Benefit of clergy: another escape from the noose

On 30 December 1465, yeoman John Wynterbourne of Aldbourne Wiltshire took the church of Chipping Lambourne in Berkshire. He confessed to the coroner that on 6 June of that year he had murdered fisherman John Parker in Oxfordshire, near the Thames.

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After Wynterbourne killed Parker, he dragged his body to the river and threw it in. The coroner’s record doesn’t indicate why, six months later, Wynterbourne felt compelled to seek asylum: maybe Parker’s body surfaced, bringing Wynterbourne’s crime to light?

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After confessing, Wynterbourne abjured the realm, but by July 1466 he was back in court. He then claimed benefit of clergy – a legal fiction whereby any literate man eligible for the priesthood (though not necessarily actually a priest) could be handed over to the church, rather than the crown, for punishment, saving him from the noose. (Women were not eligible to claim the benefit, as they could not be priests – as often with legal fictions, at points it was subject to hard literal interpretation.)

Passing the literacy test in court meant that instead of being hanged Wynterbourne was put into the abbot of Westminster’s prison. There he apparently stayed for 11 years, until 1477, when he escaped. The abbot was charged with negligence for allowing the escape (he was given a pardon), and I’ve found no record of whether Wynterbourne himself was ever caught.

TNA, KB 9/313, m. 76; KB 9/947, m. 53. Top image British Library

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