Trump’s pardons and medieval grants of mercy

In his final hours as American President, Donald Trump has made headlines by issuing pardons – but did you know the power has its roots in English history? Professor Adrian R Bell from Henley Business School and colleagues Helen Lacey (University of Oxford) and Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow) explain.

US President Donald Trump’s final act in office has been to issue pardons to 73 people and commutations to 70 others, some of whom are controversial figures to say the least. This draws attention to the power enshrined in the US Constitution of granting pardons, a power that derives from English precedent.

This might be viewed as an unfair discretionary power, and the potential for corruption is obvious, both now and in the past. However, in the medieval period it also provided a vital check to overly-harsh implementation of the law. For example, medieval England had no concept of manslaughter and so in cases of accidental homicide, the perpetrator would have been convicted unless the prerogative of mercy was exercised in the king’s name and a pardon was granted.

The granting of mass, general pardons could also be a vital means of ensuring political stability in times of crisis and unrest in medieval England. The most spectacular use of a general pardon came in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when nearly 4,000 pardons were issued, signalling the Crown’s intent to pacify its people.

While some of Trump’s pardons are for high profile political cases like former aide Steve Bannon, most of the recipients are cases of allegedly over-harsh sentencing. Likewise, in 1381 there were different groups within the lists of those pardoned. Aside from the ringleaders of the revolt, there were those who had done nothing wrong but who sought a pardon just to protect themselves from unjust accusations.

The Peasants’ Revolt is the subject of ‘The People of 1381’, a major research project led by Professor Adrian Bell from Henley Business School, and the pardons are one of the major sources being used by the project. Research team member Dr Helen Lacey of Mansfield College, University of Oxford, is a leading authority on the history of pardons in medieval England.

A Petition dating from 1381 from the Burgesses of Scarborough asking for all those falsely indicted for involvement in the recent insurrection to be pardoned. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

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