A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Sanctuary Much

 Lost for inspiration, Neil Pickford returns to the subject of special chairs in Beverley Minster.
It’s going to be one of those weeks, you can tell.
It’s not really a surprise because Wednesday saw the start of the annual REaction three day event when the Minster plays host to nearly one thousand 10 and 11 year-olds from all around East Yorkshire.
It’s something we pioneered at the Minster about six or seven years ago and it’s become very popular, with similar events happening elsewhere in the county.
There’s a touring team that provides drama, dance and singing workshops, then some sort of art-based activity, a quiz that seems to involve a lot of running around in the churchyard (if it’s dry) and, by far and away the most important of all, the virgers (mostly me) give talks on the history of the Minster.
We think this is the best part of the whole day, naturally but some of the children seem a bit restless, particularly if they’ve just come from the dance session. I try to keep the mood going by waving my arms around a lot and expect I’ll be doing the same this year, provided they don’t drag me away before the last of my 18 sessions.
However, I am aware that these gymnastics may not, of themselves, be enough to keep their interest for the full 30 minutes so I’ve been spending my days off trying to think up terrific tales to keep them all entertained.
One of my little anecdotes is about our Frithstool and I thought I’d rehearse it on you lot first. (see, this blog isn’t just thrown together, you know).
Anyway, the frithstool is the oldest object in the Minster, dating from the 10th century.
It’s made of stone and I dread to think how much it weighs.
Someone had to find this out a few years back because, while it’s currently standing on the north side of the high altar, not so long ago it was on the south side and it took more than a couple of hefty virgers and a big stick to shift that baby, believe me..
This stone seat literally meant life and death to people in Beverley for more than seven centuries because this was where desperate refugees were granted sanctuary.
Now sanctuary was one of the great bits of Christian and Saxon law and, in many ways, Saxon law was terrific – a proper mix of rights and responsibilities until those pesky Normans spoiled it all in 1066.
Occasionally today you hear news stories of an individual or family claiming sanctuary in a church, hoping that this will deter the police or customs officials from chasing them. This hoped-for refuge is a mere shadow, a faint echo of a much more legally-binding European right dating back to around 510AD which gave the humblest serf in the country protection, even from an angry king, once they were inside a church.
Under the rules, if you were in any form of serious trouble you had the right to plead for time to sort out the problem. Typically you had up to 40 days during which the priests would try and negotiate a settlement between the fugitive and their accuser. In that time a guilty defendant might volunteer to be tried in court, or surrender all their property to their accuser or the church, then leave the country and live in exile.
This was particularly important at a time when the blood feud was a recognised way of settling disputes and most crimes seemed to carry the death penalty.. 
In Beverley, however, King Athelstan granted much greater sanctuary rights to the monks who looked after the tomb of Bishop (later ‘Saint’) John in the old monastery. John felt obligated to Bishop John because he believed that the flag of the future saint had helped him win a battle against overwhelming odds so, as he transformed the old monastery into a land-owning minster and gave huge privileges to the priests who would look after it.
One of these rights extended sanctuary protection on all land within a two mile radius of the building and, also granted lifelong protection if you claimed sanctuary three times.
To this day three of the four stones that marked this unusually large area of refuge are still in place beside roads leading to Beverley- if you come to the Minster one day when I haven’t got 300 children in church I’ll tell you where they are.
The right to full sanctuary kicked in once you had made it to the sanctuary chair, so you can imagine loads of successful escapees singing the old Ian Dury song: “Reasons to be chairful, part three” – or maybe not.
If you wanted the same freedom from wrong-doing today, you’d have to become an MP to avoid justice.
Sorry, was that a bit cynical? Perhaps the prospect of addressing 1,000 well-behaved children has tipped the balance of my mind.
Hopefully normal service will be resumed soon.

First published June 2009


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