When was a cleric not a cleric? Stories from the City of Norwich Records

When was a cleric not a cleric?

Sometimes, when he was indicted of a violent crime.

For instance, was William Montague, an innkeeper in Norwich, also in holy orders? Almost certainly not.

We are first introduced to William Montague in the Norwich city quarter session records, bound over in October 1629 to keep the peace against Charles Gardyner, a gentleman, who was, ‘in mortal fear of his life’. In November, a warrant to all the city constables ordered them to find Montague and, unless he agreed to be bound over, detain him in gaol. Either they did not find him, or he broke the terms of his bond, at least in spirit, for a bill of indictment filed in the December 1629 sessions, states that on 28 November, Montague had attacked and stabbed, not Gardyner, but one, Thomas Hill, with a rapier, and that Hill had died of his wounds three days later. Montague was arrested for his murder.

NCR 11A-27011

Norwich City Quarter Sessions, November 1629. The warrant issued by magistrates to find William Montague. NRO catalogue number NCR Case 11a/27

However, the grand jury (who had the role that the Crown Prosecution Service has today in deciding whether a crime is worth trying) indicated that they did not know that the crime was murder but that the indictment was a ‘true bill’ for the lesser crime of manslaughter.

The plot appears to thicken when we find that the sessions register refers to Montague as being a ‘clearke’, but we know from the bond, warrant and indictment that, in fact, he was a distinctly unclerical innkeeper. Why then, was he described as being a clerk?

Actually, this description of him could indicate why his charge was downgraded from murder to that of manslaughter. It meant that he was literate (enough, at any rate, to be able to read an oath) and was therefore eligible to claim the so-called, ‘benefit of clergy’, a form of mitigation for first offenders.  Branding such a claimant’s hands ensured that this benefit could not be claimed a second time. However, murder was not a crime for which one could claim benefit of clergy, so had the jury allowed him the benefit of the doubt and reduced the charge just so that he could claim this clerical status?

Perhaps they accepted that he had committed the crime in a fit of anger?

Unfortunately, we do not know what happened next, for his case would have been referred to the Assize courts, for which, records are held not here but at The National Archives in Kew.

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