Legal Dictionary

sanctuary

Legal Definition of sanctuary

Noun

  1. A special criminal law option available in Medieval times to persons who had just committed a crime, allowing them to seek refuge in a church or monastery. There, they could be exempted from the normal prosecution which, in those days, was quite severe (see, for example, The Law's Hall of Horrors). But the ordeal, even within sanctuary, was no piece of cake. The fugitive had to remain within the walls of the sanctuary, abandon his or her oath to the king, followed which they had a short period of time to leave the country. They were considered to be "dead", so much so that their land was forfeited to the King and their wife considered to be a widow. If they refused to renounce their oath, they could be starved out of the sanctuary. Henry VIII of England even took to branding them with a hot iron before they left the country just in case they tried to return; they could then be quickly spotted and arrested. Abolished from the common law in 1624 and, in France, at the time of the Revolution, the principle of sanctuary continues today, in somewhat altered form, as diplomatic asylum under international law.

Definition of sanctuary

Etymology

    From Middle English sanctuary , from Old French saintuaire, from Late Latin sanctuarium (“a sacred place, a shrine, a private cabinet, in Medieval Latin also temple, church, churdyard, cemetery, right of asylum”), from Latin sanctus (“holy, sacred”).

Noun

sanctuary (plural sanctuaries)

  1. A place of safety, refuge, or protection.

    My car is a sanctuary, where none can disturb me except for people who cut me off.

  2. An area set aside for protection.

    The bird sanctuary has strict restrictions on visitors so the birds aren't disturbed.

  3. A state of being protected, asylum.

    The government granted sanctuary to the defector, protecting him from his former government.

  4. The consecrated (or sacred) area of a church or temple around its tabernacle or altar.

Further reading

Legal sanctuary

When referring to prosecution of crimes, sanctuary can mean one of the following:

  • Church sanctuary: A sacred place, such as a church, in which fugitives formerly were immune to arrest (recognized by English law from the fourth to the seventeenth century)
  • Political sanctuary: Immunity to arrest afforded by a sovereign authority. The United Nations has expanded the definition of "political" to include race, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership and/or participation in any particular social group or social activities. People seeking political sanctuary typically do so by asking a sovereign authority for asylum.
  • Right of asylum

    Many ancient people recognized a religious "right of asylum", protecting criminals (or those accused of crime) from legal action and from exile 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 AD 600. 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. The medieval system of asylum was finally abolished entirely in England by James I in 1623.

  • Relating to political asylum

    During the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrians or Yorkists would suddenly get the upper hand by winning a battle, some adherents of the losing side might find themselves surrounded by adherents of the winning side and unable to return to their own side, so they would rush to sanctuary at the nearest church until it was safe to leave it. 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. 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.

References:

  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.



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