Whence Cometh Benefit of Clergy.

Syntinen Laulu in this Wordorigins.org thread provides a pungent historical summary of the phrase “without benefit of clergy,” which I have always misunderstood (as I suspect have most modern English-speakers):

In medieval English law, all members of the clergy were exempt from being tried by the king’s justice, and were only answerable to clerical courts. This, BTW, is the issue on which King Henry II fell out with his friend Thomas Becket, who he had made Archbishop of Canterbury: Henry held that ‘criminous clerks’ should be handed over to answer for their crimes in ordinary courts, and quite right too; but Becket resisted, and thus started a row that ended with his assassination by six of Henry’s knights. The outrage that this event cause forced Henry to back down: anyone in holy Orders, no matter how minor, when charged with a crime in a secular court could claim benefit of clergy and have their case heard in a church court. This was a huge privilege because church courts handed out far milder punishments; a crime that would get you hanged or your hand lopped off in a secular court might result only in a sentence of a year in the Bishop’s prison, or a barefoot pilgrimage to Walsingham.

The big question was: who was a cleric and thus entitled to benefit of clergy? Eventually the test was agreed to be whether the accused could read a verse of the Bible. As literacy became more widespread, more and more people were able to claim it and it got further and further from its original sense and intention; but – this being England, where being obsolete isn’t seen as necessarily a reason to abolish anything – it was allowed to drag on as an increasingly odd anomaly. There’s a Wiki entry that describes the process; suffice to say that by the 18th century pleading benefit of clergy was a device whereby a first offender might be liable to a radically milder sentence for many crimes, but – as in the case of riot – not all.

That Wiki entry has lots more details should you want them. (And note the spiffy new look of the Wordorigins site!)

And Bob Ladd at the Log investigates the current use of whence, which occurs in phrases like “to whence he returned,” “for whence he leaves,” “at whence he was tagged,” etc.; in the comments, Rachael Churchill says “People are using ‘whence’ as a fancy substitute for ‘where’, regardless of context, just like they use ‘whom’ as a fancy substitute for ‘who’, regardless of context,” and
Sniffnoy says:

I have a suspicion that the whole “to whence” thing comes from the phrase “to whence it came”, which has “to whence” but which also has “whence” used in the original sense. But if you don’t know what “whence” means, and you read this, you may take away some different ideas about how to use “whence”. (“It” here can of course be replaced by another pronoun.)

There are other interesting comments, and I’ll try to repress my snobbish revulsion at the whole mess of innovation.


  1. As I recall from a college course in early modern English social history, a common punishment administered in the ecclesiastical courts was branding of the thumb – whose main consequence was that other clergymen would recognize it.

  2. OT: ‘criminous clerks’ could be a minced oath from the mouth of Yosemite Sam.

  3. I found the concept of the “neck-verse” very interesting.

  4. Yes, me too.

  5. John Cowan says
  6. I dimly remembered that some Elizabethan playwright got off using the neck-verse. I first thought of Marlowe or Kyd but it was Ben Jonson. I guess in this case even a little Latin made a very big difference.

  7. The key point, as the wiki says, is that benefit of clergy wasn’t just a weird obsolete anomaly; it was a deliberately maintained loophole which allowed the courts to be merciful when faced with a first offender who would otherwise have had something truly draconian happen to him. (I note that it lasted longer in US law than it did in England.)

    See also the “death recorded” business last year, when Naomi Wolf made a fool of herself by assuming that a court record of “death recorded” meant the same as “sentenced to be executed”, when in fact it meant “the law dictates the death penalty for this crime, and so we are recording the conviction as such, but the judge has decided to orally commute the sentence or even pardon the convict”.

  8. Kate Bunting says

    Also, of course, the phrase ‘without benefit of clergy’ was used jokingly to refer to a couple living together unmarried, in the days when such an arrangement was often seen by others as mildly embarrassing – as used by Kipling as the title of a short story http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_withoutbenefit1.htm

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Characters in Tom Jones “plead their clergy” all the time, IIRC. It comes up a lot, being that kind of novel …

  10. Also, of course, the phrase ‘without benefit of clergy’ was used jokingly to refer to a couple living together unmarried, in the days when such an arrangement was often seen by others as mildly embarrassing – as used by Kipling as the title of a short story

    Yes, and that’s all I thought it meant — such are the perils of coming late to cultural allusions.

