Blackstone’s Commentaries:
with Notes of Reference (1803)

St. George Tucker

VOLUME 2, CHAPTER 7
Of the King’s Prerogative

IT was observed in a former chapter,1 that one of the principal bulwarks of civil liberty, or (in other words) of the British constitution, was the limitation of the king’s prerogative by bounds so certain and notorious, that it is impossible he should ever exceed them, without the consent of the people, on the one hand; or without, on the other, a violation of that original contract, which in all states impliedly, and in ours most expressly, subsists between the prince and the subject. It will now be our business to consider this prerogative minutely; to demonstrate its necessity in general; and to mark out in the most important instances its particular extent and restrictions: from which considerations this conclusion will evidently follow, that the powers which are vested in the crown by the laws of England, are necessary for the support of society; and do not entrench any farther on our natural liberties, than is expedient for the maintenance of our civil.

THERE cannot be a stronger proof of that genuine freedom, which is the boast of this age and country, than the power of discussing and examining, with decency and respect, the limits of the king’s prerogative. A topic, that in some former ages was thought too delicate and sacred to be profaned by the pen of a subject. It was ranked among the arcana imperii; and, like the mysteries of the bona dea, was not suffered to be pried into by any but such as were initiated in its service; because perhaps the exertion of the one, like the solemnities of the other, would not bear the inspection of rational and sober inquiry. The glorious queen Elizabeth herself made no scruple to direct her parliaments to abstain from discoursing of matters of state;2 and it was the constant language of this favorite princess and her ministers, that even that august assembly “ought not to deal, to judge, or to meddle, with her majesty’s prerogative royal.”3 And her successor, king James the first, who had imbibed high notions of the divinity of regal sway, more than once laid it down in his speeches, that “as it is atheism and blasphemy in a creature to dispute what the deity may do, so it is presumption and sedition in a subject to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power: good Christians, he adds, will be content with God’s will, revealed in his word; and good subjects will rest in the king’s will, revealed in his law.”4

BUT, whatever might be the sentiments of some of our princes, this was never the language of our ancient constitution and laws. The limitation of the regal authority was a first and essential principle in all the Gothic systems of government established in Europe; though gradually driven out and overborne, by violence and chicane, in most of the kingdoms on the continent. We have seen, in the preceding chapter, the sentiments of Bracton and Fortescue, at the distance of two centuries from each other. And Sir Henry Finch, under Charles the first, after the lapse of two centuries more, though he lays down the law of prerogative in very strong and emphatic terms, yet qualifies it with a general restriction, in regard to the liberties of the people. “The king has a prerogative in all things, that are not injurious to the subject; for in them all it must be remembered, that the king’s prerogative stretches not to the doing of any wrong,”5 Nihil enim aliud potest rex, nisi id solum quod de jure potest.6 And here it may be some satisfaction to remark, how widely the civil law differs from our own, with regard to the authority of the laws over the prince, or (as a civilian would rather have expressed it) the authority of the prince over the laws. It is a maxim of the English law, as we have seen from Bracton, that “rex debet esse sub lege, quia lex facit regem“: the imperial law will tell us, that “in omnibus imperatoris excipitur fortuna; cui ipsas leges Deus subjecit.”7 We shall not long hesitate to which of them to give the preference, as most conducive to those ends for which societies were framed, and are kept together; especially as the Roman lawyers themselves seem to be sensible of the unreasonableness of their own constitution. “Decet tamen principem,” says Paulus, “servare leges, quibus ipse solutus est.”8 This is at once laying down the
principle of despotic power, and at the same time acknowledging its absurdity.

By the word prerogative we usually understand that special pre-eminence, which the king has, over and above all other persons, and out of the ordinary course of the common law, in right of his regal dignity. It signifies, in its etymology, (from prae and rogo) something that is required or demanded before, or in preference to, all others. And hence it follows, that it must be in its nature singular and eccentric; that it can only be applied to those rights and capacities which the king enjoys alone, in contradistinction to others, and not to those which he enjoys in common with any of his subjects: for if once any one prerogative of the crown could be held in common with the subject, it would cease to be prerogative any longer. And therefore Finch9 lays it down as a maxim, that the prerogative it that law in case of the king, which is law in no case of the subject.

