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Until 1827, people charged in ordinary criminal courts (the secular 'Royal Courts of Justice') could claim exemption from some punishments, especially capital punishment, by virtue of benefit of clergy, or being a professional member of the Church - a privilege established in the twelfth century, when 'the Church' meant the [Roman] Catholic Church, which was a power in the land equal to that of the King. In 1305, even minor members of the church were granted 'benefit of clergy'. Defendants could satisfactorily prove their right to benefit of clergy by demonstrating their literacy by reading in Latin - this was enacted in a statute of 1351. At the Reformation, this became reading in English.

Defendants used to read (or recite: a common abuse of the privilege by illiterates) an appropriate verse from the Bible. This was commonly verse 3 of Psalm 50 (in the Vulgate, before the Reformation) "miserere mei Deus secundum misericordiam tuam iuxta multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitates meas", which is translated in the Authorized Version (where it is re-numbered as verse 1 of Psalm 51) as "[1] Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions." As recitation of this verse was enough to escape hanging (offenders were branded on the thumb, to make sure that they could only claim this benefit once), it was known as the neck-verse.

In 1598, the English playwright, and contemporary with Shakespeare, Ben Jonson claimed benefit of clergy by reading the neck-verse at Shoreditch. He was charged with manslaughter, having killed the actor Gabriel Spencer, in a duel with whom he had been imprisoned during the previous summer. Jonson said that Spencer had challenged him to this fight, and, with a sword 10 inches longer than his own, had wounded him in the arm before being overcome. Jonson was branded and discharged.