  11. AJP Crown says

    This all started with a book review in the Guardian that Bob Ladd saw:

    [A.N.] Wilson’s house, he tells us, overlooks the back garden of 70 Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, whence Catherine Dickens was exiled, with the company of only one of her children, Charley, their eldest son.

    The Guardian & Observer style guide says:

    means “where from”, so don’t write “from whence”

    I’d say it’s more likely to mean “from where” than “where from”, but still the meaning here is quite clear. 70 Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, from where (or from which) Catherine Dickens was exiled.

    But Ladd says at the top of his piece,

    The context made it clear that the intended meaning was ‘where she was exiled to’,

    No, it doesn’t. The Guardian article’s fine – fine, unless Bob Ladd has evidence that Catherine Dickens moved TO Gloucester Cres.

    Gloucester Crescent, by the way, is the road where Jonathan Miller bought a house in 1963, followed by the rest of trendy, lefty, Beyond-The-Fringe London including Alan Bennett (it’s where he lived when he wrote The Lady in the Van), Mark Boxer (who, known as Marc, in the 1960s had a cartoon column in the Times & Guardian about Gloucester Cres.), Mary-Kay Wilmers and her husband Stephen Frears… and now A.N. Wilson, who can’t resist mentioning it, but that goes over Ladd’s head. They are lovely houses (in 1963 you could by one like the Millers’, 5 storeys, for £4,000).

    Surely anyone who saw the Authorised Version of the Bible (for example) at school knows what whence means?

  12. @AJP Crown: Except, there is the matter of the fact, not in dispute, that Gloucester Crescent is indeed where Catherine Dickens moved to after her separation from her husband. Charles Dickens remained resident at Gad’s Hill Place; that is the place from whence Catherine exiled herself.

  13. I like it when people use wherefore for where .

  14. Especially when Romeo is involved.

  15. AJP Crown says

    Brett: that is the place from whence Catherine exiled herself.

    This “from whence”, may I ask, did you pick it up from Ladd, have you always said it, or are you making ze liddle yoke? To my generation whence is a perfectly normal, fairly literary word that everybody understood, just one that no one used very often themselves. Maybe things were slightly different in the more remote parts of America but I’d be surprised if for example Language, Stu or JC didn’t know it as children. Anyway, Gadd’s Hill is whence she came to Camden Town? How do you know? I missed it.

    Wherefore, on the other hand, most people my age would know from Romeo & Juliet only, I’m guessing. We’d still know what it means.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Turns out that “from whence,” while seemingly redundant, was used with some frequency in the 18th and 19th centuries and was thus frequently condemned by prescriptivist usage manuals (often citing Dr. Johnson as the authority for their critique). Among the generally-well-regarded stylists criticized in the manuals for inexplicably falling into this obvious solecism was the Addison of the once-famous Addison & Steele.

  17. @AJP Crown: For me, whence is an ordinary word, albeit one with a rather literary register, as you say. I don’t use it much (although I do use whence and whither sometimes in natural speech, unlike thence and thither, which I only use in fixed expressions or as a joke). I probably would not have used whence in that construction normally, but since we were discussing the word, it seemed perfectly natural in this context. And, while I obviously cannot speak for any of them, I too would be surprised if any of the native English speakers who are regulars here were unaware of the meaning of any of these words (including wherefore, although that one is pretty much obsolete).

    As to Gads Hill Place, that that was where Dickens lived (when he wasn’t sojourning in London) was just a fact that I picked up somewhere. (Wikipedia informs that the pile was an independent school from the 1920s until relatively recently.) I would not have known where Catherine Dickens moved after she and her husband separated, but I knew where she must have been moving from. And it is easily confirmed online that her later address was indeed the one in Camden Town.

