During the Medieval Period (5th-15th Century) people who had committed a serious office would very often be facing death at the hands of the local justice system. This could be for something as little as stealing a loaf of bread during hard times.
However, if they could get to Durham Cathedral before being captured the church could offer them a way out of trouble.
The Sanctuary Knocker is on the north door of the cathedral. A fugitive could run to the cathedral, knock on the door using the sanctuary knocker and claim refuge in the church.
There would be nothing the powers of law enforcement could do as the person was said to have claimed sanctuary and had the protection of the church for thirty seven days as long as they stayed within the confines of the cathedral.
They would be kept in an enclosure to keep them segregated from rest of the church community. For the duration of their stay, they would be given a food, drink and somewhere to sleep. They would also have to wear a black robe with the cross of St Cuthbert sewn into the shoulder as this would identify them as someone who had been granted sanctuary.
During that period of up to thirty seven days, the individual had to decide one of two options.
- Return outside to face trial for the crime they were accused of.
- Leave the country via the nearest sea port.
Stark choices considering the dangers involved in travelling on the open seas back then.
Though the tradition of being able to claim sanctuary has long since gone, the original Sanctuary Knocker is held within an exhibition of treasures within the cathedral. However, the replica knocker on the north door remains an impressive sight and you can tell visitors still hold the knocker on their way inside.