Mercy and the young Henry VI

Henry VI (r. 1422-60; 1470-71) came to the throne as a baby; in the 1430s and into the early 1440s as he moved through his teens he gradually began to assume personal control of the royal government. A hallmark of the early years of his rule was his determination to govern in a Christian fashion – including the dispensation of royal mercy. It seems that some criminals in the later 1430s learned to pull his strings by emphasizing their contrition for their sins, so that, like God, Henry could forgive their trespasses.

BL Add 35313 f3r

On 24 October 1433, a husbandman of Newton, Northamptonshire, John Marchall, took sanctuary and abjured for the theft of a sheep. Six years later, in 1439, he petitioned the king – from exile? having been found in the realm? – to pardon his felony and erase his abjuration. As the petition notes, Marchall “besought the king’s mercy” with “tears and sighs,” as he had “the greatest horror of his ill deeds, intending to avoid all such in future.”

Henry, magnanimously granted the pardon, persuaded by Marchall’s contrition, connecting (as did other kings) his power to forgive crimes with God’s redemption of sin. Henry’s determination to be merciful and to see his kingly role as tightly connected to Christian forgiveness was a very important factor in the development of sanctuary in both practical and ideological terms in the middle years of the fifteenth century.

CPR 1436-41, 275-76. Image of young Henry VI:

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