  18. When I was a kid, still studying English in school, I picked up a Latin-English dictionary and found quōcumque translated as ‘whithersoever’. I had no idea what that meant, but I didn’t care. Both words sounded juicy, funny, and, evidently, memorable.

  19. AJP Crown,

    Wherefore, on the other hand, most people my age would know from Romeo & Juliet only, I’m guessing. We’d still know what it means

    from way back in 1939 the rhythm hints that you might not know. Listen for the deadly italics and comma in “If I Only Had a Heart”:

    Picture me,
    A balcony;
    Above, a voice sings low:
    “Wherefore art thou,

  20. David Marjanović says

    Commas are important people!

  21. “The place from whence you came” is in the traditional form of words for a death sentence in an English court: “The sentence of this court is that you will be taken from here to the place from whence you came and there be kept in close confinement until [date of execution], and upon that day that you be taken to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul.”

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    Looking at the Middle English Compendium, there is no use of whennes denoting motion toward an object. However:
    Þe se redoundeþ not; to þe place whennes þe floodis wenten out, þei turnen aʒeen.
    This is interesting, because “to” here is modern “at”.
    Otherwise the citations distinguish (of/from) whennes from whider/whidirwarde/wharto.

  23. AJP Crown says

    Apart from moving from Gad’s Hill (it turns out the Dickenses lived in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury at that time), everything you’ve said seems to be right, Brett and I withdraw my attack on the youth of today. But I win for consistency, even misspelling Gad’s (the apostrophe being optional).

    I once visited the grave of the Dickenses’ son Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens* – an easy enough trip you say, but no, it’s in Australia close to where my father lived.

    *Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, a noted Hellenophile who was even offered the crown of Greece (which he declined) in 1862 following the abdication of King Otto of Bavaria.

    Jonathan Morse, No one ever had or has the emphasis right as you cleverly show. Of course my generation is as stupid as any other, Trump being exhibit a. Still, I’ve now read enough Wikipedia to know that the original title of the musical was East Side Story (because in the late 1940s locations in Manhattan were still closely identified with different ethnic groups which I’m not sure is really the case any longer).

    Related to all these, I’ve discovered that wherewithal comes not from wherewith and all, but from where and withall. (No more links or I’ll be in trouble.)

  24. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Commas are important people!

    Brett and I withdraw my attack on the youth of today.


  25. PlasticPaddy, the distinction between “to” and “at” remained (still remains?) blurry in some rural American dialects well into the twentieth century. The Hoosier bard James Whitcomb Riley blurs it in his “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s,” where the title phrase seems meant to evoke the narrator’s nostalgia for the way he talked when he was a little boy.


    On my computer the audio link doesn’t work, but an alternative site is


  26. AJP Crown says

    As I say, my goal here is consistency.

  27. Of course “from whence” need not be a solecism. If we both come from the same place then you come from whence I do.

  28. The developments discussed above actually mirror developments in Romance: Latin unde “whence” -> Vulgar Latin de unde “from whence” (enforcing the pronoun whose meaning becomes hazy with a preposition); and interrogative pronouns of origin becoming interrogative pronouns of place (Spanish donde from de unde , Italian dove from de ubi).

  29. ktschwarz says

    Among the generally-well-regarded stylists criticized in the manuals for inexplicably falling into this obvious solecism

    … surely the King James Bible should be at the top of that list? “From whence” occurs over 20 times there, most famously in Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (likewise Wycliffe, “I reiside myn iyen to the hillis; fro whannus help schal come to me”). Shakespeare has it, too.

  30. David Marjanović says


    A journal once removed every comma that happened to precede and from a manuscript of mine, possibly under the assumption that just being there made it an Oxford comma. Fortunately the journal wasn’t one of those that don’t produce page proofs.

    enforcing the pronoun whose meaning becomes hazy with a preposition

    The most archaic register of modern German has von hinnen (which I’ve only seen in heb dich von hinnen “hie thee hence”) and von dannen (sie zogen von dannen “they left”). A few years ago I learned that the von is historically pleonastic (and the other two words have interesting PIE origins).

  31. A very interesting little article (“On Gothic iup and the Germanic directionals,” by Guus Kroonen) — thanks!

  32. AJP Crown says

    Wherefore is just Norwegian & Danish hvorfor why, for what reason.

