“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” This is Psalm 51 of the Christian Bible, and for several centuries of English history, being able to read, or recite this verse was enough to save a convict from execution.
It came to be know as the “neck verse”, as it quite literally could save a felon’s neck. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and one of the greatest figures of English literature, had his life spared in just this way, when he was convicted of manslaughter in 1598, following a duel in which he killed his opponent.
The neck verse, or “benefit of clergy” gained currency in the 12th century during a period when there was a power struggle between royal and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Following popular discontent over Henry II’s attempts to overrule church power, it was agreed that if an accused could prove his credentials as a member of the clergy, he would be excused from secular judgement and would be tried by an ecclesiastical court, which was generally more lenient.
Since at that time, the 12th-13th centuries, the only people who were literate were churchmen, a literacy test was the best way of checking if someone (usually a man) was a member of the clergy and thus qualified to be excused. The accused was asked to read the verse above, Psalm 51.
However, over time, the policy came to be abused, as convicts would commit the neck verse to memory and then recite it when presented with a Bible to read. Judges were allowed to request the reading of another verse if they smelt a rat. Also, as more people outside the church learnt to read, claiming “benefit of the clergy” came to be of dubious integrity.
The policy was gradually watered down. In the late 1500s it was determined, under Elizabeth I, that a non-clergyman could only claim benefit of the clergy once. He was branded on a visible part of his body to make it clear that he’d had his chance. Women qualified only in 1624. In the 1700s the reading test was done away with, and the policy became a kind of free-pass for first time offenders.
According to the Transportation Act of 1718, those claiming the benefit were transported to Australia for seven years, and later to North America. Gradually, only minor offences came to qualify for benefit of the clergy, and the policy was done away with by an act of the British parliament in 1827.