A medieval youth seeks sanctuary in Durham Cathedral after killing his abusive father.
Elric stared with horror at the blood on his fingers, and then at the hammer in his right hand. His eyes shifted to the body of his father slumped upon the dirt floor of the smithy. He detected no signs of movement. Crouching, he took the limp wrist and felt for a pulse. There was nothing. In a daze he placed his hand on his father’s chest in the vain hope of some faint fluttering, but again nothing was detectable.
“Lord forgive me, I have killed him!” he groaned in horror.
Only moments before, his father, Dicun, the village blacksmith had been beating his son across the shoulders with a wooden club. Dicun had been angry about something and had lost control of his fiery temper. When he was angry, he usually beat whoever was closest, his wife or his son. Sometimes he had got into violent and bloody brawls at a nearby tavern, and the parish constables had been forced to restrain him. He was known for his volcanic temper, and customers at the smithy had learned to tread carefully around him, but his son, Elric, who worked alongside him, was rarely able to escape his father’s rage. On this occasion Elric, now grown into a strapping boy of seventeen, had endured his father’s blows as long as he was able before finally snatching up a hammer and aiming a wild blow at Dicun. Elric had never intended to inflict any injury, merely praying that his father would back away and give him respite from the beating. But Dicun, now more enraged than ever by his son’s resistance, had kept on coming. Elric’s second blow had struck his father square on the temple, and the blacksmith had collapsed pole-axed to the floor.
For a moment Elric stood paralyzed with fear. A torrent of thoughts swept through his mind. What should he do, what would people think, would he be arrested, what was the penalty for such a crime? Perhaps his father’s drunken friends would kill him in revenge!
Then suddenly he remembered his friend, an apprentice called Hopkin, who had shown him the giant bronze knocker on the North door of the nearby Durham Cathedral, and explained that anyone in trouble could pound upon the door and seek sanctuary from pursuers.
An audible gasp interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up to see the shocked face of Morris the baker staring at the prone and bloody body of Dicun on the smithy floor.
“What in heaven’s name has happened?” asked Morris suspiciously.
Not pausing to answer, Elric sprang forward, and pushing Morris aside, burst out of the smithy into the sunlit street. He turned to the right, and rushed off up the lane towards Saddler Street. He was vaguely aware of voices behind him calling, “Stop, Elric!”, and moments later, “He has killed his father!” and “Murder! Murder!”
The boy turned the corner into the bustle and noise of Saddler Street, and promptly sent a man, who was carrying a tray of fresh-baked pies, hurtling to the cobblestones. The man cursed savagely, and Elric staggered against a nearby stall, sending its contents scattering across the road. His breath coming in gasps, he set off sprinting uphill towards the cathedral. Behind him he heard the sounds of pursuit, the ‘hue and cry’, as a mob of people started after him. He staggered into Castle Green past the entrance to the Prince Bishop’s Castle. Fortunately there was no sentry or gatekeeper to bar his way. He was panting now and his legs felt like jelly, but fear lent him wings and he sped across the last few yards of grass to the door of the vast building that loomed in divine splendor above the medieval city of Durham.
Elric risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw to his horror that his pursuers had already arrived at the other side of the Green. The bloodthirsty yells of the mob floated to his ears, and he was filled with panic. Seizing the huge bronze knocker, depicting the mask of a hideous lion-like beast, he rapped loudly on the door. “Sanctuary!” he screamed “Merciful Heaven, grant me sanctuary!” In a panic he pounded on the door with his fists. After what seemed like an eternity, he heard the sound of the door latch being lifted. Elric could almost feel the hot breath of the mob on his neck as two strong arms seized him by the shoulders and dragged him through the doorway. He fell to the stone floor, and turned his head just in time to hear the heavy door clang shut.
“Open and admit us!” screamed the mob from outside. “This boy is a murderer! Give him up to justice!”
A firm and clear voice from somewhere above Elric’s head replied, “The boy has sought the divine shelter of the blessed Saint Cuthbert, and sanctuary has been granted him. You know the law of the County Palatine and its Prince Bishop. You may not enter. Return to your homes!” Soon after, the sound of grumbling voices and shuffling footsteps faded away across the Green.
Elric later learned that there was a chamber above the door where two monks were stationed night and day to await fugitives such as himself who fled to seek sanctuary.
He blinked as his eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom of the great church. A round moon-like face was staring solemnly down at him. The monk reached down and drew the boy gently to his feet.
