A rare glimpse of life in medieval Branscombe is afforded by the record of a gruesome murder in the village and its consequences. It throws light also on a less well-known aspect of the church's functions within the law of the land, as a place of sanctuary for those accused of crimes.
There were two classes of sanctuary. Firstly, sanctuary rights for a limited period of forty days, which belonged to every consecrated church and chapel with their graveyards, including St.Winifred's. Secondly, chartered sanctuary with rights for a lifetime. These could only be granted by monarchs, and were conferred on certain specially favoured abbeys and minsters. St.John of Beverly, St.Cuthbert of Durham and Westminster Abbey were among those granted chartered sanctuary. There were none in Devon, but Cornwall had two - one at the Collegiate Church of St.Buryan, the other at Padstow, both granted by Athelstan. The boundaries of the sanctuary extended about a mile and a half from the church, and were generally marked by crosses. One or two of these still remain at St.Buryan.
There were heavy penalties for the violation of sanctuaries, increasing as the distance from the centre lessened. The privilege of sanctuary in churches did not extend to those who had committed sacrilege, or who were atheists. In the reign of Henry VIII, the sanctuaries suffered great curtailment of their privileges, and in 1623 the right was abolished for criminals.
The name Sanctuary still applies to the east end of the chancel, containing the high altar. Criminals taking sanctuary were not allowed to bring any kind of weapons into the church or its precincts, and whilst the vicar was bound to provide food for a fugitive, the responsibility for watching to prevent an escape was thrown on the people of the township, who were fined if they failed.
Within the church, the crime had to be confessed by the fugitive (whether or not they had actually committed it) and a regime of intensive prayer commenced. The value of the fugitive's possessions was forfeit to the king.
Before the statutory forty days of sanctuary expired, the alleged criminal had either to renounce the realm on oath before the coroner, or surrender themselves for trial. Most chose exile. There was a port allotted to them, which had to be reached within a stated period. Clad in sack cloth and carrying a cross, fugitives were allowed to leave the King's highway for a short distance only, to seek food and shelter, but if they left it permanently, or returned to the kingdom after deportation, the penalty was death on sight
The right of sanctuary under the protection of the Church softened the harsh penalties of the English law. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, hanging was the almost invariable punishment for all offences, even in such matters as theft of the value of a few pence. Sanctuary substituted transportation for life for capital punishment, and idea that was taken up again three centuries later, to the advantage of the new colonial land-owners of America and Australia.
Although medieval jails had thick walls and heavily barred windows, and the prisoners were shackled in irons, escapes were frequent, not only when shut up in the gaol, but also when being taken there, probably in many cases by bribing the guards. Once on the run, the fugitives avoided sanctuaries near at hand, fleeing to more distant churches. The reason for this is that the townships and their officials were fined if they allowed a criminal in transit to escape. A hue and cry was given, probably by the sounding of a horn, and all would be on the alert to intercept the culprit en route to the church. So sanctuary-seekers often chose a more distant refuge.
On the Exeter Pleas of the Crown Roll 1248-9, there are 15 cases. One concerned Branscombe.
`Adam, the Miller of Branscombe, William and Richard his sons and Matilda his wife, slew Stephen de la Done. Richard was arrested, and put in prison, but escaped. Therefore there is judgement on that township.
Afterwards it was testified that no one prevented the escape. There must be further inquiry into this matter.
Adam and the others fled to the Church of Branscombe, confessed their crime, and abjured the realm before the coroner. Adam's chattels were valued at 12s 7d. The others had none. They were in the tithing of Branscombe, therefore it is in mercy.
Randolph de la Hole, constable of Honiton, Baroke, the son of Wallis Blakebone, Miles Mogge, John Frelling and Richard Boye, accused of the aforesaid death, came and defended themselves and elected to place the case before a jury.
Twelve jurymen from the four neighbouring townships judged on their sacred oaths that Randolph and the others were not guilty, and they were acquitted. They accused the aforesaid Adam and others of killing Stephen, and they were not arrested. Therefore the township is in mercy.'