Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Benefit of Clergy: Get Out of Jail Free?

By Catherine Curzon 

In my last article here, the branding iron, the pillory and the gallows took centre stage as I introduced some corporal and capital punishments of the 18th century Old Bailey. Whilst researching my second book, Tales from the 18th Century Old Bailey, I have found myself lost in the fascinating labyrinth of the various sentences and punishments available to the Old Bailey judges and today, it is my dubious delight to look at a holy grail for sentenced prisoners... the chance to plead benefit of clergy.

Old Bailey in 1750. Sessions House
(Wellcome Library, London)

Benefit of clergy (privilegium clericale) first emerged as an option in the 12th century when a member of the clergy could be tried not by the courts, but by their clerical peers. It was an invaluable loophole to those who could exploit it and provided a route to escape the death penalty for serious crimes, with clergy courts likely to hand down far more lenient sentences than their criminal brethren. However, the plea was open only to those who could prove that they were clergymen of some description and for the vast majority of criminals on trial, this was never going to happen!

However, where there's a will there's a way and the method of proving your clergyhood was far from foolproof, taking as it did the form of a reading test. The person on trial was required to recite what became known as the Neck Verse, or, more officially, Psalm 51. If one could make the recital, then one could claim benefit of clergy and soon enough criminals up and down the country were merrily memorising and reciting Psalm 51 as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury himself might!

Psalm 51, or, the Neck Verse
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions."
Of course, such a blatant abuse of the system could not go unchecked and as the centuries passed, so too did the system of benefit of clergy morph and change. A suspicious judge who suspected a defendant of simply memorising the verse could ask for a second reading from the Bible and, of course, if a criminal could actually read, then he was, essentially, home and dry. As the number of people claiming benefit of clergy increased, a list of crimes for which clergy could not be claimed was drawn up and, eventually, the system was opened to any criminal committing a first-time offence. 

Following the wider availability of the plea, any defendant lucky enough to succeed faced a minimum sentence of hard labour but that, of course, is preferable to the gallows. Should benefit of clergy be approved by the judge, the recipient could also look forward to being branded on his thumb, in order to ensure that he could never claim the right again and that any future crimes would attract the full weight of the law.

The law was eventually abolished in 1827 and the Neck Verse was retired as those on trial forever lost the right to claim benefit of clergy.


Old Bailey Proceedings Online (
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David, Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree (The History Press, 2013)
Cawthorne, Nigel, Public Executions: From Ancient Rome to the Present Day, Arcturus Publishing (2006)
Gatrell, Vic, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (OUP, Oxford, 1996)
Grovier, Kelly, The Gaol (John Murray, London, 2009)
Webb, Simon, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain (The History Press, 2011)


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.


  1. Enjoyed your post very much. I have been watching Wolf Hall and it is too bad that they did not have that law back when Henry VIII was king as a lot of people he sent to be beheaded were clergy.

    1. They would certainly have benefited; the law did exist then but Henry tightened it up a lot, making it far harder to use. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!


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