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benefit of clergy, women's equality


Throughout Medieval England, ordained clergy could avoid secular punishment for felony by claiming a privilege known as benefit of clergy. During the Reformation, this privilege was repurposed by the ministers of Henry VIII and offered as a lay benefit. The plea of clergy left women ineligible, as they could not be priests and were rarely convicted in the same numbers as men. Even when accused of crimes, women could rely on legal fictions and evasive testimonies to escape conviction. Then in 1624 and 1691, Parliament redesigned benefit of clergy to include women, first for slight theft and then on equal footing as men. The apparent benevolence of the grant was misleading. Following its implementation, women were convicted in higher numbers. The effect of employing mercy was to draw women within royal jurisdiction. The brand they received marked them as both sinner and subject within England.