Getting Away With Murder: Criminal Clerics in Late Medieval England
During the fourth century Roman emperor Constantine created laws exempting clergymen who committed a felony from having to answer for their actions before a secular court. This set about 1500 years of use and abuse of what became known as Benefit of Clergy. The unusual legal excuse traveled to England where by the middle of the thirteenth century men who were no more than church doormen or bishop's messengers could avoid the executioner's gallows and walk free after a brief appearance before the Christian court. The range of crimes committed by these clerics encompassed all of the criminality occurring throughout the Middle Ages: murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, extortion, theft. Priests belonged to gangs of robbers and murderers, monks supplied their services as thugs to evict legitimate tenants and a bishop ran his own mafia, in 1303 a priest assisted by a group of monks stole the crown jewels. In one particularly gruesome incident a monk assisted a group of villagers in holding a man inside an oven until he burned to death. In another example a priest sexually assaulted a woman and then returned later to assault her again. When she resisted he held her infant child in a fire. During the same period students at Oxford university were permitted to claim the dubious title of cleric; to their discredit they were at one point the most murderous group of citizens throughout the realm. Eventually the church and the crown had little choice but to attempt reform of England's criminal clerics. It took two hundred years. To the surprise of some writers though the excuse was not removed; it was extended. By 1375 it was possible for any Englishman who could read to claim he was a clergyman and be exempted from hanging.
This book follows the fascinating and graphic history of the use and abuse of benefit of clergy in England during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Previous commentators have largely dismissed the clergy plea as an anomaly, something simply 'evil' or even a 'queer old farce'. That position is challenged in this book and it is suggested that the excuse should be reconsidered against the vibrant social and legal environment of medieval England as one of a range of legal excuses that also included sanctuary, abjuration and outlawry. In theory these three options were not available to clerics. In practice, and at times with the connivance of their bishops, all order of clergymen availed themselves of the opportunity to hide, flea or become a legal outcast. If they failed many then resorted to the cleric's plea as a last option. The story of benefit of clergy has previously been portrayed as an example of the worst excesses of churchmen usurping the law. In this work a new position is argued; one that does not seek to absolve the criminal clergymen of medieval England, but rather more to appreciate better the factors that came to bear upon them in the rapidly changing world of the late Middle Ages and to recognize that the laicization of benefit of clergy was a natural and inevitable growth of the dynamic world during this period.
Recent commentary on Benefit of Clergy is sparse. Even less has been said that includes it with sanctuary, abjuration and outlawry. Students of history, legal history, criminal justice, religion and anyone looking for a fascinating read is encouraged to look into Getting away with Murder: Criminal Clerics in Late Medieval England.