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Avoidance or Mitigation of Punishment Benefit of Clergy 'Benefit of Clergy': This was the privilege of clergymen to be exempt from capital punishment which was settled in the reign of Henry II, after the conflict with Beckett, with the result that the accused person who could prove himself to be a clerk in orders would be handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities to be dealt with according to Canon law. Many of those handed over escaped further punishment by undergoing purgation, a form of wager of law, while others were put in Church prisons. + Helmholtz: Not surprisingly most Ds passed the test. Procedure: Original procedure was for benefit of clergy to be claimed on arraignment, in which case there was an 'inquest of office' (a compulsory jury) to investigate guilt. The purpose was to warrant the seizure of the clerk's chattels pending his purgation. If the inquest found him not guilty there handing over could be avoided (Quynzene). At every gaol delivery a representative of the bishop, called the 'ordinary', was supposed to be in attendance to claim clerks. But the judges were not at first disposed to trust these representatives. Claim would be disallowed if the prisoner was not in clerical dress, tonsured, or if he could not read. If convicted, D would then be delivered over to a bishop as guilty in the eyes of the secular law. The Church insisted upon the retrial of the convicted clerk in accordance with canon-law rules. Upon a finding of guilt the clerk suffered punishment by the church, usually degradation from orders, temporary imprisonment, and penance.
? Later practice: Clerks accepted jury trial and only claimed clergy in the event of conviction. Practice was noted with mixed feelings by Bereford CJ in 1313. How did the royal judges' attitude to benefit of clergy change?
? Between 1350-1490: Attitude changed completely from distrusting representatives of the bishop. Came to benefit as a regular means of escape from the mandatory death penalty. Physical appearance was disregarded and reading became the sole test of clerical status. When a man was convicted of felony he would fall on his knees and 'pray the book'; he would then be tendered with a passage from the psalter, known as the neck-verse, and if he could read it recite it satisfactorily then clergy was taken to be proved. Judges had discretion to choose passages at random, but at some point it became customary to assign the same text. Strictly speaking the decision whether the convict read 'as a clerk' was for the bishop, called the 'ordinary', but he was subject to the control of the judges and could be fined for refusing to accept someone. Secularisation of benefit between mid-fourteenth century and mid-fifteenth century.
? By end of 16th c: Benefit grew considerably in popularity. By fiction the judges had extended the clerical privilege to laymen. + Cockburn: Identified from assizes records that 47% of all convicts for felony between 1559 and 1624 had clergy. Issue: Judges were unable to extend it to persons who were incapable of ordination, i.e. women. Woman could 'plead the belly' though and some intention to truth was practised there too.
? 16th/17th c: Parliament cleared the fiction of its remaining ecclesiastical impediments, substituted a short term imprisonment for delivery of the 'clerk' to the ordinary and extended the privilege to women (3 Will & Mar. c.9).
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