Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

Sir William Blackstone

Of Offenses Against the Public Peace

WE are next to consider offenses against the public peace; the conservation of which is entrusted to the king and his officers, in the manner and for the reasons which were formerly mentioned at large.1 These offenses are either such as are an actual breach of the peace; or constructively so, by tending to make others break it. Both of these species are also either felonious, or not felonious. The felonious breaches of the peace are strained up to that degree of malignity by virtue of several modern statutes: and, particularly,

1. THE riotous assembling of twelve persons, or more, and not dispersing upon proclamation. This was first made high treason by statute 3 & 4 Edw. VI. c. 5. when the king was a minor, and a change in religion to be effected: but that statute was repealed by statute 1 Mar. c. 1. among the other treasons created since the 25 Edw. III; though the prohibition was in substance re-enacted, with an inferior degree of punishment, by statute 1 Mar. St. 2. c. 12. which made the same offense a single felony. These statutes specified and particularized the nature of the riots they were meant to suppress; as, for example, such as were set on foot with intention to offer violence to the privy council, or to change the laws of the kingdom, or for certain other specific purposes: in which cases, if the persons were commanded by proclamation to disperse, and they did not, it was by the statute of Mary made felony, but within the benefit of clergy; and also the act indemnified the peace officers and their assistants, if they killed any of the mob in endeavoring to suppress such riot. This was thought a necessary security in that sanguinary reign, when popery was intended to be re-established, which was likely to produce great discontents: but at first it was made only for a year, and was afterwards continued for that queen’s life. And, by statute 1 Eliz. c. 16. when a reformation in religion was to be once more attempted, it was revived and continued during her life also; and then expired. From the accession of James the first to the death of queen Anne, it was never once thought expedient to revive it: but, in the first year of George the first, it was judged necessary, in order to support the execution of the act of settlement, to renew it, and at one stroke to make it perpetual, with large additions. For, whereas the former acts expressly defined and specified what should be accounted a riot, the statute 1 Geo. I. c. 5. enacts, generally, that if any twelve persons are unlawfully assembled to the disturbance of the peace, and any one justice of the peace, sheriff, under-sheriff, or mayor of a town, shall think proper to command them by proclamation to disperse, if they contemn his orders and continue together for one hour afterwards, such contempt shall be felony without benefit of clergy. And farther, if the reading of the proclamation be by force opposed, or the reader be in any manner willfully hindered from the reading of it, such opposers and hinderers are felons, without benefit of clergy: and all persons to whom such proclamation ought to have been made, and knowing of such hindrance, and not dispersing, are felons, without benefit of clergy. There is the like indemnifying clause, in case any of the mob be unfortunately killed in the endeavor to disperse them; being copied from the act of queen Mary. And, by a subsequent clause of the new act, if any persons, so riotously assembled, begin even before proclamation to pull down any church, chapel, meeting-house, dwelling-house, or out-houses, they shall be felons without benefit of clergy.

2. BY statute 1 Hen. VII. c. 7. unlawful hunting in any legal forest, park, or warren, not being the king’s property, by night, or with painted faces, was declared to be single felony. But now by the statute 9 Geo. I. c. 22. to appear armed in any inclosed forest or place, where deer are usually kept, or in any warren or hares or conies, or in any high road, open heath, common, or down, by day or night, with faces blacked, or otherwise disguised, or (being so disguised) to hunt, wound, kill, or steal any deer, to rob a warren or to steal fish, or to procure, by gift or promise of reward, any person to join them in such unlawful act, is felony without benefit of clergy. I mention these offences in this place, not on account of the damage thereby done to private property, but of the manner in which that damage is committed: namely, with the face blacked or with other disguise, and being armed with offensive weapons, to the breach of the public peace and the terror of his majesty’s subjects.

