restricted access The Royal Pardon. Access to Mercy in Fourteenth-Century England (review)
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The Royal Pardon. Access to Mercy in Fourteenth-Century England. By Helen Lacey. York: York Medieval Press, University of York; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2009. Pp. viii + 260. $95.

Helen Lacey's exemplary new monograph investigates the king's pardon in England from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the reigns of Edward III and Richard II. During this period the royal pardon was not only important for the operation of justice and the courts—as Lacey notes, at least forty thousand pardons were issued from the accession of Edward I to the deposition of Richard II (p. 1)—it also evolved several new forms as the legal system changed and political [End Page 128] struggles flared. The Royal Pardon is the first comprehensive study in several decades of this vital part of the medieval English legal and political system. It represents yet another good product of the foundational work recently done on the documentary records in The National Archives. Drawing from the newly searched and indexed classes of petitions, pardons, parliamentary records, and various letter rolls (especially the patent rolls class C 66, the chancery pardon rolls class C 67, and the "Ancient Petitions" class SC 8), Lacey assembles a detailed yet clear assessment of how the royal pardon functioned as both a legal tool and a political symbol. The study convincingly reshapes our understanding of such central events as the Good Parliament of 1377 and the Uprising of 1381, and it also gestures toward a better understanding of how the royal pardon came to figure prominently in the popular literature of the period.

The book is divided into three sections with eleven chapters and four appendices. After an Introduction to the historical and historiographical background of late-medieval pardons, Chapters 2-5 analyze the operation of "Individual Pardons"—pardons granted by the crown to individuals—by approaching each constituent element of the pardoning process: "Procedures," "Supplicant," "Intercessor," and "Monarch." The processes for obtaining, justifying, and "proving" a pardon are described first, with the early notice that in the operation of pardoning, "the king was supposedly guided by principles of equity that followed natural law . . . however such concepts did not merge easily with the common law of the English legal system" (p. 23). Supplicants did not necessarily petition directly for pardon themselves. More often trial judges recommended mercy on behalf of defendants. Nonetheless some five hundred direct petitions for pardon survive, and Lacey provides an illuminating assessment of the class, gender, circumstances, and language that variously characterize these documents. Here also Lacey looks at popular representations of "pardon scenes" in ballads and records, some with idealized portraits of royal clemency suggesting "the extent to which the law of the realm was regarded as personal to the king" (pp. 42-43). Even more interesting are the evaluations of the roles of intercessors and of the monarch. In Chapter 4 and in Appendix 4, Lacey quantifies the number and social positions of intercessors for pardons, those persons who actually bore the request for mercy to the sovereign and whose mediatory role became an intermittent focus of anxiety and legal control. Lacey demonstrates that the queens of Edward III and Richard II were prominent intercessors (as we might expect), but also that "in terms of sheer numbers of pardons secured . . . Edward III's military commanders stand out from other patrons" (p. 47). The numbers provided in Appendix 4 give a fascinating view of this. Men such as Henry Grosmont, the duke of Lancaster; Edward of Woodstock, the prince of Wales; and William de Bohun, the earl of Northampton, were responsible for dozens and sometimes hundreds of intercessions, especially at times of military muster when pardons could be used as a recruiting tool. Such intercession also led to abuse and inquiry. This is reflected both in attempts to regulate it and in contemporary comments about corruption (as in the Corpus Christi plays and Piers Plowman).

The focal element of the pardon, the king himself, also provides a category for exploring the fundamental conflict inherent in a sociolegal system which looked to the sovereign as the personal embodiment of equity and mercy at the same time that it demanded...