“You have been granted sanctuary in this church for the space of thirty-seven days,” said the monk calmly. “You are safe as long as you remain within these four walls. At the end of this period you must choose either to surrender to the authorities and face justice or you must flee this realm never to return, on pain of death. Now follow me. There are some conditions attached to your sanctuary.”
Elric stumbled after the broad back of the cleric, and in a few moments found himself in a small chamber well-lit by several strategically-placed candles.
“First of all, you must surrender any weapons in your possession,” began the monk.
“I have none, sir,” said Elric, and he stepped into the light so that the monk could see that he was telling the truth.
“You may address me as Brother Francis,” said the monk.
At the moment Elric heard the solemn tones of a bell sounding in the distance. Too exhausted to speak, he looked enquiringly at the monk.
“That, my son, is the Galilee Bell. It is ringing to signal your sanctuary. And now you must wear this while you dwell here in sanctuary.” He held out a plain black robe which bore the yellow cross of St. Cuthbert embroidered on the left shoulder. “This is to signify to all whom you encounter that you are protected by the sanctuary granted by God and his saint, the blessed Cuthbert, who lies buried within these walls.
Elric stripped quickly, and donned his strange apparel as Brother Francis gathered up the boy’s homespun garments and folded them over his arms.
“Your garments will be returned to you when you leave sanctuary,” said the monk. “Now I will show you where you may rest.”
He led Elric down a passageway to a small chamber, barely more than a cell. The floor was spread with rushes and a simple cot stood in the corner. On the wall was a rough wooden cross.
“You will have time to contemplate your deeds here,” said Brother Francis frowning slightly. “Each day you will be given water and simple food to sustain you at the Abbot’s expense. The Abbot will speak with you tomorrow. In the meantime, you should sleep, my son, for you are clearly exhausted.”
As soon as Brother Francis had disappeared down the hallway, Elric sank onto the bed, and sleep mercifully claimed him before his mind could grasp the profound seriousness of his fate.
Early the following morning Elric was woken from sleep by shafts of sunlight that slanted through the narrow window across his face. He lay there for a moment bewildered, unsure of where he was and how he came to be in this unfamiliar place, but as his head cleared, the traumatic events of the previous day came flooding back. He groaned and rolled onto his side.
“What have I done?” he thought. “I am a criminal and a fugitive. My life is ruined. What will become of me?”
He dragged himself from the bed and dressed in his simple robe. He was just running his fingers through his unruly mop of brown hair when the door opened, and Brother Francis entered bearing a flagon of water and a plate of bread and cheese.
“After you have eaten, you will report to Brother Thomas in the refectory kitchen,” said the monk tersely. “He will set you to work scouring the breakfast dishes and preparing the midday meal for the brothers. You may as well be gainfully occupied while you are here with us. The Abbot will summon you when he is ready to receive you.”
Elric spent the morning laboring hard in the hot steamy kitchen, but he found it not unpleasant to be occupied and distracted from the contemplation of the events of the previous day. Every time his thoughts strayed in that direction, he pulled them back and focused on whatever task the burly, red-faced Brother Thomas had assigned him. The monk proved a brusque but kindly taskmaster, and Elric inwardly resolved that he would be content to stay the rest of his life in the hot kitchen laboring from dawn to dusk if that were only an option.
At last, early in the afternoon, Elric was summoned into the presence of the Abbot, a dignified old man with a circle of wiry grey hair around his head. Elric bowed low and humbly until the Abbot said kindly, “Look at me, my son. Would you be willing to tell me your story of how you came to seek sanctuary? Brother Francis believes that you are not the type of reprobate or criminal that we oftentimes must shelter. He believes, as I do, that some misfortune or misunderstanding must have befallen you. You are after all only a boy.”
“But I killed my father, Sire,” blurted out Elric with deep pain in his voice. “It is a mortal sin. ‘Thou shalt not kill’, says the Bible. And I have killed one of my own family. I am like unto Cain, who killed his brother.”
“Calm yourself, my son,” interrupted the Abbot. “If you are willing, tell me how this came about. Tell me everything and do not be afraid. I will hold everything you say in the strictest confidence.”
Elric looked up into the clear, wise eyes of the old man, and felt a surge of hope in his heart.
