Henry VIII had no love of the sanctuary rights as a symbol of the power of the church. On Easter Day 1548 the rule of over 600 years by Provosts ended and the Minster became a Parish Church.
Sanctuary began to be much misused. One East Riding historian talks of ‘sacred thuggery’ and, as shown, the Beverley townsfolk could sometimes react violently to the influx of criminals in their midst. Ken McMahon commenting on the grithmen in the town called this ‘a factor which probably helps to explain the riotous turbulence of the medieval town at times’. It was probably the crime of treason that was to be the death knell for the places of refuge. The matter had come to a head in 1486 with the famous Humphrey Stafford case ending in a ruling that sanctuary could no longer be granted to persons accused of high treason. This was a serious case because Stafford was of royal blood and as a descendent of Edward III had a better claim to the throne than the Tudors. Slowly the list of offences that the state would not tolerate grew and it was not possible to slip off to a safe sanctuary and be forgotten or forgiven.
Henry VIII had no love of the sanctuary rights as a symbol of the power of the church. The smaller monasteries were dissolved in 1536 and the act of 1540 completed the rout. The process continued into the reign of Edward VI with the Chantries Act of 1547 sealing the fate of the powerful Collegiate Church of Beverley. On Easter Day 1548 the rule of over 600 years by Provosts who included such men as Thomas Becket (1154) ended and the Minster became a parish church. The last Provost was Reginald Lee, a relative of Archbishop Lee of York. Archbishop Lee was a loyal supporter of Henry VIII and a political churchman. His relative, a possible nephew, was given a pension of £49 15s 0d and the Chapter House and other buildings relating to the Canons were demolished in 1550.
Leland gives us a brief glimpse of what they were like as he wrote:
‘The Prebendaries (Canons) houses stand round St John’s churchyard whereof the Bishop of York hath one moated but all in ruin. The fairest part of the Provost’s house is the gate and the front.’
The parish church began its new life with one minister and two assistants.
In 1542 pardons had been given to ‘all men called grithmen dwelling in the ecclesiastical liberties of Beverley, Ripon (and other places)’ so that they could be assigned to the defence of Scotland. Some sanctuary rights continued after 1540 at Wells, Westminster, Manchester, Norwich, Northampton, York, Derby and Launceston but all rights were finally ended in 1624 by James I. It is interesting to note that a ‘modified’ sanctuary continued in the debtor’s protection in Whitefriars, London, the Savoy and in the ‘Rules of the Fleet’ but these had no church connection.
There are laws and rights relating to sanctuary which were operational during the building of the present Minster and throughout the early turbulent, formative years in the history of Beverley. The effect of sanctuary can be clearly seen when, as William the Conqueror’s troops raided and harried throughout the north of England, the Beverley area was a calm and prosperous oasis following William’s decree that the rights of sanctuary were to be respected. The town grew around the powerful and nationally respected religious settlement and the story of sanctuary reflects this development. It is therefore a story which should appeal to anyone interested in Beverley’s rich heritage.