Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Matters of Conviction - Sarah Slater Benefit of Statute

Benefit of Clergy, as it was more commonly known, was a legal hangover from medieval times, when clergymen could demand to be tried by an ecclesiastical rather than a civil court. Over the centuries it had changed from a privilege extended only to the clergy to one available to all first-time offenders who had not committed an exempting crime. These included rape, murder, highway robbery, pickpocketing, sacrilege and poisoning, and also the refusal to enter a plea. Later, many property crimes were added to the list of exemptions.
Under Elizabeth I, the benefit was no longer applied before a trial. Instead it was requested after conviction but before sentencing, with the outcome of one year in gaol rather than execution, and a branding on the thumb to identify previous claimants. Joseph Cope and Sarah Slater each received one year in Newgate at their first trials, after begging the Benefit of the Statute.1 Branding had been abolished in 1779, so perhaps they each hoped that the second claim would be overlooked by the courts. Perhaps neither realised it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, for first offenders only. Perhaps they were just desperate: what else was there to lose?
Joseph and Sarah's crimes would probably have attracted a death sentence, or at the least transportation, as neither were first-time offenders when they fronted the Courts in 1810 and 1812 respectively. Their application for Benefit of Clergy all but assured that they would face the hangman outside Newgate's walls. On the records for each this is placed beyond doubt:
         51 Joseph Cope
         footnote: “for not being intitled [sic] to Benefit of Clergy... Death”2
         107 Sarah Slater
         sidenote: “not being intitled [sic] to Benefit of the Statute... und[er] sentence of Death.3
Benefit of Clergy was partially abolished in 1823 and 1827 and finally denied to peers, the last remaining group able to claim the benefit, in 1841.4
A list of all statutes governing the Benefit of Clergy can be found at New Advent: Benefit of Clergy, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02476a.htm

"The Old Bailey", The Microcosm of London or London in Miniature, Volume II, London: Methuen and Company, pp. Plate 58, Wikimedia Commons

1Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2), July 1808, trial of JOSEPH COPE (t18080713-15), retrieved May 31 2016; Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0), October 1810, trial of SARAH SLATER (t18101031-16), accessed 13 March, 2013
2TNA, HO77, Newgate Prison Calendars 1782-1853, piece 17, “Middlesex Prisoners upon Orders”, FindmyPast, ROBERT BUTT MARY WALTON CHARLES WALTON JOSEPH COPE SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016
3TNA, HO77, Newgate Prison Calendars 1782-1853, piece 19, “Middlesex Prisoners upon Orders”, FindmyPast, SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016
4The Statutes of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 7 & 8 George IV, 1827, (London: His Majesty's Statute and Law Printers, 1827), CAP XXVIII 165-168, e-book edition

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