Why sanctuary?

Beverley Minster is uniquely placed to tell the heritage story of sanctuary since 937AD – the only place in the UK able to bring together three distinct types of evidence. The Minster houses an Anglo-Saxon sanctuary chair, one of only two in existence. Three sanctuary crosses, now scheduled ancient monuments, marked the limited area of sanctuary radiating out from the Minster doors. The British Library houses the original Beverley Sanctuary Book (1478 – 1540) and the Minster Sanctuary Oath. Using this rare unique collection and restoring the structure of the sanctuary roof, we can bring to life the untold story with a focus on individual stories from 1478-1540, telling of why they sought sanctuary and the discrimination to which this could lead.

The origins of the Minster can be traced back to Bishop John of York who founded a monastery on the site in c. 706 and retired there in retired in 714. He died in 721 and his remains are in the present building. As a renowned teacher and healer he attracted huge numbers of pilgrims and was translated to sainthood in 1037. He trained the Venerable Bede who wrote an account of John’s life in his ‘History of the English Church’. Tradition has it that King Athelstan visited John’s tomb in 934 while leading his army north to fight against the King of Scotland. Athelstan reputedly credited his victory to Bishop John and created sanctuary extending two miles from his tomb. This was extremely rare because, apart from Beverley Minster, only Durham, in the north, had this extended sanctuary limit.

The Minster is one of only a few parish churches to house the remains of a saint – John of Beverley. His presence has attracted pilgrims for over 1,000 years and today we welcome over 60,000 visitors annually. Visitors are attracted not only by the architecture of one of Europe’s finest Gothic buildings, but also as a place of sanctuary to retreat from the bustle of everyday life. People from all walks of life comment on the peace they find in the building and of the welcome they receive. Over 7,000 prayer candles are lit each year and many can be seen taking advantage of the inspirational ambience to pray, which is enhanced by daily midday prayers.

The sanctuary story resonates with the contemporary issue of refugees seeking sanctuary. The project team will work with the City of Sanctuary organisation formed in 2010 to help refugees and people seeking asylum. The school study packs will include information to give pupils an insight into attitudes of today’s society and for them to debate and compare this with the way in which migrant people were viewed in the Middle Ages.

Our Sanctuary Project seeks to tell the unique story of Beverley Minster – place of sanctuary.