3. ALSO by the same statute 9 Geo. I. c. 22. amended by statute 27 Geo. II. c. 15. knowingly to send any letter without a name, or with a fictitious name, demanding money, venison, or any other valuable thing, or threatening (without any demand) to kill, or fire the house of, any person, is made felony without benefit of clergy. This offense was formerly high treason by the statute 8 Hen. V. c. 6.

4. To pull down or destroy any turnpike-gate, or fence thereunto belonging, by the statute 1 Geo. II. c. 19. is punished with public whipping, and three months imprisonment; and to destroy the toll-houses, or any sluice or lock on a navigable river, is made felony to be punished with transportation for seven years. By the statute 5 Geo II. c. 33 the offense of destroying turnpike-gates or fences, is made felony also, with transportation for seven years. And, lastly, by the statute 8 Geo. II. c. 20, the offenses of destroying both turnpikes upon roads, and sluices upon rivers, are made felony without benefit of clergy; and may be tried as well in an adjacent county, as that wherein the fact is committed. The remaining offenses against the public peace are merely misdemeanors and no felonies; as,

5. AFFRAYS (from affraier, to terrify) are the fighting of two or more persons in some public place, to the terror of his majesty’s subjects: for, if the fighting be in private, it is no affray but an assault.2 Affrays may be suppressed by any private person present, who is justifiable in endeavoring to part the combatants, whatever consequence may ensue.3 But more especially the constable, or other similar officer, however denominated, is bound to keep the peace; and to that purpose may break open doors to suppress an affray, or apprehend the affrayers; and may either carry them before a justice, or imprison them by his own authority for a convenient space till the heat is over; and may then perhaps also make them find sureties for the peace.4 The punishment of common affrays is by fine and imprisonment; the measure of which must be regulated by the circumstances of the case: for, where there is any material aggravation, the punishment proportionably increases. As where two persons coolly and deliberately engage in a duel: this being attended with an apparent intention and danger of murder, and being a high contempt of the justice of the nation, is a strong aggravation of the affray, though no mischief has actually ensued.5 Another aggravation is, when thereby the officers of justice are disturbed in the due execution of their office: or where a respect to the particular place ought to restrain and regulate men’s behavior, more than in common ones; as in the king’s court, and the like. And upon the same account also all affrays in a church or church-yard are esteemed very heinous offenses, as being indignities to him to whose service those places are consecrated. Therefore mere quarrelsome words, which are neither an affray nor an offense in any other place, are penal here. For it is enacted by statute 5& 6 Edw. VI. c. 4. that if any person shall, by words only, quarrel, chide, or brawl, in a church or church-yard, the ordinary shall suspend him, if a layman, ab ingressu ecclesiae [from entering the church]; and, if a clerk in orders, from the ministration of his office during pleasure. And, if any person in such church or church-yard proceeds to smite or lay violent hands upon another, he shall be excommunicated ipso facto [by that fact]; or if he strikes him with a weapon, or draws any weapon with intent to strike, he shall besides excommunication (being convicted by a jury) have one of his ears cut off; or, having no ears, be branded with the letter F in his cheek. Two persons may be guilty of an affray: but,

6. RIOTS, routs, and unlawful assemblies must have three persons at least to constitute them. An unlawful assembly is when three, or more, do assemble themselves together to do an unlawful act, as to pull down enclosures, to destroy a warren or the game therein; and part without doing it, or making any motion towards it.6 A rout is where three or more meet to do an unlawful act upon a common quarrel, as forcibly breaking down fences upon a right claimed of common, or of way; and make some advances towards it.7 A riot is where three or more actually do an unlawful act of violence, either with or without a common cause or quarrel:8 as if they beat a man; or hunt and kill game in another’s park, chase, warren, or liberty; or do any other unlawful act with force and violence; or even do a lawful act, as removing a nuisance, in a violent and tumultuous manner. The punishment of unlawful assemblies, if to the number of twelve, we have just now seen may be capital, according to the circumstances that attend it; but, from the number of three to eleven, is by fine and imprisonment only. The same is the case in riots and routs by the common law; to which the pillory in very enormous cases has been sometimes superadded.9 And by the statute 13 Hen. IV. c. 7. any two justices, together with the sheriff our under-sheriff of the county, may come with the posse comitatus [power of the county], if need be, and suppress any such riot, assembly, or rout, arrest the rioters, and record upon the spot the nature and circumstances of the whole transaction; which record alone shall be a sufficient conviction of the offenders. In the interpretation of which statute it has been held, that all persons, noblemen and others, except women, clergymen, persons decrepit, and infants under fifteen, are hound to attend the justices in suppressing a riot, upon pain of fine and imprisonment; and that any battery, wounding, or killing the rioters, that may happen in suppressing the riot, is justifiable.10 So that our ancient law, previous to the modern riot act, seems pretty well to have guarded against any violent breach of the public peace; especially as any riotous assembly on a public or general account, as to redress grievances or pull down all enclosures, and also resisting the king’s forces if sent to keep the peace, may amount to overt acts of high treason, by levying war against the king.

