We hold in our collection a universal pardon dating to January 15, 1559, the date of Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation. This pardon was purchased by Sir Robert Langley of Agecroft, Lancashire, Eccles Parish, for 26 shillings, 8 pence, quite a significant amount of money for 1558 or 1559. The document, which is special because it relates directly to our house, was lost for a few centuries but, thankfully, came back into our possession in the 1990s.
Because it is a universal pardon, this document does not pardon one particular act or event. While very specific pardons like that do exist, a universal pardon could be considered an “insurance policy” against many crimes, real or accused. Langley’s pardon covers anything that occurred up until November 1, 1558—the Feast of All Saints and the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s rule. Many monarchs sold pardons at the start of their monarchy to help ease the transition from one ruler to the next—what is legal with one monarch maybe considered illegal by the next, and the pardon takes care of these differences so the pardonee is not convicted for past deeds. Selling expensive pardons also helped to fundraise, so to speak, or replenish coffers that may have been running low after the previous monarch’s reign. Buying a pardon could also be seen as a way to prove your loyalty to the new monarch.
So what does this pardon, pardon? Everyone who purchased a pardon received a dated legal form letter with pertinent details, such as name and location filled in, with Queen Elizabeth I’s first wax seal attached. The document “pardon[s], remit[s], relax[es]” a multitude of crimes, including: treasons, rebellions, resurrections, conspiracies against the crown or ruler, unlawful religious meetings, unlawful assemblies, homicides, felonies, robberies, being an accessory to a crime, prison escapes, evading authorities, robberies in royal dwellings or on royal roads, counterfeiting documents or tampering with legal documents, forced entry, perjury, bribing officials, sowing hemp and flax before the Feast of All Saints, not following horse statutes, creation of a retinue of retainers, usury, and pardons any judgements, punishments and ‘pains of death’ enacted against Robert, but not yet served.
While the pardon does excuse the bearer from many crimes (murder, anyone?), it does not pardon everything. Acts not pardoned include: attempts to alter or change royal status or attempts to alter or change royal succession; any offense concerning Calais; any offense against the statutes of separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church; unpaid debts, accounts, arrears; and the concealment, extraction, detention of royal good or chattel, as has been proven in court. Some of the listed offenses make sense—not forgiving personal debts or attempts made against the monarchy. The mention of Calais is interesting as England had lost the city in France in early 1558. Calais was England’s final stronghold in continental Europe, and there was always hope that England would gain the city back.
Why did Sir Robert Langley of Agecroft feel the need for royal forgiveness? We have no concrete reason but we can make an educated guess. Looking at the patent rolls, we found that Langley’s brothers also purchased pardons. Within the Langley family, there were varying degrees of Catholicism, from staunch Catholic to Catholic in name only. Based on research of the family, we think Robert Langley was mainly Anglican but that his brothers and their families were more strict Catholics. Going on that notion, it is believed that Robert Langley owned old monastic lands he had purchased during Henry VIII’s reign and that during Mary’s reign, he had done some suspect dealings to be able to keep the lands but to not be connected to the lands. But, again, this is conjecture—maybe he’d killed people in a fight or maybe he was highway robber or maybe he just wanted to prove his loyalty to the new monarch.
Our Elizabethan pardon is on view daily—come for a tour and take a look!