The most famous scene in the The Hunchback of Notre Dame is when Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from execution, rushes her to the cathedral and cries, “Sanctuary!” Though the act is pretty dramatic (he swings in and out on a rope), it’s based on a real religious custom. In medieval Europe, fugitives really could escape the death penalty by claiming sanctuary in a church. The catch was that afterwards, they usually had to go into permanent exile.
The concept of sanctuary predates Christianity, going back at least as far as Greek and Roman temples that offered protection to fugitives. Early Christian churches competed with these pagan temples by offering their own protections, and by the end of the 4th century, sanctuary was a part of Roman imperial law. If a person murdered someone and then ran to the church to claim sanctuary, no one could could come in and harm, arrest or remove her for punishment.
Even after the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, churches maintained their authority to protect people who had broken major secular laws. Roman Catholic leaders believed a consecrated church was “protected space,” says Karl Shoemaker, a professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin and author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500. “It would be inappropriate in the extreme to carry weapons into the church or to arrest someone or to exercise force within the church.”
In addition, the church was “deeply suspicious about the punishments meted out by secular authority,” he says. Many early church leaders thought the Roman Empire was too concerned with punishing criminals as opposed to “restoring the moral balance between the wrongdoer and God.” Sanctuary was meant to address the latter. If fugitives claiming sanctuary weren’t already Christians, they were supposed to convert.
Murder and theft were the most common crimes for which fugitives sought sanctuary in medieval Europe. Once a fugitive entered a cathedral, their pursuers could lie in wait for them outside, but they couldn’t enter to capture anyone. In addition, fugitives couldn’t bring a bow and arrow into the church to attack their pursuers from the windows, or any other weapon that they might use to defend themselves once they left.
While safe inside, fugitives might work out an agreement with the people they wronged in order to leave safely. Yet more often, fugitives had to go straight from sanctuary into permanent exile from their city, region or country. This was especially true in England beginning in the 12th century, when the country legally regulated sanctuary more than any other region in Europe.
According to England’s laws during this period, fugitives who claimed sanctuary had to leave England for the rest of their lives unless they received a royal pardon, which was very difficult to obtain. And unlike most European churches, which didn’t have formal limits on how long a person could claim sanctuary, English people weren't supposed to stay in sanctuary for more than 40 days.
A short sanctuary followed by exile was still better than a death sentence; and for many people, it was also better than prison. “Jails were a common place to die,” says Elizabeth Allen, an English professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies sanctuary in medieval England. “You weren’t eating well, you were given often just bread and water and disease was quite common.”
Though English sanctuary was the most heavily-regulated type in Europe, English people didn’t always follow the letter or the spirit of the laws. ln the 14th century, a London woman murdered a priest in a church and then tried to claim sanctuary there. After some legal consideration, officials decided she couldn’t claim sanctuary in the church because she’d desecrated it. There were also instances in which pursuers illegally removed people from sanctuary or, as was the case with Archbishop Thomas Becket, killed them right there in the cathedral.
There were also those who took advantage of England’s sanctuary laws because they were rich and powerful. Most of the early sanctuary seekers in England were poor, but this changed in the 15th century as influential royals began to avoid their crimes by staying in sanctuary as long as they wanted. In fact, the apparent abuse of sanctuary by aristocrats may have aided its demise in England after the Protestant Reformation.
“Once you’re protecting only a select few, and you’re protecting them permanently instead of just sending away your indigent criminals, sanctuary becomes a lot less appealing,” Allen says. “That, I think, starts to pave the way for the demise of sanctuary as a religious practice of protecting the weak.”
England outlawed sanctuary in 1623, a few decades after the Catholic church restricted what crimes sanctuary could apply to. Sanctuary faded after this, but didn’t completely disappear, even in England. “People are still claiming sanctuary—in some instances, all the way up through the 19th and 20th century and even today,” Shoemaker says.
As an example, he points to a church in The Hague that protected a family seeking asylum from deportation by holding round-the-clock services for 96 days. Under Dutch law, police cannot enter religious institutions during rites, so the church only let up when the Netherlands granted the family more time to stay in January 2019.
“If you listen to what pastors and members of faith communities today who are protecting sanctuary seekers in the U.S. say,” he continues, “in many cases, they’re very consciously aligning themselves with this much older, longer history in which Christianity held up the protection of sanctuary seekers as one of its highest obligations.”
Similarly to today, many medieval European churches didn’t have a specific right to protect fugitives under secular law. But people who pursued fugitives understood that it would make them look bad if they broke the church’s canon law and harmed or arrested someone inside.
“When a government agent of some kind chases somebody down in a church and hurts or kills them, this has enormous repercussions politically,” Allen says. “Most often, it makes the government look brutal.” This was certainly the case with Thomas Becket, whose execution by four knights inside Canterbury Cathedral outraged the public, damaged the reputation of King Henry II, pushed Becket toward sainthood and inspired the T.S. Eliot play Murder in the Cathedral nearly eight centuries later.