Sanctuary – a short story


I have always been fascinated by the sanctuary knocker on the north door of Durham Cathedral and often speculated what it must have been like for a fugitive to seek sanctuary – hence this story. The right to sanctuary was abolished by King James Ist in 1623.

Adam stood at the door of his home and gazed wishfully over the landscape. He watched the sun rising over misty fields and listened to bird-song mingled with the distant sound of the bells of Durham Cathedral. The peaceful scene soothed his troubled thoughts of the preceding night and for a few moments he felt calm.

It was April 1560 and Adam lived alone on the small farm which is father had given an entire life of labor to acquire. Adam missed his dead parents and absent married sisters but he knew that his loneliness was soon to be over when he and Mary got married. What worried him was that, although he and Mary were betrothed, Mary was being courted by Squire Geoffrey. Both Adam and Mary knew that the Squire had dishonorable intentions and that any pretty milk-maid was fair game for his amorous advances. They also knew that his wealth and position gave him an immunity to do as he wished without repercussion. Squire Geoffrey’s word was law in the local community.

Adam remained at his door long enough to hear Mary play her musical pipe at her window on an adjacent property. The melodic thin notes mingled with the Cathedral bells and told him that all was well with her. Adam loved this self-taught talent of Mary’s and the loving message that it conveyed. Soon the sound ceased and Adam knew that she had started her work and that he should start his. As he strode towards his field he noticed a stand of St George’s mushrooms and decided to fetch a basket to gather them. He dawdled as he gathered the mushrooms taking care to pick the freshest new heads. Perhaps due to his sleepless night he worked slowly and began to wander aimlessly into the woods enjoying the remnants of the dawn in their damp midst. When he found another stand of mushrooms on a decaying log he picked them and added them to his basket.

Instead of returning home he immediately walked to the city to sell his mushrooms. His first stop was Squire Geoffrey’s kitchen door. The cook answered his knock and seemed pleased to give him a few coins for his mushrooms. She explained that the Squire planned a hunting party today and that they would do well in the pies for his dinner.

The next day the hunting party participants were all sick and several died including Squire Geoffrey. After an intense inquiry the problem was narrowed down to the mushrooms which were identified to have included Death Caps (Anita Phalloides) mixed in with the harmless and tasty St. George’s mushrooms. Immediately foul play was suspected and the City of Durham rose in uproar – murder and revenge on every lip. The avenging mob located the cook who was placed in custody with death by hanging her pronounced punishment. Then they went on a rampage to find Adam. A crime of this magnitude had to be avenged.

For the first time in months Adam stopped dreaming of Mary and focused on his own plight. He fled into the very woods where he had found the mushrooms. He located the tree and recognized his error immediately – yes he must have been so engrossed in his dreams of marital bliss that he had lost his focus, of course these were Death Caps. He was filled with bitter remorse and was momentarily tempted to ingest some of the growths at its base. But, it is hard to give up hope so easily and so when he heard the angry mob calling his name he fled again. He stealthily made his way back into the City cherishing the hope that he would see Mary and that she would know what to do. But she was nowhere to be found, he couldn’t even hear her playing her pipe all he was aware of was the clamor of the mob. He panicked and, forgetting Mary, ran for his life toward the Cathedral. He ran up the Bailey, across the Close and headed for the Cathedral North door with the sanctuary knocker on its surface.

He arrived out of breath and, for a split second he paused in front of the knocker. Its empty eyes and scowling face seemed to mock him in its ferocity. How could something so menacing be the key to safety? Even now he paused to fleetingly wonder, if he touched it, would he bid adieu to the life he knew and to Mary. He was sure that if he didn’t touch it he would lose life itself as he hung on the gallows as common criminal. For that brief moment he wondered whether the gallows wasn’t preferable to life without Mary. If he went to the gallows he would, at least, die looking at her – or would he? Mightn’t her family prevent even this last gesture? In this moment of indecision he heard the mob burst upon the Cathedral close yelling his name. It was now or never, he reached up and lifted the smooth knocker and slammed it upon the wooden door in a resounding rap.

His knock was immediately answered by both of the monk watchmen who kept continual vigil over the knocker. They unlatched the big door and welcomed him in. They relished the enormity of their action –the fact that, even though Henry VII had dissolved most of the monasteries, at Durham they retained the power to grant sanctuary to anyone who touched the knocker. Their action served as a poignant reminder that the influence of the church was so great that no force in the land could assail their granting of sanctuary.

Soon Adam heard the bell in the Galilee chapel began its mournful ring letting the city know that the Cathedral had accepted a fugitive. My goodness, he thought, it tolls for me. While the bell tolled in the background, Adam entered a new life in which he was a pawn. First they stripped him of his clothing and possessions and clad him in a black robe with a cross, the emblem of St. Cuthbert on the left shoulder. They explained the simple terms of their sanctuary. He would have to make a full confession to make amends with God. In return they would house him for a thirty-seven day grace period during which time they advised that he make peace with his accusers and those he had wronged for, if after the grace period, he still needed asylum they would escort him to the coast and place him, penniless, clad in his black robe, on the first ship to leave; never to return to England.

