In seeking sanctuary in Beverley fugitives were often still being pursued. There were strict disincentives in the shape of hefty fines for pursuers who were caught.
In the days when a fugitive could be subjected to mob justice or family vengeance, the larger churches offered special privileges of sanctuary. Beverley held premier rights in the north of England. The idea of sanctuary is ancient with roots in the Laws of Moses. The Saxon King Ina (AD 693) had confirmed that churches could give sanctuary to murderers and that their lives would be spared.
Walkers approaching Beverley from York may notice on the right, shortly before entering Westwood, a stone pillar surrounded by nettles and a wooden rail fence in a high field. In the summer only the top of the pillar projects above the crop in the field. This stone is not the remains of some old gatepost but has stood for almost a thousand summers and been a welcome sight for desperate people fleeing from their pursuers. These fugitives were seeking safe sanctuary to be found in the collegiate church of Beverley – a sanctuary that had made the name of Beverley known throughout the land.
Each of the four main roads leading to Beverley had such a stone marker. The Victorian antiquarian Sheahan wrote that there were five stones, but few reputable historians have repeated this suggestion. Originally these markers were tall columns of stone with richly carved top crosses. These crosses, mentioned in the days of Elizabeth l, were probably broken off in the post-Reformation period. The stones formed the outermost ring of sanctuary that girdled the Minster. The Tudor historian John Leland visited Beverley in about 1540 and wrote:
”The Molescroft cross, a limit of sanctuary hard by entering Leckingfield Park from Beverley. There was another towards North Burton a mile out of Beverley, there was another towards Kinwalgraves a mile out of Beverley. There was another cross by south towards Humber.”
Today there is no Molescroft cross. It may have been removed unceremoniously by the railway gangs in 1865 as they built the Beverley to Market Weighton line. The remaining three still proudly guard the approaches to Beverley and are each approximately 2 miles from the Minster. Many Beverlonians hold the common misconception that the distance is 1 mile because guide books quote the Leland observation. The original placing was a league from the church and this measurement is mentioned in Domesday book as being about 1.5 ‘miles’ or a measure of land up to 10,000 feet. Further confusion over the distance is created by the presence of milestone markers, totally unconnected with this story. The great churches of Ripon and Hexham also had an outer ring of stones but at York and Durham, those other great Northern refuges, the sanctuary began at the church door.
If a pursuer caught his quarry inside this outer ring he could have to pay £8 to the church authorities for the violation of sanctuary. The fines to be paid rose at the violation of the five inner boundaries. The second boundary was the town edge where other carved stone crosses (‘nobiliter insculptas’) were placed. The £16 penalty would deter all but the most determined.
The fugitive had to cross the churchyard boundary next, with its £48 penalty, to reach the church itself. At Durham there is a famous large sanctuary door knocker which has spawned countless small imitations on British front doors. Beverley may well have had such a knocker with a priest waiting just inside the entrance of the church to receive the supplicants. It has been suggested that the criminals entered during darkness, were fed and sheltered, and then interrogated on the following morning. Only extremely wealthy vengeance seekers could afford the £96 fine at the door. Once the Quire was reached the huge sum of £144 was demanded, but a pursuer who took his prey from the altar was in danger of losing his own soul as the altar contained the holy sacrament.
This was the ‘bootless’ law, a corruption of ‘sine emendatione boteles’, which meant that the gross misdeed was incapable of pardon. As Archbishop Melton of York wrote in 1331:
“Any fugitive coming within the rules of the Minster or touching one of the boundary crosses was free from any legal processes under pain of greater excommunication.“
Even the threat of excommunication did not deter the most determined revenge seekers. John Acraman, who had sought sanctuary after murdering Sir John Nele at Coventry, was carried out of the church by force to meet an unknown fate!