Taking the long and winding road to mercy? A Norfolk woman’s route through medieval criminal justice

In the middle of the reign of Edward III, Margaret Clerk of Norfolk found herself in deep trouble with the law. She appears in an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1353.[i] This, though, was not her first encounter with medieval criminal justice. As the entry makes clear, she was in peril at this point as a result of an alleged breach of rules relating to abjuration of the realm, a process by which a person in danger of being convicted and executed for a serious offence could stay alive, at the cost of agreeing to leave the country swiftly, and according to particular instructions. Margaret had agreed to abjure after confessing to offences of theft, committed alongside a male offender. She had not, however, left the realm.

The entry states that there had been an indictment relating to Edward Clerk of Caston, parson of the church of Lingwood, and Margaret Clerk,of the same place (their relationship, if any,  is unclear) for various felonies. The sheriff of Norfolk had brought them before the king’s justices and John atte Wode, the king’s coroner of Norfolk, came and said that Edward and Margaret had confessed to him, in the church of St Peter at Lingwood, that they were thieves, and so abjured the realm of England. Apparently, he produced a record of this abjuration, which is copied down, and dated [5th April 1353]. The offences confessed to were burglaries at two houses, making off with a quantity of grain and pulses, and bread, worth 18s and 5s 15d respectively. They were asked if they abjured, and assented, Edward being assigned the port of Sandwich to depart within 15 days and Margaret was assigned Dover, to depart within 12 days. Edward’s chattels were forfeit, Margaret had no chattels.

Clearly, given that they were in court now, Edward and Margaret had not in fact departed the realm. They were asked if there was any reason why the law should not be carried out on them (i.e. why they should not be executed). Both told a tale of having set off properly for their ports, but being captured by their enemies at Swardeston, with force and arms, and asked to be put back on the road, to continue to the ports and leave the realm. The court sought the view of a  jury as to whether this story was true, and a jury from Swardeston said it was not – they had left the king’s highway for Swardeston of their own free will. (The record does not state what was so great about Swardeston…).

After that, Edward said that he was a clerk, and passed a reading test to demonstrate this to the court’s satisfaction. A local churchman came and asked the court for him. He was delivered into ecclesiastical custody. Margaret then said that she was pregnant, and inspection and examination by a jury of matrons confirmed this. Her hanging was ‘put in suspense’ as the Calendar of Patent Rolls has it (slightly tactless – let us say ‘respited’) ‘until etc.’ and she was to be held in the Marshalsea prison.

Later, in early 1354, Margaret showed a royal pardon, letting her off the execution. This is dated 20th  November 1353.[ii] The reason given for the grant of the pardon is interesting – those who had had custody of her in the Marshalesa  – Robert Bullore, deputy of Walter Mauny is named – testified that she was lunatica and that she had made a false confession because of her disturbed mental state.  As a result of this intervention, Margaret was allowed to go free.


So what?

This set of proceedings tells us a lot (including, for once, an outcome of sorts) but also raises numerous questions.

I would pick out for notice the fact that there was a significant difference between the ways in which the two co-defendants escaped execution. For Edward, the route to safety was via ‘benefit of clergy’. Off he went to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction and custody once he had passed the reading test and secured the support of local ecclesiastical authorities. This was simply not available to Margaret. She pleaded her pregnancy – the plea which later commentators called ‘benefit of the belly’. The plea of pregnancy would not have provided as permanent an escape from capital punishment as would Edward’s benefit of clergy plea: it gave a respite, not a cancellation of the execution at this period. There was no automatic pardon – and we should note that the pardon secured for Margaret had nothing to do with her pregnancy or maternity, nor was it some sort of favour to her as a woman – the reason was her current ‘lunacy’ and the statement that this condition was the cause of her making a false confession to crimes she had not committed.

I suppose this says something quite interesting about pardons as well – this, essentially is a pardon being used as a (modern sense) appeal on the facts: she was in fact not guilty of even the acts complained of. A little different to the ‘average lunacy pardon’, in which X has killed Y, but is held to have done so whilst a ‘lunatic’. It illustrates rather well the fact that the medieval  pardon performed a variety of functions.

In addition, it is an interesting illustration of the plausibility of disruption of abjuration. Although it was not believed here, presumably it was not out of the question that annoyed neighbours or victims of the abjurers’ crime might attempt to cause them problems by ensuring that they broke the rules. Those bound for these assigned ports were supposed to go straight there, via the king’s highway (and in prescribed outfits and manner).[iii] Leaving the king’s highway was a move outside the prescribed route, and could end with the imposition of the death penalty, if it was not merely trivial. In this case, the suggestion is that Edward and Margaret were indeed making a break for it, preferring a Norfolk village to ‘abroad’, probably not a surprising preference in medieval English people.

As for the questions, well, there are many. Uppermost in my mind are three sets of questions, relating to the relationship between Edward and Margaret (kin, lovers … both …? Neither?); to the pregnancy, and to whether she was in fact ‘a lunatic’ (and, of course, rolled up in that one is ‘and what exactly did that mean’)? Upon the answers to these questions depends any real evaluation of just how ‘merciful’ all of this was. I am left wondering, in particular, about  the role of the various juries and officials involved in the abjuration saga – if Margaret was indeed a ‘lunatic’ at the time of the confession and abjuration, why did nobody notice, and why was there no provision for her future custody, as one might expect (perhaps because there is no suggestion she was violent, in contrast to the usual ‘insane homicide’ cases?). On a more selfish note, I am getting a little ‘what might have been’ (personal superpower) about not having found this before finishing the Women and the Medieval Common Law book – not that it would have brought entirely new points, but it would have been a nice opening case for a chapter. It was a nice one to ponder on a cold and locked down morning today, however. For once, a (sort of) happy ending – and nobody died!


[i] KB 27/371 m. 41 (AALT IMG 544).

[ii] This pardon can be seen in CPR 1350-4 p. 535.

[iii] Karl Shoemaker, Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages 400-1500 (Fordham UP, 2011) c7, especially at p. 121.