PREROGATIVES are either direct or incidental. The direct are such positive substantial parts of the royal character and authority, as are rooted in and spring from the king’s political person, considered merely by itself, without reference to any other extrinsic circumstance; as, the right of sending ambassadors, of creating peers, and of making war or peace. But such prerogatives as are incidental bear always a relation to something else, distinct from the king’s person; and are indeed only exceptions, in favor of the crown, to those general rules that are established for the rest of the community: such as, that no costs shall be recovered against the king; that the king can never be a joint-tenant; and that his debt shall be preferred before a debt to any of his subjects. These, and an infinite number of other instances, will better be understood, when we come regularly to consider the rules themselves, to which these incidental prerogatives are exceptions. And therefore we will at present only dwell upon the king’s substantive or direct prerogatives.

THESE substantive or direct prerogatives may again be divided into three kings: being such as regard, first, the king’s royal character; secondly, his royal authority; and, lastly, his royal income. These are necessary, to secure reverence to his person, obedience to his commands, and an affluent supply for the ordinary expenses of government; without all of which it is impossible to maintain the executive power in due independence and vigor. Yet, in every branch of this large and extensive dominion, our free constitution has interposed such seasonable checks and restrictions, as may curb it from trampling on those liberties, which it was meant to secure and establish. The enormous weight of prerogative (if left to itself, as in arbitrary government it is) spreads havoc and destruction among all the inferior movements: but, when balanced and bridled (as with us) by its proper counterpoise, timely and judiciously applied, its operations are then equable and regular, it invigorates the whole machine, and enables every part to answer the end of its construction.

IN the present chapter we shall only consider the two first of these divisions, which relate to the king’s political character and authority; or, in other words, his dignity and regal power; to which last the name of prerogative is frequently narrowed and confined. The other division, which forms the royal revenue, will require a distinct examination; according to the know distribution of the feudal writers, who distinguish the royal prerogatives into the majora and minora regalia, in the latter of which classes the rights of the revenue are ranked. For, to use their own words, “majora regalia imperii prae-eminentiam spectant; minora vero ad commodum pecuniarium immediate attinent; et haec proprie fiscalia sunt, et ad jus fisci pertinent.”10

FIRST, then, of the royal dignity. Under every monarchical establishment, it is necessary to distinguish the prince from his subjects, not only by the outward pomp and decorations of majesty, but also by ascribing to him certain qualities, as inherent in his royal capacity, distinct from and superior to those of any other individual in the nation. For, though a philosophical mind will consider the royal person merely as one man appointed by mutual consent to preside over many others, and will pay him that reverence and duty which the principles of society demand, yet the mass of mankind will be apt to grown insolent and refractory, if taught to consider their prince as a man of no greater perfection than themselves. The law therefore ascribes to the king, in his high political character, not only large powers and emoluments which form his prerogative and revenue, but likewise certain attributes of a great and transcendent nature; by which the people are led to consider him in the light of a superior being, and to pay him that awful respect, which may enable him with greater ease to carry on the business of government. This is that I understand by the royal dignity, the several branches of which we will now proceed to examine.

I. AND, first, the law ascribes to the king the attribute of sovereignty, or pre-eminence.11Rex est vicarius,” says Bracton, “et minister Dei in terra: omnis quidem sub eo est, et ipse sub nullo, nisi tantum sub Deo.” He is said to have imperial dignity, and in charters before the conquest is frequently styled basileus and imperator, the titles respectively assumed by the emperors of the east and west.12 His realm is declared to be an empire, and his crown imperial, by many acts of parliament, particularly the statutes 24 Hen. VIII. c. 12. and 25 Hen. VIII. c. 28; which at the same time declare the king to be the supreme head of the realm in matters both civil and ecclesiastical, and of consequence inferior to no man upon earth, dependent no on man, accountable to no man. Formerly there prevailed a ridiculous notion, propagated by the German and Italian civilians, than an emperor could do many things which a king could not, (as the creation of notaries and the like) and that all kings were in some degree subordinate and subject to the emperor of Germany or Rome. The meaning therefore of the legislature, when it uses these terms of empire and imperial, and applies them to the realm of England, is only to assert that our king is equally sovereign and independent within these his dominions, as any emperor is in his empire;13 and owes no king of subjection to any other potentate upon earth. Hence it is, that no suit or action can be brought against the king, even in civil matters, because no court can have jurisdiction over him. For all jurisdiction implies superiority of power: authority to try would be vain and idle, without an authority to redress; and the sentence of a court would be contemptible, unless that court had power to command the execution of it; but who, says Finch,14 shall command the king? Hence it is likewise, that by law the person
of the king is sacred, even though the measures pursued in his reign be completely tyrannical and arbitrary: for no jurisdiction had this power, as was formerly claimed by the pope, the independence of the kingdom would be no more: and, if such a power were vested in any domestic tribunal, there would soon be an end of the constitution, by destroying the free agency of one of the constituent parts of the sovereign legislative power.