7. NEARLY related to this head of riots is the offense of tumultuous petitioning; which was carried to an enormous height in the times preceding the grand rebellion. Wherefore by statute 13 Car. II. St. 1. c. 5. it is enacted, that not more than twenty names shall be signed to any petition to the king or either house of parliament, for any alteration of matters established by law in church or state; unless the contents thereof be previously approved, in the country, by three justices, or the majority of the grand jury at the assizes or quarter sessions; and in London, by the lord mayor, aldermen, and common council:11 and that no petition shall be delivered by a company of more than ten persons: on pain in either case of incurring a penalty not exceeding 100£, and three months imprisonment.

8. AN eighth offense against the public peace is that of a forcible entry or detainer; which is committed by violently taking or keeping possession, with menaces, force, and arms, of lands and tenements, without the authority of law. This was formerly allowable to every person disseized, or turned out of possession, unless his entry was taken away or barred by his own neglect, or other circumstances; which were explained more at large in a former volume.12 But this being found very prejudicial to the public peace, it was thought necessary by several statutes to restrain all persons from the use of such violent methods, even of doing themselves justice; and much more if they have no justice in their claim.13 So that the entry now allowed by law is a peaceable one; that forbidden is such as is carried on and maintained with force, with violence, and unusual weapons. By the statute 5 Ric. II. St. 1. c. 8. all forcible entries are punished with imprisonment and ransom at the king’s will. And by the several statutes of 15 Ric. II. c. 2. 8 Hen. VI. c. 9. 31 Eliz. c. 11. and 21 Jac. I. c. 15. upon any forcible entry, or forcible detainer after peaceable entry, into any lands, or benefices of the church, one or more justices of the peace, taking sufficient power of the county, may go to the place, and there record the force upon him own view, as in case of riots; and upon such conviction may commit the offender to jail, till he makes fine and ransom to the king. And moreover the justice or justices have power to summon a jury, to try the forcible entry or detainer complained of: and, if the same be found by that jury, then besides the fine on the offender, the justices shall make restitution by the sheriff of the possession, without inquiring into the merits of the title; for the force is the only thing to be tried, punished, and remedied by them: and the same may be done by indictment at the general sessions. But this provision does not extend to such as endeavor to maintain possession by force, where they themselves, or their ancestors, have been in the peaceable enjoyment of the lands and tenements, for three years immediately preceding.

9. THE offense of riding or going armed, with dangerous or unusual weapons, is a crime against the public peace, by terrifying the good people of the land; and is particularly prohibited by the statute of Northampton, 2 Edw. III. c. 3. upon pain of forfeiture of the arms, and imprisonment during the king’s pleasure: in like manner as, by the laws of Solon, every Athenian was finable who walked about the city in armor.14

10. SPREADING false news, to make discord between the king and nobility, or concerning any great man of the realm, is punished by common law15 with fine and imprisonment; which is confirmed by statutes Westm. 1. 3 Edw. I. c. 34. 2 Ric. II. St. 1. c. 5. and 12 Ric. II. c. 11.