“Sire, my father is….was a cruel man. He beat my mother and myself almost every day. His blows were violent, especially when he had been taking strong drink. I could endure his blows, but it broke my heart to see him smite my poor mother so. He was a blacksmith, and I had perforce to work with him, shoeing horses and mending ploughs and tools. I tried to be obedient to him for the Bible tells us to honor our parents, but yesterday he was like a man possessed. He beat me savagely with a club until I could no longer bear it, and in desperation I seized up a hammer and struck him. I never intended to kill him, Father, only to stop him from beating me. Now I am a murderer.” At these words Elric buried his face in his arms and wept bitterly.
After some moments the Abbot began to speak softly. “It is good, my son, that you feel remorse for your deed, committed after much provocation. However, patricide is a serious crime, and under the law cannot go unpunished. Two choices lie before you. You may surrender to the authorities and give yourself up to trial and punishment. This is a risky venture for no man can predict what judgement will be conferred upon you. It might mean the forfeit of your life. The other choice is to confess your guilt before God and the Coroner and flee the kingdom within 37 days never to return. It is not for me to influence your decision, but you are so young. Your life lies ahead of you, and you are not wicked. You can redeem yourself in time. I would recommend that you choose banishment and seek your fortune overseas. You will be poor and friendless. Life will be hard, but if you are truly a good man, you can survive these trials. Now go and think on my words, and when you are ready, you may return and tell me your decision.”
“Thank you, Father, for your patience and your wise words,” replied Elric sincerely as he knelt and kissed the Abbot’s ring.
Three days later Elric confessed to his sin and received absolution from the Abbot. Then in the presence of the Coroner of the County Palatine he admitted his guilt in the murder of Dicun the blacksmith, his father, and stood head bowed low as the Coroner delivered his expected sentence.
“Having admitted your guilt in the felony murder of the aforesaid Dicun the blacksmith, you must abjure this realm of England for the remainder of your natural life. If you return, you are once more a fugitive and your life will be forfeit. Tomorrow morning at the hour of five, parish constables will escort you from the door of this church to the town of Hartlepool where you will board ship for France. During this journey you must not step from the King’s highway at any point or you will be considered a fugitive and put to death.”
Elric nodded dully, saying, “Yes, sire,” in as firm a voice as he could muster.
After the Coroner had left, Elric gazed into the kind eyes of the Abbot and said in a plaintive tone:
“Father, could I not remain here in the shelter of this holy church? I would never venture forth, and I would labor for you and the Brothers for the rest of my life. If I could only still hear the sounds of my native land, the birds and the wind in the trees and the soft patter of the rain and men speaking in my native tongue!”
The Abbot looked at him sadly and replied, “Alas, child! It is not possible. Your time here is proscribed, and if you flee, they will find you and kill you. You must away to France.” He paused for the moment, and then a sudden light came into his eyes, and he spoke again. “My son, I have a good friend, whom I met many years ago and who is now the Abbot of Marmoutiers in Tours. I will compose a letter that you may take to him. I will ask him to give you aid and shelter.”
Elric felt a rush of gratitude wash over his mind, and he fell to his knees before the Abbot.
“How can I ever thank you for your kindness, my Lord Abbot. You have truly shown the mercy of the Lord upon a poor sinner,” he cried.
“We are all sinners in the face of God, my son,” replied the Abbot, “but Christ died to redeem us of our sins. Now go and prepare for your journey, for it will be a long and wearisome venture.”
The following morning as the first signs of light showed above the horizon, Elric walked slowly east from the city, accompanied by three constables bearing stout wooden staffs. Progress was slow as the boy was obliged to make his way barefoot, and overnight rain had made the road muddy and treacherous. Elric was also burdened by the wooden cross he bore on his shoulders as a symbol that he was under the protection of the Church. He was bareheaded in the morning drizzle and soon his hair was wet and moisture ran down his face and neck.
To his relief after an hour of walking, the rain stopped and the sun appeared from behind the clouds and cast its pale beams upon the road. Gradually his woolen clothing steamed and dried. By midday he was feeling less miserable although his feet were sore and bleeding. He had already passed out of the first parish and his escort had been replaced with two new constables. These two guardians looked less impressive, one a lanky youth who glanced around nervously, the other a wizened and wrinkled old fellow who spat frequently into the dirt.
Elric and his two companions rounded a bend in the road to find themselves confronted by four men blocking the highway. The men were carrying cudgels and axes, and a length of rope dangled from the hand of the fellow who appeared to be the ringleader. With a tremor of fear Elric recognized them as drinking companions of his dead father.
