Asylum (Gr. ), formerly, a place of refuge, from which persons who lied to it could not be taken without sacrilege. The Jewish cities of refuge established by Moses and Joshua are the earliest examples of the custom of which we possess historical evidence. These were six in number, three on each side of the Jordan. There the involuntary homicide might escape the vengeance of the relatives of the deceased. In Greece, the temples, groves, altars, and sometimes the precincts of the temple, were asylums to men convicted or indicted for civil or criminal offences. Yet it was lawful to surround the temple, and let the fugitive die of hunger, and even in some cases to set fire to the building. In the later days of Rome, the eagles of the legions, and the statues and palaces of the emperors, were also asylums. The strongest religious sanction was thrown around these places of refuge. Insolvent debtors and runaway slaves resorted to them in great numbers. As law became more powerful under the Roman government, these asylums came to be regarded as nuisances; and at last an edict of the emperor Tiberius swept most of them away, both legal and pretended. With the barbarian incursions in the East and West, the necessity for asylums again arose.
The new right of asylum fell to the churches. Under Constantine the Great, all Christian churches were asylums; the younger Theodosius extended the privilege to all courts, gardens, walks, and houses belonging to the church. The Franks in France and the Visigoths in Spain permitted it. Many of the popes favored this right. All convents, and even bishops' houses, became asylums. Opposed to the right were the temporal lords, whose jurisdiction was curtailed by the asylums. Several popes, in particular Gregory XIV. and Benedict XIII., restricted the right as narrowly as possible. All highway robbers, voluntary homicides, horse or sheep stealers, professional thieves, heretics under inquisition process, those who laid violent hands on nobles, forgers, false coiners, and duellists, were excluded from the privilege. In Germany, where the temporal power was strong, the right of asylum was never very effective. Sometimes, however, the German barons would themselves set up the right of asylum in their castles. The German emperors never regarded the ecclesiastical asylum, and it was entirely swept away by the Protestant princes.
In 1534, alter the reformation had commenced, persons accused of treason were debarred the right of sanctuary, which word is more commonly used in English law than asylum, and hence the phrase, "to take sanctuary," is equivalent to take refuge. In the time of Queen Elizabeth the right of asylum was denied to all criminals, but reserved to debtors. In 1697 the right of asylum was at length taken away from insolvent debtors. To Macduff, thane of Fife, who contributed to the overthrow of Macbeth, and to his descendants, was given by Malcom Kenmore, on the recovery of the throne of his ancestors, the privilege for any one of the clan Macduff who committed unpremeditated homicide, to have his punishment remitted for a fine, payable to the injured family, if he could get safe to Macduff's cross, which stood in Fifeshire. Many similar privileges were granted by charter in Scotland. To this day, Holyrood palace, as an ancient royal residence, continues to retain this right with respect to the persons of debtors. The boundaries of this place of refuge are liberal; the debtors find lodgings in a short street, the privileged part of which is divided from the unprivileged by a gutter running across it. This is the only existing sanctuary in the British empire.
In the United States of America, no civil or ecclesiastical asylum ever existed. The right of asylum endured longest in Italy, and was first put an end to by the French occupation at the end of the last century. The houses of the clergy and graveyards became asylums in Italy in course of time; and the houses of the cardinals at Rome had this privilege, at least in theory, as long as the temporal power lasted.