11. FALSE and pretended prophecies, with intent to disturb the peace, are equally unlawful, and more penal; as they raise enthusiastic jealousies in the people, and terrify them with imaginary fears. They are therefore punished by our law, upon the same principle that spreading of public news of any kind, without communicating it first to the magistrate, was prohibited by the ancient Gauls.16 Such false and pretended prophecies were punished capitally by statute 1 Edw. VI. c. 12. which was repealed in the reign of queen Mary. And now by the statute 5 Eliz. c. 15. the penalty for the first offense is a fine of 100£, and one year’s imprisonment; for the second, forfeiture of all goods and chattels, and imprisonment during life.

12. BESIDES actual breaches of the peace, anything that tends to provoke or excite others to break it, is an offense of the same denomination. Therefore challenges to fight, either by word or letter, or to be the bearer of such challenge, are punishable by fine and imprisonment, according to the circumstances of the offense.17 If this challenge arises on account of any money won at gaming, or if any assault or affray happen upon such account, the offender, by statute 9 Ann. c. 14. shall forfeit all his goods to the crown, and suffer two years imprisonment.

13. OF a nature very similar to challenges are libels, libelli famosi, which, taken in their largest and most extensive sense, signify any writings, pictures, or the like, of an immoral or illegal tendency; but, in the sense under which we are now to consider them, are malicious defamations of any person, and especially a magistrate, made public by either printing, writing, signs, or pictures, in order to provoke him to wrath, or expose him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule.18 The direct tendency of these libels is the breach of the public peace, by stirring up the objects of them to revenge, and perhaps to bloodshed. The communication of a libel to any one person is a publication in the eye of the law:19 and therefore the sending an abusive private letter to a man is as much a libel as if it were openly printed, for it equally tends to a breach of the peace.20 For the same reason it is immaterial with respect to the essence of a libel, whether the matter of it be true or false;21 since the provocation, and not the falsity, is the thing to be punished criminally: though, doubtless, the falsehood of it may aggravate its guilt, and enhance its punishment. In a civil action, we may remember, a libel must appear to be false, as well as scandalous;22 for, if the charge be true, the plaintiff has received no private injury, and has no ground to demand a compensation for himself, whatever offense it may be against the public peace: and therefore, upon a civil action, the truth of the accusation may be pleaded in bar of the suit. But, in a criminal prosecution, the tendency which all libels have to create animosities, and to disturb the public peace, is the sole consideration of the law. And therefore, in such prosecutions, the only facts to be considered are, first, the making or publishing of the book or writing; and secondly, whether the matter be criminal: and, if both these points are against the defendant, the offense against the public is complete. The punishment of such libelers, for either making, repeating, printing, or publishing the libel, is fine, and such corporal punishment as the court in their discretion shall inflict; regarding the quantity of the offense, and the quality of the offender.23 By the law of the twelve tables at Rome, libels, which affected the reputation of another, were made a capital offense: but, before the reign of Augustus, the punishment became corporal only.24 Under the emperor Valentinian25 it was again made capital, not only to write, but to publish, or even to omit destroying them. Our law, in this and many other respects, corresponds rather with the middle age of Roman jurisprudence, when liberty, learning, and humanity, were in their full vigor, than with the cruel edicts that were established in the dark and tyrannical ages of the ancient decemviri, or the later emperors.

IN this, and the other instances which we have lately considered, where blasphemous, immoral, treasonable, schismatical, seditious, or scandalous libels are punished by the English law, some with a greater, others with a less degree of severity; the liberty of the press, properly understood, is by no means infringed or violated. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state: but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments the pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the revolution,26 is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion, and government. But to punish (as the law does at present) any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and god order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus the will of individuals is still left free; the abuse only of that free will hereby laid upon freedom, of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man (says a fine writer on this subject) may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials. And to this we may add, that the only plausible argument heretofore used for restraining the just freedom of the press, “that it was necessary to prevent the daily abuse of it,” will entirely lose its force, when it is shown (by a seasonable exertion of the law) that the press cannot be abused to any bad purpose, without incurring a suitable punishment: whereas it never can be used to any good one, when under the control of an inspector. So true will it be found, that to censure the licentiousness, is to maintain the liberty, of the press.


