The multiple mitigation man

Some medieval felons used every escape hatch — also known as mitigations — available to them. Often they started with sanctuary. In a 1423 case, the sanctuary seeker moved on to grassing up his mates before claiming the benefit of clergy. Third time was the charm.

In April 1423, John Digelot, a yeoman of Holmbury St. Mary in Surrey, with apparently a secondary residence in Bury St Edmunds, took sanctuary in the church of St. Mary Overey in Southwark. Digelot confessed two felonies to the coroner: he had stolen a horse in Suffolk and broken into a house in Whitechapel. The coroner’s memo does not indicate that he abjured, and by mid-June 1423 he was in the Marshalsea prison and came before the court of King’s Bench.

There he told the justices that he wanted to “turn approver,” i.e. to give testimony that would lead to the conviction of his accomplices and thereby save him from execution for his crimes. He confessed then to several more thefts and robberies, although the record of his confession (on the coram rege roll) doesn’t include any details about his accomplices, focusing instead only on Digelot’s own admitted parts in these crimes. This suggests that his attempt to “turn approver” was a failure and that he was basically tricked into giving up details on his own crimes while authorities just ignored the evidence he gave about others. But if there was official trickery, it was apparently not with the object of hanging Digelot, as instead he remained in the Marshalsea prison for three years while they figured out what to do with him.

At length in June 1426 he once again appeared in court. This time he pleaded benefit of clergy, which he was granted, and he was released into the custody of the ecclesiastical official. Maybe over the three years in prison he learned to read, as otherwise he should have pleaded clergy at the start.

TNA, KB 9/218/2, mm. 2-3; TNA, KB 27/661, rex m.5. Thanks to Graham Dawson who sent me the KB27 reference.

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