Felonious priests and benefit of clergy

On 3 September 1475, a chaplain named Richard Parenet of Warwickshire took sanctuary at St Augustine’s priory in Daventry, Northants. He confessed to the coroner that 16 years before he had committed murder.


Together with two yeomen of Lincolnshire, in 1459 he had assaulted William Saunderson of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in Gainsborough, with a bastard (or long) sword, giving him a wound that proved mortal.

A bastard sword. Source

He abjured before the coroner, who assigned him the port of Sandwich. By the early 1480s, he was found back in the realm; when he was brought before King’s Bench, however, he was able to present a royal pardon and walked away.

There are a few oddities in this case.

1. We’re not used to thinking about priests as murderers, but priests were a substantial proportion of the male population, and they show up frequently enough in the criminal records. (There are about forty in my database who sought sanctuary.)

There’s a misunderstanding floating around that “benefit of clergy” meant that priests couldn’t be charged and tried for felonies in the royal courts, but that wasn’t the case: priests could be and were indicted for felony, tried, and convicted.

Benefit of clergy was usually invoked after conviction and its effect was on punishment: the convicted felon would be imprisoned by ecclesiastical authorities rather than executed by the crown. But evidently Parenet chose to use other mitigations, sanctuary and pardon, instead. Pardon was best, obviously, as it forgave the conviction and allowed the perpetrator to walk free. Parenet seems to have thought sanctuary and abjuration were better than pleading benefit of clergy: exile was preferable to imprisonment. (And maybe he never actually left England: so going underground in England was better than imprisonment.)

2. Another oddity: the long lag between the 1459 murder and the 1475 sanctuary seeking: what suddenly brought this long-past event back into Parenet’s life? What prompted the king to give him a pardon later?

TNA, KB 9/362, m42; KB 29/112, m19d; KB 27/884, rex m18; CPR 1476-85, 279

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