     1.    Vol. I. pag. 117. 268. 350.
     2.    1 Hawk. P. C. 134.
     3.    Ibid. 136.
     4.    Ibid. 137.
     5.    Ibid. 138.
     6.    3 Inst. 176.
     7.    Bro. Abr. Riot. 4. 5.
     8.    3 Inst. 176.
     9.    1 Hawk. P. C. 159.
   10.    1 Hal. P. C. 161.
   11.    This may be one reason (among others) why the corporation of London has, since the restoration, usually taken the lead in petitions to parliament for the alteration of any established law.
   12.    See Vol. III. pag. 174, etc.
   13.    1 Hawk. P. C. 141.
   14.    Pott. Antiqu. b. 1. c. 26.
   15.    2 Inst. 226. 3 Inst. 198.
   16.    “Habent legibus sanctum, si quis de republica a finitimis rumore aut fama acceperit, uti ad magistratum deferat, neve cum alio communicet: quod saepe homines temerarios atque imperitos falsis rumoribus terreri, et ad facinus impelli, et de summis rebus consilium capere, cognitum est.” [“They make it an inviolable rule, that if any one shall have received any intelligence in the neighborhood concerning the republic by rumour or report, he shall make it known to a magistrate, and not communicate it to any one else: for rash and ignorant men, it is well known, alarmed by false reports, are often driven to violent measures, and interfere in affairs of the highest consequence.”] Caes. de bell. Gall. lib. 6. cap. 19.
   17.    1 Hawk. P. C. 135. 138.
   18.    1 Hawk. P. C. 193.
   19.    Moor. 813.
   20.    2 Brownl. 151. 12 Rep. 35. Hob. 215. Poph. 139. 1 Hawk. P. C. 195.
   21.    Moor. 627. 5 Rep. 125. 11 Mod. 99.
   22.    See Vol. III. pag. 125.
   23.    1 Hawk. P. C. 196.
   24.     Quinetiam lex, Poenaque lata, malo quae nollet carmine quenquam, Describi: — vertere modum formidine fustis. [Moreover the law and punishment are decreed, which forbids any one to write scurrilous verses: they changed their mode of writing through fear of corporal chastisement.] Hor. ad Aug. 152.
   25.    Cod. 9. 36.
   26.    The art of printing, soon after its introduction, was looked upon (as well in England as in other countries) as merely a matter of state, and subject to the coercion of the crown. It was therefore regulated with us by the king’s proclamations, prohibitions, charters of privilege and of license, and finally by the decrees of the court of star chamber; which limited the number of printers, and of presses which each should employ, and prohibited new publications unless previously approved by proper licensers. On the demolition of this odious jurisdiction in 1641, the long parliament of Charles I, after their rupture with that prince, assumed the same powers as the star chamber exercised with respect to the licensing of books; and in 1643, 1647, 1649, and 1652, (Scobell. i. 44, 134. ii 88, 230.) issued their ordinances for that purpose, founded principally on the star chamber decree of 1637. In 1662 was passed the statute 13 & 14 Car. II. c. 33. which (with some few alterations) was copied from the parliamentary ordinances. This act expired in 1679, but was revived by statute 1 Jac. II. c. 17. and continued till 1692. It was then continued for two years longer by statute 4 W. & M. c. 24. but, though frequent attempts were made by the government to revive it, in the subsequent part of that reign, (Com. Journ. 11 Feb. 1694. 26 Nov. 1695. 22 Oct. 1696. 9 Feb. 1697. 31 Jan. 1698.) yet the parliament resisted it so strongly, that it finally expired, and the press became properly free, in 1694; and has ever since so continued.