  33. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m sure ‘what for?’ for ‘why’ (‘what are you doing that for?’, etc) isn’t specific to Scottish English, but I have an idea that it might be more common here than in some places.

    I produced a good example lately that was unambiguous to me but confusing to people who default to ‘why’, but I can’t remember what it was – I think it must have suggested ‘for what object’ rather than ‘for what purpose’.

  34. AJP Crown says

    it might be more common here than in some places.
    Wow, a subtle trennbar difference. Common to me, from London, but it now occurs to me that it may not be as common in the US (like ‘have you got?’ vs ‘do you have?’ used to be a UK-US difference).

  35. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Maybe – I could easily be misremembering, or maybe SSE is more likely to use it in more formal contexts, a higher bar for tipping over to ‘why’…

    There is a definite northern form – ‘What for did ye no believe him syne?’

    It gets odd when you think about it too much, anyway, because sometimes you want a literal answer – ‘for x’ – and sometimes you don’t – ‘I’ll be too busy to do it tomorrow’.

  36. Completely unremarkable to me, but I imagine there are places in the US where they don’t say it.

  37. @Jen in Edinburgh: What for? is common in American English, and it can be used both kinds of senses you describe, “What’s that screwdriver for?” versus, “What did he do that for?”

    German has an exact cognate to wherefore as well: wofür. However, it also has was für, which does not mean “what for,” but rather “what kind.”

  38. David Marjanović says


    That means “for what purpose”, though, not “for what reason”. In other words, the “for” part is literal.

    Wozu is an exact synonym.

  39. @David Marjanović: Yes, but those ideas can both be encompassed by why in English, or warum in German. “Why?” is never an easy thing to answer.

    Since wherefore is obsolete in English, I have no intuitive sense of whether to distinguish “what reason” and/or “what purpose” as the real meaning(s) of “wherefore.”

  40. Lars Mathiesen says

    Hvad for noget? = ‘do what?’

    The use of for in that context has always struck me as non-compositional, but I’ve never tried to find out why it’s used. It’s listed under its sense 15.4 in Ordbog over det danske Sprog, and even though it’s been in Danish for 500 years it’s still patterned on German: Was hast du für Geld = ‘what do you have [to use] for money?’ So the original sense is something like “what’s that supposed to be?”

  41. David Marjanović says

    Was hast du für Geld

    Today that means “what kind of money do you have”, e.g. which currency.

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    Yes, the same change has taken place in Danish, and hvad for penge is now a proper noun phrase that can be (usually is) fronted from the direct object slot: Hvad for penge har du? (But Hvad har du for penge is still OK, the difference is some sort of pragmatics that my introspection is not able to reach just now).

  43. AJP Crown says

    Hva for noe? Wie bitte?
    Actually, it’s quite often hva for noe? Excuuuse me?

  44. David Marjanović says

    fronted from the direct object slot

    Free variation in German, at least I can’t find any conditions right now.

  45. PlasticPaddy says

    I think that there is a difference between “was hast du für ein Lächeln!” And “was für ein Lächeln hast du?”. But is the first ordering possible as a question? The second ordering is possible as an exclamation, I think.

  46. David Marjanović says

    But is the first ordering possible as a question?

    Yes. The exact meanings of both depend on which words are stressed.

  47. John Cowan says

    Three verses:

    Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
    Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
    And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
    I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

    I am I, Don Quixote,
    The Lord of La Mancha,
    My destiny calls and I go,
    And the wild winds of fortune
    Will carry me onward,
    Oh whithersoever they blow.
    Whithersoever they blow,
    Onward to glory I go!

    Never mind the why and wherefore
    Love can level ranks, and therefore
    Though his lordship’s station’s mighty
    Though stupendous be his brain
    Though her tastes are mean and flighty
    And her fortune poor and plain
    Ring the merry bells on board-ship
    Rend the air with warbling wild
    For the union of his lordship
    With a humble captain’s child!

