‘This stone chair is the Fridstool or Chair of Peace on which a fugitive always enjoys complete safety’. The stone chair is the oldest item in the Minster and dates from the Anglo-Saxon period.
The oldest item in the Minster is a genuine Saxon chair. It is the Fridstool – the ‘freedom seat’ or Peace Chair. The term Fridstool was also applied to a similar seat in York Minster and although this no longer exists there is a sanctuary chair in Hexham Abbey, another of the churches associated with St John of Beverley. Another notable seat exists in Norwich Cathedral. At Ripon the seat may well have been called the gryth stone (‘Gryth’ and ‘Frith’ are synonymous terms) as a rhyming charter shows in Memorials of Ripon (Surtees 1882).
Hexham was the most northerly part of the See of York and the founder of Beverley Minster,
St John, was Bishop of Hexham before his elevation to the Bishopric of York and later retirement to Beverley. The Hexham chair is called St Wilfrid’s chair and is placed in a central position between the choir stalls. It was allegedly used as a coronation chair by the kings of Northumbria but appears to have been altered over the years.
One author, describing the Beverley Fridstool, comments that it was ‘not like that at Hexham touched by chisel and later by hands’. Hexham also had the outer crosses and identical financial penalties, and sanctuary rights are reputed to have begun there in 681. It is possible to surmise that St John brought the idea to Beverley or that the church authorities, from respect for St John’s history, chose the Hexham model.
There were markings on the back of the Beverley Fridstool which according to Leland can be translated as:
‘this stone chair is called the Fridstool or Chair of Peace by the English at which the fleeing offender having arrived is always completely safe.’
Some authorities believe that this inscription may have been on the wall near the chair. There is no doubt that the seat survived the disastrous fire of 1188 which destroyed the wooden church and most of the town. Any inscription may have been defaced following the abolition of the sanctuary and no writing exists on it today.
It is natural to imagine the fugitive collapsing into the Fridstool with relief but that reputable historian, the late Ken McMahon, seriously doubted this attractive idea and considers that it was more likely to be the seat used by a Canon or other church official during the oath-taking ceremony. Another suggestion is that it was John’s Episcopal chair.