Clergy, Benefit of

Clergy, Benefit Of, an ancient privilege whereby the persons of clergymen were exempted from criminal process before the secular judges in particular cases, and consecrated places were exempted from criminal arrests. See SANCTUARY. "'This privilege was originally confined to those who had the habitum et tonsuram clericalem, but in time every one was accounted a clerk who could read; so that after the dissemination of learning by the invention of printing, it was found that as many laymen as divines were admitted to this privilege, and therefore the stat. 4 Henry VII, ch. 13, distinguishes between lay scholars and clerks in holy orders, and directs that the former should not claim this privilege more than once, and, in order to their being afterwards known, they should be marked with a letter, according to their offense, on the brawn of the left thumb. After this burning, the laity, and before if the real clergy, were discharged from the sentence of the law in the king's court, and delivered over to the ordinary for canonical purgation. This purgation, having given rise to various abuses and prostitution of oaths, was abolished at the Reformation; and accordingly by the stat. 18 Elizabeth, ch. 7, it was enacted that every person having benefit of clergy should not be delivered over to the ordinary, but after burning in the hand should be delivered out of prison, unless the judge thought it expedient to detain him there for a limited period. It will be collected from the above statement that the parties entitled to this privilege are clerks in holy orders, without branding, or any of the punishments subsequently introduced in its place; lords of Parliament, peers, and peeresses for the first offense; commoners not in orders, whether male or female, for clergyable felonies, upon being burnt in the hand, whipped, fined, imprisoned, or transported. It is a privilege peculiar to the clergy that sentence of death cannot be passed upon them for any number of clergyable offenses committed by them (Blackstone, Comm. 4, 374)." — Eadie, Eccles. Dict. s.v.

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