  48. nbmandel says

    One more musical comedy reference:

    Take back your mink
    To from whence it came
    And tell them to Hollandarize it
    For some other dame

    (Adelaide here is obviously getting faux-fancy.)

  49. In The Well of the Unicorn,* Fletcher Pratt uses “when” instead of “whence” (although only once that I noticed, in chapter 13):

    There was this and that last preparation—Nene who had some broken scales in his mail-coat, and only on Airar’s own intervention would the smiths’ guild repair them without the laying down of money; Berni that had a cause of some sort with a merchant of the lower town—so there was no moment for Alvar’s son to search for his heartbreak love among the spearmen, where it had been covenanted she should take her place. She had remained in his chamber mostly, but after that one night, he on the floor in a cloak, and few were the words spoken between them. But now the trumpet blew up and up, coming when far with a note of sadness in the mild winter weather; the gates were open and the spears of Carrhoene riding through. Alcides was at their head this day; Airar thought his dark triangular face looked sullen in the helmet-gap as he went past, and the hair with its white streak was hidden by the sallet. Lank Erb plucked his young leader’s arm: “Master Airar, we lack a man. Ové Ox-mouth is missing, nor can anyone find him.”

    This appears to be part of Pratt’s use of a mock-antiquated dialect. The fictional dialect appears most prominently in the dialogue, especially in the speech of individuals from certain specific regions of his fantasy analogue of Nordic Europe. However, it strangely also appears in the third-person narration as well; mixed in with the largely modern language are a few genuine archaisms and also some apparently invented ones. I find these last pretty distracting, although they are obvious nowhere near as bad as those in, say, The Night Land.

    * That Faded Page link is weird; if you leave the page open but untouched for too long, it reverts from the page with the actual HTML text back to the main page for the book. Unfortunately, although the online version was produced for Project Gutenberg Canada, that site no longer actually carries it, presumably due to American-Canadian copyright issues.

  50. John Cowan says

    But now the trumpet blew up and up, coming when far with a note of sadness in the mild winter weather

    I would understand that as ‘coming, when far away, with a note of sadness’.

  51. January First-of-May says

    I would understand that as ‘coming, when far away, with a note of sadness’.

    The first few times I looked at that passage I couldn’t make any sense of it at all with either when or whence, but your version works: the trumpet is a note when far (otherwise it’s presumably too loud).

  52. @John Cowan, January First-of-May: That’s a better grammatical reading, certainly, than how I interpreted it. However, it doesn’t make sense to me pragmatically, since it seems to imply an irrealis comparison to what would happen if the trumpet had been blown from somewhere else (irrealis because the actual trumpeter’s location is not an unknown or variable quantity). So—particularly in light of Pratt’s other highly peculiar word choices—I interpreted when as a form of whence.

  53. January First-of-May says

    So—particularly in light of Pratt’s other highly peculiar word choices—I interpreted when as a form of whence.

    I… honestly fail to understand what is your version of the reading. Either I misunderstand what “whence” means (I was assuming it meant something like “from where” but as a single word – perhaps this isn’t quite correct), or this is blatantly ungrammatical.

    Logically I’d probably expect something like “from far” (“from afar” would have been better), but that’s still not a “whence”.

  54. @January First-of-May: Upon reflection, I think you are right. For some reason, a phrase like, “coming whence his house,” sounds fine to me, with the meaning, “coming from his house.” However, this is apparently not standard.

  55. I’m afraid it’s not; when I read it, I didn’t think “that’s an interesting expression,” I thought “that’s not English.” And it takes a lot to make me think that.

  56. You’re right. I checked all the OED cites for whence, and there was no sign of that sense. So this is one of those relatively rare cases of native speaker intuition simply failing.

  57. David Marjanović says

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find “coming whence was his house” in the work of a writer of High Fantastickal Speeche who had never actually read a Tolkien book cover-to-cover.

  58. John Cowan says

    Now that seems perfectly grammatical to me, and has the sense ‘coming from where his house was’; it works because whence is a relative/interrogative pronoun. Note that both whence and from whence are correct, despite the apparent redundancy of the latter; it appears in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the KJV, and many a Victorian writer (not necessarily of fantasy).

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