Beverley’s Frith Stool and the right of sanctuary
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
I often guide in Hull and Beverley, with the stunning gothic Beverley Minster a “must see” stop on my tours. Close to the Altar in the Minster sits a strange stone chair known as “The Frith Stool“ (sometimes also as the Fridd Stool, Peace Chair or Sanctuary Chair) and it is reputed to dated to Saxon times and be over 1000 years old.
On further investigation, the chair has a wonderful history – relating to the granting of sanctuary, something the right of which has been around since early times from as far back as Greek and Roman times. Sanctuary was also part of the early Christian religion and something which became an important part of Anglo Saxon custom.
Alfred the Great apparently drew up a code of laws that the Church “rith” or right of sanctuary was to be recognised for 7 days or even up to 30 days in special circumstances. The penalties for violation of sanctuary were severe.
But Beverley Minster holds some of the oldest and most important sanctuary rights in England dating back as far as Saxon times. In honour of St. John of Beverley who founded Beverley Minster, King Athelstan granted special privileges to Beverley Minster in 937 which lasted pretty much another 600 plus years.
Athelstan created a series of concentric rings around the Minster with greater levels of sanctuary the closer people came to the centre. The first was around a league (about 1.5 miles) of the Minster, then the circles get closer with one starting around the churchyard, one starting at the Minster door, one staring at The Choir screen and the final one at the High Altar where the Frith stool was situated.
Once people were within the first circle they had the right to sanctuary and the fine for a pursuer breaking the rule was 8 pounds – a lot in those days. The fines increased for breaking the sanctuary rules up to death for ignoring the right of sanctuary at the High Altar.
nterestingly, there is a story which became legend about Beverley Minster just after the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror, angry at the North’s rising up against him, particularly in Yorkshire sent his troops up to lay waste to Yorkshire in what is known as “The Harrying of the North”.
William’s troops arrived in East Yorkshire and camped near Beverley. Frightened the local people fled to the church for sanctuary. Some of the soldiers decided to raid the church lead by a general called Toustain. As they entered the church on horseback, Toustain’s horse bolted causing Tourstain to fall and break his neck and “his hands distorted like a mis-shapen monster”. The rest of his troops made a hasty exit and returned to tell the tale to William the Conqueror. Upon hearing the story he re-issued the Minsters sanctuary rights as had been laid down by St. John, spared the lands around Beverley from being laid to waste as had happened to much of the surrounding area and donated more lands to the church.
Back to the chair itself – The Frith Stool dates back to the time of Saxon King Athelstan and was the goal for many pursued men from all over England. Those who had committed some wrong doing and wanted to escape the law or a personal vengeance would head to Beverley. They would race there and throw themselves at the mercy of the church.
Many religious buildings offered sanctuary at the time and this was often signified by a sanctuary knocker – think Durham Cathedral, All Saint’s Church on Pavement in York or Adel Church near Leeds. But sanctuary was only usually offered for a month. Beverley offered a far wider and varied offering.
At Beverley Minster – the pursued were received by the Church officials and granted 30 days sanctuary where the officials would try and obtain “peace or pardon” by the pursuers. They were given food and lodging during the time, but if no deal had been made they were taken to the boundary of Beverley and handed to a coroner where they could choose from 2 options - to undergo a trail or be outlawed from the realm – where they were taken to a port to be sent overseas never to return.
What made Beverley Minster different from other religious establishments was the other option they had of swearing allegiance to the church and becoming a “Frithman”. To do this the accused had to surrender all their worldly possessions and swear an oath. They could live anywhere within the town under immunity and sanctuary rights but could not become a freeman of the city or own land, neither could they eave the town ever. They could practice their own trade and join a guild (which were very strong in Beverley at the time). It is told how some of the Frithmen became very prosperous and important members of the community.
During the reign of Henry VIII many changes were made within the church. One of these was the right of sanctuary which was abolished in 1540. The Chair still remains by the Altar at Beverley Minster as a reminder of Beverley’s special rights of sanctuary. It is a great carved chunk of stone and one of the reasons it may still exist is that it is just too heavy to have moved!