The Articuli Cleri are a series of English statutes which responded to a variety of complaints made from time, to the English King, by the Church of England and which set the limits of their jurisdictions and that of their ecclesiastic law courts. At first, the development of the Articuli Cleri buttressed the demands of the Church and sustained a canon law · common law parallel legal system within England. But over time, the pendulum swung the other way and common law courts have emerged as dominant.

Within the Statutes of the Realm of the medieval kingdom of England (now part of the United Kingdom), is a reference to a set of complaints made by the clerics of England before Henry III in regards to the perceived interference of the developing common law courts to the ancient jurisdiction of the ecclesiastic courts.

The response to each complaint by Edward I (reign: 1239-1307) accepted only some of the grievances and yet became law (Prohibitio formata de Statuto Articuli Cleri) and led to the articuli cleri, argued for centuries to come, as one side or the other of the debate continually clamoured at the door of the Royal chambers for redress against the alleged encroachment of the other.

One of the issues was the right and obligation of a priest not to reveal the content of a confession, as set out in this 1313 edict of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

"Let no priest dare from anger, hatred or fear, even of death, to disclose in any manner whatsoever, whether by sign, gesture or word, in general or in particular, anybody's confession. And if he shall be convicted of this he shall be, deservedly, degraded, without hope of reconciliation."1

medieval churchAccording to Edward Coke, writing in his Institutes of the Laws of England, the church lawyers made their stand in 1258 with a set of canons:

"... the effect of them is so to usurp and encroach upon many matters, which apparently belonged to the common law as, amongst others, the trial of limits and bounds of parishes, the rights of patronage, against trial of right of tithes.... (and) that none of their possessions or liberties ... should be tried before any secular judge."

In 1315, the bishop of Canterbury Walter Reynolds asked Edward II (reign: 1307-1327) to review the Articuli Cleri. The 16 complaints continued over sanctuary and jurisdiction against clerics who were suspected of crimes or who citizens sought to sue in tort or contract.

King Edward II replied by way of statute, 9 Edw. II, Chapter 10, called the Privilege of Sanctuary Act (1315). This statute took the name of its predecessor and also became the best-known Articuli Cleri.

Arnold Baker writes:

"The 16 chapters of the (Articuli Cleri) arose from clerical complaints opportunistically brought forward at the Lincoln Parliament in the aftermath of Bannockburn in January 1316. They were enacted in November. They limited Royal power to prevent the levy of certain tithes and also impositions upon religious houses and certain church lands, and, consistently, the power to intervene in ecclesiastic sentences of excommunication commonly used to enforce tithes. They also extended the effect of sanctuary, and purported to abolish royal interference in ecclesiastical elections."

From time to time, the Church would press for more powers; an expansion of the Articli Cleri as it existed at that time. It was his involvement in such a movement that brought upon John Cowell the wrath of Edward Coke in 1610.

By the time of Coke:

"... the Church had regulated family affairs. Marriage and divorce, baptism, burial and the making of wills were under ecclesiastic jurisdiction. Church courts were empowered to punish perjury, defamation, drunkenness, breaches of faith, mistreatment of wives by husbands ... and crimes of sexual behaviors not covered by the common law."1

Over time, the Articli Cleri eroded and the jurisdiction of the church and ecclesiastic law would fade.

The Privilege of Sanctuary Act was law in England until 1863 when it was repealed.


  • Baker, Edward, The Companion to British History (London: Longcross Press, 1996).
  • Bowen, Catherine Drinker, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), page 295 - NOTE 1.
  • Coke, Edward, Institutes of the Laws of England; Containing the Exposition of Many Ancient and Other Statutes, Volume 2, page  598 on.
  • Denton, John, "The Making of the Articuli Cleri of 1316", 101 English Historical Review 400 (July 1986)
  • Nolan, R. S., "The Law of the Seal of Confession", Catholic Encyclopedia (NOTE 1) "Constitution of Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, apparently Walter Reynolds, transferred from the See of Worcester to the Primatial See in 1313."