply to Christian churches alone: King Solomon's temple, built in about 950 B.C., had a sanctuary ("Holy of Holies") where the tabernacle ("Ark of the Covenant") was, and the term applies to the corresponding part of any house of worship.

Sanctuary can be a personal term; an individual can find or create a personal sanctuary.

Sanctuary in medieval law

Sanctuary was also a right to be safe from arrest in the sanctuary of a church or temple, recognized by English law from the 4th to the 17th century.

Right of asylum

Missing image
Remains of one of four medieval stone boundry markers for the sanctuary of Saint John of Beverley in East Yorkshire

Many ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Hebrews, recognized a religious "right of asylum", protecting criminals (or those accused of crime) from legal action to some extent. This principle was adopted by the early Christian church, and various rules developed for what the person had to do to qualify for protection and just how much protection it was.

In England, King Ethelbert made the first laws regulating sanctuary in about 600 A.D. By Norman times, there had come to be two kinds of sanctuary: All churches had the lower-level kind, but only the churches the king licensed had the broader version. There were at least twenty-two churches with charters for that kind of sanctuary, including Battle Abbey, Beverley (see image, right), Colchester, Durham, Hexham, Norwich, Ripon, Wells, Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and York Minster.

Sometimes the criminal had to get to the church itself, to be protected, and might have to ring a certain bell there, or hold a certain ring or door-knocker, or sit on a certain chair ("frith-stool"), and some of these items survive at various churches. In other places, there was an area around the church or abbey, sometimes extending as much as one mile, and there would be stone "sanctuary crosses" marking the boundary of the area; some of those still exist today, too. Thus it could became a race between the felon and mediaeval law officers to the nearest sanctuary boundary, and could make the serving of justice a difficult proposition indeed.

Church sanctuaries were regulated by common law. An asylum seeker was to confess his sins, surrender his weapons, and be placed under the supervision of the head of the church or abbey where he had fled. He then had forty days to make one of two choices: surrender to secular authorities and stand trial for the crimes against him, or confess his guilt and be sent into exile ("abjure the realm"), by the shortest route and never return without the king's permission. Anyone who did come back could be executed by the law and/or excommunicated by the Church.

If the suspect chose to confess his guilt and abjure, he would do so in a public ceremony, usually at the gate of the church grounds. He would surrender his worldly goods to the church, and landed property to the crown. He then chose a port city from which to leave England and set out barefooted and bareheaded, carrying a wooden cross-staff as a symbol of his protection under the church. Theoretically he would stay to the main highway, reach the port and take the first ship out of England. However in practice, the fugitive could get a safe distance away, toss the cross-staff and take off and start a new life. But there was one problem: we can safely assume the friends and relatives of the victim knew of this ploy and would do everything in their power to make sure this did not happen; or indeed that the fugitive never reached his intended port of call, a victim of vigilante justice under the pretense of a fugitive who wandered too far off the main highway while trying to "escape".

Knowing the grim options, some fugitives rejected both choices and opted for an escape from the asylum before the forty days were up. Others simply made no choice and did nothing; since it was illegal for the victims friends to break into an asylum, the church would deprive the fugitive of food and water until a choice was made.

Henry VIII changed the rules of asylum, reducing to a short list the types of crimes which were allowed to claim asylum. The mediaeval system of asylum was finally abolished entirely by James I in 1623.

Relating to political asylum

Main article: political asylum

During the Wars of the Roses, when the Yorkists or Lancastrians would suddenly get the upper hand by winning a battle, some adherents of the losing side might find themselves surrounded by adherents of the other side and not able to get back to their own side, so they would rush to sanctuary at the nearest church until it was safe to come out. A prime example is Queen Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward IV of England:

In 1470, when the Lancastrians briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, Edward's queen was living in London with several young daughters. She moved with them into Westminster for sanctuary, living there in royal comfort until Edward was restored to the throne in 1471 and giving birth to their first son Edward during that time. When King Edward died in 1483, Elizabeth (who was highly unpopular with even the Yorkists and probably did need protection) took her five daughters and youngest son (Richard, Duke of York; Prince Edward had his own household by then) and again moved into sanctuary at Westminster. To be sure she had all the comforts of home, she brought so much furniture and so many chests that the workmen had to knock holes in some of the walls to get everything in fast enough to suit her.

Animal sanctuary

An animal sanctuary is a place where animals can come to live and be protected or the rest of their lives. It is intended to be a safe haven, where they receive the best care possible. Animals are not bought, sold, traded, or mistreated in any way. They are given every opportunity to behave naturally in a protecting environment.

What separates a sanctuary from all other institutions is the idea that the residents come first. In a sanctuary, every action is scrutinized for any trace of human benefit at the expense of nonhuman residents. Sanctuaries act on behalf of the animals, and the caregivers work under the notion that all animals in the sanctuary, human and nonhuman, are of equal importance.

A sanctuary is not open to the public in the sense that the public is allowed unescorted access to any part of the facility. A sanctuary does not allow any activity that would place the animals in an unduly stressful situation. A sanctuary does not allow medical experiments on the animals.

One of the most important missions of sanctuaries beyond caring for the animals is educating others. The ultimate goal of a sanctuary is to change the way that humans think of and treat nonhuman animals.


  • J. Charles Cox (1911). The Sanctuaries and Sanctuary Seekers of Medieval England.
  • John Bellamy (1973). Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages.
  • Richard Kaeuper (1982). "Right of asylum". Dictionary of the Middle Ages. v.1 pp.632-633. ISBN 0684167603

nl:Heiligdom de:Sanktuarium


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