“Deliver the killer into our hands and there will be no trouble,” said the man, brandishing his cudgel. “We have come to administer justice for Dicun, our friend. He must pay the price for his crime.”
“Stand aside!” replied the old constable bravely. “The Coroner of the County Palatinate has pronounced sentence. Let us pass!”
The ruffian laughed mockingly. “Who will stop us from taking the lad? You, old man, or this callow youth? Save yourself from a beating, you old wretch, and hand over the boy.”
“You are defying the law of the Prince Bishop,” persisted the old constable. You will bring down his wrath. You will be excommunicated.”
“What do I care for the Bishop or his excommunication?” hissed the ruffian. “I’m already bound for hell for all the things that I have done in this miserable life. Now step aside and let me avenge my friend Dicun!”
The four men were edging threateningly towards the constables when suddenly around the corner clattered a group of horsemen. They were wearing chain mail and helmets and armed with swords. The four ruffians took one look, and then with growls of anger and frustration, took to their heels across the fields that bordered the highway.
The leader of the horseman reined in alongside the old constable and leaned over to speak. “We passed those ruffians a few minutes ago. They were lurking by the side of the road and we suspected that they were footpads lying in wait to ambush and rob some unfortunate traveler. We decided to retrace our steps and investigate.”
“We are in your debt, Sir Knight,” replied the constable. “They were after vengeance on this lad whom we are escorting to Hartlepool. He is banished from the realm.”
The knight threw a glance of pity at the wretched figure of Elric and said, “Why, he’s but a boy! What crime can he have committed?”
“He killed his father,” replied the constable, “but he was beaten and provoked. I knew his father. Dicun was a wicked and drunken man. He deserved it!” And the old man hastily made the sign of the cross.
“Well, we are bound for Hartlepool also,” said the knight. “We will escort you. You need have no further fear of those four ruffians. I wager they have no stomach for a real fight.”
“Our thanks to you, Sir Knight,” said the old constable. The Knight nodded and turned his horse in the direction of the coast.
The party reached Hartlepool as darkness was falling. Elric was placed in the custody of the local constables, and permitted to sleep in the straw of a nearby barn until dawn. The knight squeezed Elric’s arm encouragingly and whispered, “Have courage, boy,” as he pressed something into Elric’s hand before leaving.
Later, as he lay in the straw, exhausted and aching from his eighteen mile journey, Elric examined the small leather bag the knight had given him. To his surprise and gratitude it contained a handful of coins! Not a fortune, but nevertheless enough to buy a little food on his journey to France. He lay back on his soft bed and slept soundly.
As the first rays of sunlight colored the horizon to the east, Elric boarded a small sailing vessel bound for France. The cog (as it was locally termed) was a flimsy-looking craft with only a single sail, but it had made numerous crossings of the North Sea, and Elric had no fear that it would deliver him safely to his destination.
An hour later, as the vessel drifted out to sea on the tide, Elric turned for a last glance at the receding shores of the land where he had lived for all of his short life. His eyes misted over with tears as he watched the green coast, dotted with houses and clumps of trees, slowly disappear into the distance.
“Will I ever set foot in England again?” he thought. “What fate awaits me in a foreign land? Woe is me! There is no safe haven for a wretched sinner.” And then he remembered the kindly face of the Abbot, the crusty defiance of the old constable and the Knight’s little bag of money, and he felt a little better.
“But perhaps there is hope for me if I only keep faith and courage in my heart,” he murmured, and putting his hand to his woolen jerkin, he felt the reassuring rustle of the Abbot’s letter. Could this be his gateway to a new beginning?
FOOTNOTE: King Aethelbert of Kent first introduced laws granting sanctuary around 600 A.D. It was known in Old English as ‘frith’. In ‘The Rites of Durham’, published in 1593, it says that rights of sanctuary were ‘a freedom confirmed not only by King Guthred of Northumbria, but also by King Alfred (The Great) of the Anglo Saxons (848-891)’. After 1066, 22 churches and cathedrals in England, including Ripon, York, Hexham and Durham had the power to grant sanctuary. Henry VIII redefined and restricted the types of criminals and fugitives who could seek sanctuary, and in 1624 King James I abolished the rights of sanctuary altogether. However the principle of a safe haven where persons in trouble might seek protection from their pursuers or persecutors has survived into the modern age in the form of the sanctuary movement and political asylum for refugees and political dissenters. It is still an important restraint on the excesses of governments and regimes across the world.