This is a legal phrase, or technical term, which is necessarily often repeated in criminal reports, while numbers are not apprized of its full meaning, or its origin.
The dark clouds of barbarism, which succeeded the downfall of the Roman empire, having deeply effaced literary pursuits, the regular and secular clergy, with few exceptions, became the sole depositaries of books and learning. Ignorance is the footstool of ambition and tyranny; and thus the priest ruled the ignorant mass of the people with a rod of iron; but as learning was slowly disseminated, the people's eyes opened to their sordid delusions.
As it is natural to respect what we do not understand, the monks turned this advantage to good account, and it gradually became a principle of common law, that no clerk, that is to say, no priest, should be tried by the civil power; a privilege which was enjoyed and abused for several hundred years, until the council or parliament of Clarendon, provoked by murder, and other abominable crimes, set bounds to ecclesiastical enormities, by a salutary relation of the subject.
But a law, so necessary, was evaded by the insolence and artifice of the proud à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, for his turbulence, was assassinated before his own altar, and the base pusillanimity of King John and his successors to the English throne, during a long period, equally disgraceful to monarch as to clergy.
A law was about this time made (kings being then nearly arbitrary) by which any person convicted of felony was exempt from punishment, "if he could read and write as a priest."
From this finesse, the artful monks, (for priests, from the time of Aaron down to Dr. Dodd, have ever been watchful of their own interest,) derived considerable riches by teaching prisoners to read and write, which acquirement, however odious and bloody their offences, rescued them from the penalty of the law, and the contrivers of this artful measure derived another advantage from it.
Every desperate adventurer, every bold man, became a ready and submissive tool to the church. This abominable imposition upon the people was continued until the reign of Edward VI. when priestcraft received some check.
But during the unnatural and bloody wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, the root of the noxious weed sprouted up in the ignorance and confusion of those distracted times. A t length it was enacted, that no person convicted of manslaughter should claim the benefit of clergy, unless he be a peer of the realm, or actually in Priest's orders; but by the 9th of James I. this partial and injurious exemption was entirely abolished.
It is a common opinion with numbers, that the words "Without benefit of clergy," mean, that no spiritual assistance shall be given, or a priest suffered to exhort the dying malefactor to confession of sin. The meaning simply is, that even should a criminal be able to read and. write, it shall not, in any degree, diminish his punishment, and that he shall not now be entitled to any of those privileges he formerly enjoyed by the clergy.
Thus in our preface we have said, "Such persons as have had no opportunity of inquiring into the subject, will hardly credit the assertion, that there are above one hundred and sixty offences punished by death, or as it is denominated, Without benefit of clergy." -- that is, for capital offences which the priest's art, once taught to the accused, of reading and writing, would exempt them from.