Posted by Krista Kesselring; 14 April 2017.
Granting pardons to criminals on Good Friday remains a tradition in parts of the world today. Though the practice may seem foreign to those in some Anglo-American legal cultures and in an era pervaded by calls to get ‘tough on crime’, it did have a history in England. But for how long?
Today, when and where they are granted, Good Friday pardons are largely reserved for petty offenders and those nearing or at the end of their sentences. In the past, in contrast, they were given for serious offences – sometimes otherwise ‘unpardonable’ offences – to save people who faced death for their crimes. Christian emperors of Rome adapted earlier traditions of amnesty (recall the story of Pilate pardoning Barabbas at Passover) to evoke the redemptive power of Christ’s death and resurrection with a practice that then lived on through subsequent European history. Pardons could be given at any time, but had a special salience in a season associated with repentance, reconciliation, and second chances. Though it might now seem odd, when sin and crime remained closely related concepts and when a sovereign’s authority was thought in some way divine, such pardons had a potent legitimacy; indeed, they could be politically useful.
Scott Taylor’s Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain reveals to an English-speaking audience a tradition that saw some 20-40 Good Friday pardons bestowed by Castilian monarchs each year to honour Christ’s saving sacrifice. While the convicts in question had to have connections to the royal council to secure a hearing and some sort of mitigating excuse to warrant mercy – extreme provocation or the need to support many dependents, for example – their crimes included homicide and other serious offences that carried a penalty of death or convict service in galleys or presidios. With such pardons, Spanish sovereigns demonstrated a power to bestow not just death, but life as well.
French kings apparently did something similar throughout the early modern period.
Marguerite of Navarre mentions one such pardon in her sixteenth-century Heptameron, for example. But what of English monarchs? Helen Lacey’s study of the royal pardon in fourteenth-century England notes a number of such grants recorded on the patent rolls of King Richard II. Pardon, ‘out of regard for Good Friday’, to William Aufyn for the death of John Watford, for example. Pardon, ‘out of regard for Good Friday’, to Henry Hasard for the killing of Katherine Wright. Pardon, ‘out of regard for Good Friday’, to Robert de Sutton for a highway robbery. And so forth: many more such pardons were recorded for the year 1389, and a few in years following as well.
In my own work on royal pardons in the sixteenth century, I had noted in passing a grant of Good Friday pardons by Queen Mary. Sir Thomas Wyatt led a short-lived but dangerous rising early in 1554 in opposition to Mary’s plans for a marriage to Philip of Spain. In its aftermath, Mary stage-managed a few mass pardons for rebels. She had dozens of the leading participants executed, but as recorded by one chronicler,
other poor men, being taken in Wyatt’s band, and kept a time in diverse churches and prisons without the city, kneeling all, with halters about their necks, before the queen’s highness at Whitehall, her Grace mercifully pardoned, to the number of 600. Who, immediately thereupon, with great shouts, casting their halters up into the air, cried, ‘God save your Grace! God save your Grace.’
This dramatic display of royal mercy happened in late February. A few other leading rebels and noblemen suspected of involvement remained in prison, waiting to learn whether they would live or die.
Domestic politics inclined Mary toward a pragmatic show of mercy to these gentlemen and noblemen as well, but international considerations tugged in the other direction. Awaiting the arrival of her intended Spanish spouse, Mary needed to convince the Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard, that all was well. Worried about the security of his master, he had been arguing for harsh justice. In the end, the Queen decided to save the men. She informed Renard that her councilors had urged her to pardon more of the rebels and their suspected confederates on Good Friday. She maintained to him that it was ‘against her will and inclination’, but ‘as the day was a holy one’, she had to accede to their request. Renard reported ruefully to his master what Mary had done, observing that ‘there was an immemorial custom that the kings of England should pardon a few prisoners on Good Friday’.
I’m not sure, though, whether there really was a continuing ‘immemorial custom’. Checking the calendared patent rolls for the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries – for grants made by monarchs between Richard II and Mary – turns up very few pardons ‘out of regard for Good Friday’ beyond the 1390s. In 1413, Henry V granted John Alway a pardon ‘out of reverence for this present Good Friday.’ Henry VI gave out a couple, and according to other accounts, in 1452, he did offer a Good Friday pardon to a group of participants in Cade’s Rebellion, citing the papal Jubilee of 1450 as his inspiration. I haven’t found any thereafter, from the reigns of Edward IV onward. One would need to check the originals of the patent rolls to be sure (and I’m unfortunately nowhere near the archives at the moment), but the absence of such notes in the calendars makes me wonder if this practice hadn’t died out well before Mary came to the throne – and well before one might think the advent of Protestantism and its curtailing of Easter rituals had anything to do with it. (If anyone knows of other Good Friday pardons, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.)
Perhaps Mary had simply, strategically invoked this supposedly ‘immemorial custom’ to patch up a political problem. Some years ago, Elizabeth Russell argued compellingly that Mary was a cannier political operator than many historians had credited, noting that Mary used claims of ‘womanly weakness’ and shifted blame for decisions onto her councilors when it served her purposes. Whether contriving a custom or not, Mary used Good Friday pardons to allow her to free men she needed to free in a way that didn’t threaten her negotiations for the Spanish match and that masked pragmatism as something akin to divine mercy.
As Shakespeare’s Portia argued of mercy, ‘it is an attribute to God himself; and earthy power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.’ Divine parallels and Holy Week considerations aside, though, one suspects that Mary particularly enjoyed the last major pardon she gave to men involved in Wyatt’s protest against her marriage: the final batch of rebels received their freedom thanks to the general pardon she issued to celebrate her wedding day.
Feature image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion (1538), courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.
 For recent ‘Good Friday pardons’ in California, see: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/mar/25/california-governor-grants-59-pardons-on-good-frid/
On Spanish pardons, see for example: http://www.tiempodehoy.com/espana/el-origen-de-los-indultos-de-semana-santa and http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2015/03/27/actualidad/1427479408_594546.html
 Scott K. Taylor, Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain (New Haven, 2008), pp. 15, 96-7. He notes that records of some 581 ‘indultos de Viernes Santo’ survive from 1618-52. For earlier work on the Castilian pardons, see Maria Immaculada Rodriguez Flóres, El Perdón Real en Castilla: Siglos XIII-XVIII (Salamanca, 1971).
 Noted in Natalie Zemon Davis’s Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Oxford, 1989), citing Nouvelle 23 in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron.
 Helen Lacey, The Royal Pardon: Access to Mercy in Fourteenth-Century England (York, 2009), p. 25; Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1388-92, pp. 27, 32, 37.
 Kesselring, Mercy and Authority in the Tudor State (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 2, 3, citing J. Proctor, ‘The History of Wyatt’s Rebellion’, in A.F. Pollard, ed., Tudor Tracts, 1532-1588 (New York, 1964), p. 255.
 Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, XII, pp. 168, 175.
 Calendar of the Patent Rolls, 1413-16, p. 18.
 James Gairdner, ed., The Paston Letters, 1422-1509 (1872), p. 40.
 Elizabeth Russell, ‘Mary Tudor and Mr. Jorkins’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical
Research 63 (1990), 267-276.
 Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, XII, p.262.