Alsatia in London, was the name given to an area lying north of the River Thames covered by the Whitefriars monastery, to the south of the west end of Fleet Street and adjacent to the Temple. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries it had the privilege of a sanctuary, except against a writ of the Lord Chief Justice or of the Lords of the Privy Council; and as a result it was the refuge of the perpetrators of every grade of crime, debauchery, and offence against the laws. The execution of a warrant there, if at any time practicable, was attended with great danger, as all united in a maintenance in common of the immunity of the place. It was one of the last places of sanctuary used in England, abolished by Act of Parliament named The Escape from Prison Act in 1697 and a further Act in 1723. Eleven other places in London were named in the Acts (The Minories, The Mint, Salisbury Court, Whitefriars, Fulwoods Rents, Mitre Court, Baldwins Gardens, The Savoy, The Clink, Deadmans Place, Montague Close, and Stepney).
In the reign of Edward I., a certain Sir Robert Gray, moved by qualms of conscience or honest impulse, founded on the bank of the Thames, east of the well-guarded Temple, a Carmelite convent, with broad gardens, where the white friars might stroll, and with shady nooks where they might con their missals. Bouverie Street and Ram Alley were then part of their domain, and there they watched the river and prayed for their patrons' souls. In 1350 Courtenay, Earl of Devon, rebuilt the Whitefriars Church, and in 1420 a Bishop of Hereford added a steeple. In time, greedy hands were laid roughly on cope and chalice, and Henry VIII., seizing on the friars' domains, gave his physician—that Doctor Butts mentioned by Shakespeare—the chapter-house for a residence. Edward VI.—who, with all his promise, was as ready for such pillage as his tyrannical father—pulled down the church, and built noblemen's houses in its stead. The refectory of the convent, being preserved, afterwards became the Whitefriars Theatre. The mischievous right of sanctuary was preserved to the district, and confirmed by James I., in whose reign the slum became jocosely known as Alsatia— from Alsace, that unhappy frontier then, and later, contended for by French and Germans—just as Chandos Street and that shy neighbourhood at the north-west side of the Strand used to be called the Caribbee Islands, from its countless straits and intricate thieves' passages. The outskirts of the Carmelite monastery had no doubt become disreputable at an early time, for even in Edward III.'s reign the holy friars had complained of the gross temptations of Lombard Street (an alley near Bouverie Street). Sirens and Dulcineas of all descriptions were ever apt to gather round monasteries. Whitefriars, however, even as late as Cromwell's reign, preserved a certain respectability; for here, with his supposed wife, the Dowager Countess of Kent, Selden lived and studied.
— (According to Walter Thornbury, in his 1878 book Old and New London:)
Alsatia was named after the ancient name for Alsace, Europe, which was itself outside legislative and juridical lines, and, therefore, they were literally places without law. The name is thought to be a cant term for the area and is first known in print in the title of The Squire of Alsatia, a 1688 play written by Thomas Shadwell.
The name was used into the 20th century as a term for a ramshackle marketplace, "protected by ancient custom and the independence of their patrons".
As of 2007, the word is still in use among the English and Australian judiciaries with the meaning of a place where the law cannot reach:
- "In setting up the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the state has set out to create an Alsatia - a region of executive action free of judicial oversight," Lord Justice Sedley in UMBS v SOCA 2007.
- "Nor is it an answer to Mr Woods' claim that it "was in fact against the rules of the game of indoor cricket as it is played in Australia" to wear a helmet. Sporting arenas are not Alsatias where the common law does not run. The law of negligence applies in the sporting arena with the same force and effect as it does in the factory and on the roadway." —Justice McHugh of the High Court of Australia in Woods v Multi-Sport Holdings Proprietary Limited (2002) 208 CLR 460, para 79.
- Walter Thornbury, "'Whitefriars', Old and New London: Volume 1". Retrieved 2010-05-30. (1878), pp. 182-199.
- Lashmar, Paul (27 May 2007). "Law Lords slam crime agency for freezing UMBS payments". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2010-05-30.
- 1911 Encyclopaedia article on "sanctuary" includes details of Alsatia
- Use of the term in a 1952 novel
- Blog concerning Alsatia