This dissertation examines the role of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy--the pardoning and mitigating powers of the Crown--in the Victorian criminal justice system. Its principal source has been the hitherto confidential collection of files in the Home Office 144 and 45 Series at the British Public Record Office. These files not only review the process of trial and conviction in homicide cases but also contain the correspondence between the judges and the Home Office on their degree of culpability.
The study has had useful results in three poorly interrelated fields of historiography, 19th century legal history, institutional history and Victorian cultural history.
In the field of legal history it traces the progressive, if piecemeal, centralization and specialization of the criminal justice system as a whole. These were trends which served to strengthen the forces of law and order at the expense of those were prosecuted. The trend was reinforced by a parallel development in legal doctrine where a stricter construction of the concept of 'mens rea' occurred.
The development of a professional Home Office bureaucracy and the gradual limitations which it imposed on ministerial power is an important theme in the history of government that is illustrated from the files. In the close relations which this bureaucracy developed with the legal profession it is also possible to observe an emergent legal and bureaucratic establishment in whose hands the new 'national' criminal justice system was used, and used effectively, to constrain the traditional violence of pre-industrial and pre-urban England.
The privileged correspondence between judges and civil servants reflects the attitudes and preconceptions of this establishment. It is complemented, however, by petitions from the public, appeals from prisoners and by contemporary press comment. This dialogue as a whole makes an important contribution to some much debated aspects of 19th century social and cultural history. These topics include Victorian attitudes to normal and deviant behavior, to the definition and treatment of insanity and towards women and children, as offenders or victims.
The Prerogative of Mercy survived as the only official mechanism of mitigation in the criminal justice system. Its exercise laid upon the civil servants of the Home Office the responsibility of adapting an absolute law to shifting community ideas about justice. This study suggests that, as the century drew towards its close, the gap between establishment values and those of the community at large was narrowing. The mass of 'respectable' Victorian England had come increasingly to share the morality of its civil service.