The King's Courts and the King's Soul: Pardoning as Almsgiving in Medieval England
40 Reading Medieval Studies 159 (Special Issue: Law's Dominion: Medieval Studies for Paul Hyams), 2014
17 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2014
Date Written: August 16, 2014
This paper examines the workings of the English royal courts in the thirteenth century through one of their practices — pardoning — and argues that the king and his officials could see courts not just as venues for justice, but also as institutions through which the king could see to the health of his own soul. The royal courts and royal administration of the thirteenth century used the power to pardon to relieve people of many legal penalties, from amercements (what we would today call fines) to the death penalty in felony cases. Scholars who have studied these pardons have tended to use the medieval sources to try to find the rules of pardoning. They have assumed that pardoning followed some kind of legal logic, and that pardons were given to the worthy. Amercement pardons were given to those who could not afford to pay and felony pardons were given to those who were not culpable. This paper looks at pardons that cannot be explained according to this legal logic. It looks at the many pardons explicitly made “for the sake of the king’s soul,” many of which have nothing to do with the killer’s culpability or the amerced party’s ability to pay, and argues that they operated according to a different logic: the logic of alms. Pardons were granted or denied based on their ability to salve the king’s soul, leading to results that appear to be anomalous to us today — such as a blanket pardon for most felons that excluded Jews — but which would have appeared to be logical to people who were accustomed to view the courts not solely as agents of justice, but as extensions of the king’s person.
Keywords: legal history; pardons; criminal law
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