Sanctuary; An Inquisition

San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and lots of other major (and literally hundreds of minor, some 440) US cities are promising to remain “Sanctuary Cities” in the face of El Presidente Trump and his enforcement of the actual US immigration laws. All being a Sanctuary City actually involves is local police (under the control of the city Mayor) being directed not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in ways such as passing on information to the federal authorities which, with the limited immigration capabilities, means they are essentially protecting their Citizens even if they’re bad hombres. The Supreme Court has been quite clear in protecting the rights of municipalities to reject federal authorities if they are compelled to cooperate. (Printz v United States)


The term first came into the popular US lexicon in the 1980’s when cities across the US pushed back against the deportation orders of people fleeing vicious civil wars throughout Central America. [Editor’s note: Tom don’t get weird and political about who was funding half of these civil wars in the first place] The move by the municipalities was largely in response to hundreds of Churches and Synagogues offering those people sanctuary and creating a political movement that many cities were quick to respond to.

Origins of Sanctuary

As you may guess, the word sanctuary holds religious beginnings, and as always, from ancient Greece and Rome. Sanctus was Latin for holy or sacred and is the root for a number of other words such as Sanctum (16th C Hebrew translated from Greek translated from Latin), Saint (12th C French) and STD which is exactly what you were all thinking being Sacrosanctae Theologiae Doctor or “Doctor of Sacred Theology.”

Sanctuary was originally for a person who had fallen foul of the authorities and was a mechanism that allowed that person to head to holy ground to seek protection from the state authorities. This didn’t need to be a church or cathedral and was often any holy ground which both religiously and politically was considered out of the reach of the state. The rules were not universal though and the individual treatment was often up to the person in charge of each site.

I Am My Own Sanctuary and I Can Be Reborn As Many Times As I Choose.
– Lady Gaga
Sanctuary Gif

For example, the time someone could spend in sanctuary was almost always somewhere
between 37-43 days, being the duration of the period of Lent. The difference occurred depending on whether they counted every single day between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, or excluded every Sunday (because that’s a Holy Day already) or whether they think Jesus’ Ministry began on Good Friday or Easter Sunday.

During that period the person could not leave the grounds and their friends would spend that time raising money, bringing them food/ale or trying to petition local officials. A claim of sanctuary for example could be for a financial debt, so you would then have 37 days for your friends to raise the money. Also depending where you were, the Church didn’t always look after you that well, and you would need your friends to…you know…feed you or whatever.

Sanctuary was often a safety valve against the violent society. When sanctuary was at its most popular 13-16th centuries, violence was high and property-ownership was low. Violent crimes were a regular part of society and often the punishment for a crime would be restitution in property. The Germanic Weregild and its Celtic equivalent placed this at the forefront. Were (like Werewolf) is Man, and Gild is payment/debt, so the modern equivalent is ManYield. Every being and item had a value and if you broke/stole/killed then the equivalent would have to be paid and if that couldn’t be done then the person would face the authorities. As a side note, the Romans had a similar system but, super importantly, distinguished between manslaughter and murder, which the Germanic and Celtic systems didn’t, but this was changed in the 12th C as the Church sought to bridge a gap between their Latin law and local custom laws.

Use of Sanctuary

Whilst records are scant, Sanctuary was used for a number of reasons including debt avoidance, political exiles, justice avoidance and sometimes to get out of unwanted marriages. When Edward IV died, his wife Elizabeth took the children and took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with so many possessions they had to knock holes in the walls to make them all comfortable until the political upheavals died down.

Durham Cathedral in England was the Trump Towers of sanctuary sites in Plantagenet England. Unlike most sites, if you reached the Sanctuary Knocker on the Durham cathedral, the monks would emerge, drape the transgressor in a cloak with St Cuthbert’s gold cross and allow them access. It was said that no one could actually ring the Galilee bell by banging the knocker as it was a heavy, metal knocker with the face of a demon-lion with human legs coming out of its face being devoured by serpents as if they were being ripped apart in hell, a reminder that sanctuary was not needed for the truly holy. DURAHAM PAGE 1So instead most people would simply grasp the knocker and scream “SANCTUARY”. If you made it, you were given food, ale, clothes, a bed (HUGE deal in those days) and be given 37 days sanctuary before you had to hand yourself over to the authorities or accept exile from England under the protection of the Church. This really speaks to the political power of the Church in general and specifically the power and funding that Durham Cathedral could draw as a northern centre of the Church away from the otherwise southern-England dominated scene. In fact, Durham itself, along with Chester were sanctuary counties, but if you committed a crime within that county you still had to level-up and find a holy site, within the holy county.

In 1471 King Edward IV famously attacked a church to seize a rival who was claiming sanctuary and had him beheaded. Henry VIII abolished sanctuary for some crimes like treason and in 1623 that beautiful Scot, King James I abolished sanctuary for all other criminal offences. William III finished the job in 1697 and abolished sanctuary for civil offences. Sanctuary no longer had any legal basis but the Church still held massive political power but this would usually only delay justice, reflecting the evolving ideas of the role of the state was in law enforcement.

Modern Era

Sanctuary still exists and is often observed around the world including in Australia, but the fact it is observed is superfluous as it no longer has any legal effect.

The closest thing to true sanctuary currently is political sanctuary offered by embassies and states, which isn’t too far from the power the Church had in the 13-16th centuries. Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Vladimir Petrov would likely have sought sanctuary in their local church if they lived in an alternate universe.

Etymologically speaking, the term sanctuary has evolved from a word synonymous with a guilty person seeking God’s justice over that of the State, to a term that means someone escaping an unjust persecution or overzealous prosecution. As a general concept, the idea is fascinating, it was a formal recognition that law and order was not an absolute concept and the power of the formal state needed a safety release valve. Just because something was legal or illegal did not make it just. I’m not even talking about the Rosa Parks or, screw it, Ruby Ridge, situations. If you’ve ever sped because you believe that 110kmph is totally arbitrary on a flat road or have smoked a doob because, whatever, then you have accepted that state based law is not the infallible object it is presented as.