Passing through the front doors of Durham Cathedral, you may notice the metallic head of a lion holding a ring in the shape of a snake in its mouth. What few may realize is that this is a meticulously-rendered duplicate. The original lies inside the church, in the Great Kitchen in Open Treasure. Known as the Sanctuary Knocker, this small object has played an important role in the cathedral’s history.
The Sanctuary Knocker dates back to the 12th century. It wasn’t intended for any old visitor who wanted to knock on the cathedral door, but rather those seeking asylum in the church. Any person who had been accused of a heinous crime, such as murder in self-defense or escaping a jail sentence, could use the knocker to be given sanctuary within the cathedral for 37 days.
Once inside, asylum-seekers were to use their time to reconcile, prove their innocence, or plan their escape. In the meantime, at the abbey’s expense, they would be given a safe haven until their eventual departure or handed over to the proper authorities. Those who had been granted sanctuary were given special black robes to wear, with a cross of St. Cuthbert’s Cross stitched onto the left shoulder.
The right of sanctuary was abolished by an act of parliament towards the beginning of the 17th century. Examples of other houses of worship that provided a similar act of safe haven, can be found at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon and St. Nicholas Church in Gloucester.