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University collaborates with Beverley Minster on new ‘Sanctuary’ exhibition

Posted on 10 September 2021

University of York researchers have helped develop an interactive exhibition at Beverley Minster which explores the town’s history of offering sanctuary since medieval times.

Beverley MinsterUnder laws originating from AD693, fugitives who reached a two-mile limit around Beverley Minster could claim sanctuary.

The exhibition - funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and developed by the University’s Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture - launches with a celebration event on Sunday 12th September at 12pm. 

It is part of a project to tell the remarkable story of ‘Sanctuary in Beverley’, a town that was granted extensive medieval rights of sanctuary.

Real stories

The exhibition will explore real stories of sanctuary seekers past and present, through interactive content created by the Centre, including dramatised historical accounts and moving modern testimonies.

Beverley Minster was known as a place where those seeking a safe haven from mob justice or family vengeance for alleged crimes such as horse theft, coining and cullying could seek sanctuary and plead their innocence.

Under laws originating from AD693, fugitives who reached a two-mile limit around the Minster could claim sanctuary under special privileges afforded to it as one of the premier churches in the north of England at the time. Unusually, some people could choose to live out their lives within the town’s boundaries in return for immunity from prosecution.


Dr Louise Hampson, Research Fellow and Heritage Research and Partnerships Coordinator at The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, said:  “We know the names and circumstances of over 100 fugitives thanks to court records and a register which lists those seeking sanctuary”.

The Centre picked out seven historical fugitives and, with a local film company, scripted and shot short dramatised films to illustrate their stories. 

The fugitives include:

  • Sir John Holland (the brother of Richard II) who, in 1385, intended to take revenge on the man who murdered his archer. Instead, he mistook the son of the Earl of Stafford for the murderer and killed him instead. Holland then fled to the Minster seeking sanctuary, but the Minster could only offer sanctuary to prevent his immediate death, and murder was beyond the permanent sanctuary rights they could offer.

  • A young Welshman called Gervys who, in the 16th century, had been caught in a field in Leicestershire with four other Welshmen (who he claimed not to know) in possession of a stolen horse. After a scuffle, he escaped his captors and sought sanctuary for life in Beverley. However, there is no record he ever made it.
  • William Adamson, who in 1503, got into a quarrel with another man and accidentally stabbed him. Three days later, the other man died and so Adamson fled to Beverley to claim sanctuary. He claimed it was an accident, but at the time manslaughter was still punishable by death. We don't know what happened to Adamson, but his name does not appear on the list of those granted permanent sanctuary so it is likely he was either allowed to 'abjurge the realm' (i.e. go abroad for life) or had to face justice and was likely hung.

Dr Hampson added: “We focused on the crimes which could resonate or have parallels with people's experience today: debt, domestic abuse, knife crime, fraud, theft of a horse. These help bring this remote history to life and invite the viewer to explore their reactions, opening up some grey areas which may make them reflect on their attitudes and opinions.”


The team were also keen to explore the idea and perceptions of sanctuary today, whether as a brief respite from daily stresses or the plight of refugees fleeing war, poverty, persecution, or climate crisis.

“We wanted to challenge some assumptions and consider how words like a refugee, asylum seeker, and migrant are used interchangeably and given judgmental value depending upon the views of the user,” Dr Hampson added.

The team also filmed interviews with three Syrian refugees who resettled in East Yorkshire and heard their powerful testimonies. 

“We talked about their experiences, but also about their hopes and plans for their new lives, putting the faces of real people to a contentious issue which is often presented as a faceless 'problem’”, Dr Hampson said.

“We used these films not only on the touchscreen in the exhibition but in a rolling screen presentation to literally put their stories in front of visitors as they walk around this amazing medieval church.”

Visit Beverley Minster’s website for more information on the project.


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About this research

Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York developed interactive content for the ‘Sanctuary project’ at Beverley Minster, which tells the story of the town’s history as a place of sanctuary for over 1,000 years.

Explore more of our research.