Hitting for the cycle: sanctuary, benefit of clergy, pardon

Here, another felon cycling through the three major forms of mitigation available to accused criminals in England circa 1500. Though hardly unpunished, George Courtenay of Hampshire was able to avoid the noose and after twenty years walked free.

Courtenay, called in different records gentleman or merchant of Romsey, Hampshire, took sanctuary in 1514 in Caistor, Lincolnshire. He confessed to the coroner that a year before he’d stolen a horse and £4 in money from John Warner at Longludford, Lincolnshire.


He tacked onto his confession an additional robbery, this one in Hampshire, in 1512 – that time he stole £8. He then abjured the realm before the Lincolnshire coroner, who sent him to the port of Kingston upon Hull to find a boat overseas.

Two years later, though, in 1516, he was found in the realm. This time when brought before the court, with his abjuration serving as the equivalent of a guilty plea to the indictment, he reached for another mitigation, this time pleading benefit of clergy. From the 15th century, the benefit of clergy was accorded to men who had the potential to be a priest, even if they were not in fact in holy orders. In practice, it meant any man who could read in Latin could have the “benefit,” in effect a class-based privilege. By around 1500 most claims to clergy in criminal trials were made after conviction and related to the punishment phase of proceedings. As the church didn’t impose capital punishment (only royal courts did that), it meant that the criminal was spared execution and imprisoned instead.

Courtenay’s clergy claim was tested, as was procedure, by giving him a bible passage in Latin; he was able to “read as a clerk”; from court, Courtenay was taken to the prison for convicted clerks inside the Westminster sanctuary.


There he remained until 1533. In that year he appeared in a census of the Westminster sanctuary, listed as “a clarke attaynte” having been “in the convicte house” for 17 years.

TNA, SP 1/238, fol. 72

Maybe that census brought his long stay in the convict house to the king’s attention, as soon after he received his third form of mitigation: he was granted a royal pardon on 16 October 1533, allowing him to walk free. His crimes were fairly serious (two substantial robberies), but evidently someone decided that nearly twenty years of imprisonment was enough.

TNA, KB 9/467, mm. 89-90; KB 27/1020, rex m. 9; KB 27/1089, rex m. 1; SP 1/238, fols. 72-73.

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