Adam made his confession the next day. He confessed that, yes he knew the difference between Death Caps and St. George’s mushrooms they even grew in different locations. His explanation was that he had been preoccupied and distracted and hence had made a terrible mistake. His confessor wanted more and kept asking him about his feelings towards Squire Geoffrey. Adam admitted that he hated the man and had often wished him dead but he staunchly maintained that he had not intentionally delivered the poison. His confessor told him that the devil works in mysterious ways and that the fact that Adam wished Geoffrey dead was tantamount to his having murdered the man with his own hands. His confessor advised prayer and penance for the rest of Adam’s life. He even suggested that Adam consider facing his accusers and accept his worldly punishment in preparation for the divine.

Over the following days Adam had time to think about his situation. Reconciliation with his accusers was, he knew, impossible. Several people were dead and the society he knew wanted him to hang. He knew that facing this demon would mean certain and immediate death; but as the days went by without his seeing or hearing Mary or her pipe he also perceived that the price he was paying for his life was great. He asked himself repeatedly whether this new life without Mary and her music in a foreign land where he would be a destitute person without even language was preferable. At times he cursed his touch on the cold knocker’s smooth handle, at times he fantasized on a miraculous forgiveness.

On the thirty-seventh day Adam and his entourage of monks began their 18.5 mile walk to Hartlepool. Over much of the way they were surrounded by crowds who had come out to see the murderer pass by. Adam walked unfettered still clad in his black robe. No restraints were necessary for all knew that any attempt to leave the road would violate Adam’s protective sanctuary and he would immediately fall into the hands of his accusers. Adam grieved inwardly as he looked for Mary and listened for her pipe but he saw and heard nothing. He was saddened to think that she had abandoned him so easily.

Although Adam lived so close to the sea he had never seen it. Initially the vastness of the waters, the sound of the waves, freshness of the sea breeze and the smell of the harbor distracted him from his plight. But soon the monks identified a small sailing vessel loaded with wool. It was bound for Flanders and the monks quickly negotiated a passage for him. When he left the shore and walked up the gang plank he knew that he was, indeed, about to leave the life he knew. Momentarily he was thankful for the thirty-seven days of sanctuary in the Cathedral, time in which he could mentally prepare himself for this awful moment of departure alone and unloved.

They set sail almost immediately and Adam stood at the rail of the ship and gazed at Hartlepool. It was evening and as he strained to watch it, he saw the life which he knew, together with the setting sun, sink into the horizon. His eyes clouded with tears as he murmured a sweet apologetic good bye to Mary. Then, he heard her pipe playing their tune, the notes mingled with the calls of gulls overhead. He turned to face the direction of the sound.

Copyright © Jane Stansfeld, August 2013

9 thoughts on “Sanctuary – a short story

  1. Whether there’s a sequel or not, this story put me in mind of the poet and novelist Margaret Atwood who has beautifully drawn from the past, as you have here, to tell a deeply felt story….

    • In my follow-up dialogue with Eric I speculate on the possibility of a sequel. But it would be a hard one as it would have to a classic rags to riches story, for surely there is nowhere else that they can go!
      Thank you for your visit, my lady poetess!
      Cheerio, Jane.

  2. You caught us up in both the physical and political climate of England and it’s time in history. They were not the good old days some wistfully wish themselves back into were they? I can trace my English line back to 1590 and some of the documentation of those early times reveal the majority had hard times under restrictive rules and law. I was not aware of the sanctuary provision. Sounds like the Cities of Refuge provision in Biblical times.

    • Not only were the 1500s hard with restricted rules and laws, there were also several outbreaks of the Black Death. Your ancestors of the 1590s must have been a sturdy lot to have survived – clearly you have good stock! Cheerio, Jane.

  3. I liked the story but have some picky points (hope you don’t mind).
    first it is foul play not fowl play. The latter refers to jubilant chickens.
    second I was not convinced (much as I like the ink reference) that inky caps could be confused for death caps – no matter how preoccupied he was. They are so distinctive and unlike anything poisonous. What about St George’s mushroom (traditionally appearing around St George’s day: 23/4 and quite similar to the death cap though it grows on grassland rather than under trees. It would also probably have been of greater culinary value than inky caps which dissolve into very little (tasty as they are).

    • Of course I don’t mind! I love the fact that you are reading these offerings. The foul mistake is bad because, yes, I knew! As for the Inky Caps yes I agree they are rather dissimilar to Death Caps. I love your suggestion of the St. George’s mushrooms this has a lovely irony to it. So I’ll edit.
      You are a great editor and I thank you.

  4. A powerful story, related in a gentle manner that carried me along, wanting to know the end. And what a close – that last line held much hope, or did it?

    • You got it Eric! Is she there or not? I also wonder, although I hope that she is.
      I wonder if there is another story lurking in there about a new life in Flanders or somewhere in Europe. It would have to be rags to riches as they couldn’t go any further down the social order.
      As always thank you for your visit,

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