ARE then, it may be asked, the subject of England totally destitute of remedy, in case the crown should invade their rights, either by private injuries, or public oppressions? To this we may answer, that the law has provided a remedy in both cases.

AND, first, as to private injuries; if any person has, in point of property, a just demand upon the king, he must petition him in his court of chancery, where his chancellor will administer right as a matter of grace, though not upon compulsion.15 And this is entirely consonant to what is laid down by the writers on natural law. “A subject, says Pufendorf,16 so long as he continues a subject, has no way to oblige his prince to gave him his due, when he refuses it; though no wise prince will ever refuse to stand to a lawful contract. And, if the prince gives the subject leave to enter an action against him, upon such contract, in his own courts, the action itself proceeds rather upon natural equity, then upon the municipal laws.” For the end of such action is not to compel the prince to observe the contract, but to persuade him. And, as to personal wrongs; it is well observed by Mr. Locke,17 “the harm which the sovereign can do in his own person not being likely to happen often, nor to extend itself far; nor being able by his single strength to subvert the laws, nor oppress the body of the people, (should any prince have so much weakness and ill nature as to endeavor to do it) — the inconvenience therefore of some particular mischiefs, that may happen sometimes, when a heady prince comes to the throne, are well recompensed by the peace of the public and security of the government, in the person of the chief magistrate being thus set out of the reach of danger.”

NEXT, as to cases of ordinary public oppression, where the vitals of the constitution are not attacked, the law has also assigned a remedy. For, as a king cannot misuse his power, without the advice of evil counselors, and the assistance of wicked ministers, these men may be examined and punished. The constitution has therefore provided, by means of indictments, and parliamentary impeachments, that no man shall dare to assist the crown in contradiction to the laws of the land. But it is at the same time a maxim in those laws, that the king himself can do no wrong; since it would be a great weakness and absurdity in any system of positive law, to define any possible wrong, without any possible redress.

FOR, as to such public oppressions as tend to dissolve the constitution, and subvert the fundamentals of government, they are cases which the law will not, out of decency, suppose; being incapable of distrusting those, whom it has invested with any part of the supreme power; since such distrust would render the exercise of that power precarious and impracticable. For, wherever the law expresses its distrust of abuse of power, it always vests of superior coercive authority in some other hand to correct it; the very notion of which destroys the idea of sovereignty. If therefore (for example) the two houses of parliament, or either of them, had avowedly a right to animadvert on the king, or each other, or if the king had a right to animadvert on the king, or each other, or if the king had a right to animadvert on either of the houses, that branch of the legislature, so subject to animadversion, would instantly cease to be part of the supreme power; the balance of the constitution would be overturned; and that branch or branches, in which this jurisdiction resided, would be completely sovereign. The supposition of law therefore is, that neither the king nor either house of parliament (collectively taken) is capable of doing any wrong; since in such cases the law feels itself incapable of furnishing any adequate remedy. For which reason all oppressions, which may happen to spring from any branch of the sovereign power, must necessarily be out of the reach of any stated rule, or express legal provision: but, if ever they unfortunately happen, the prudence of the times must provide new remedies upon new emergencies.

INDEED, it is found by experience, that whenever the unconstitutional oppressions, even of the sovereign power, advance with gigantic strides and threaten desolation to a state, mankind will not be reasoned out of the feelings of humanity; nor will sacrifice their liberty by a scrupulous adherence to those political maxims, which were originally established to preserve it. And therefore, though the positive laws are silent, experience will furnish us with a very remarkable case, wherein nature and reason prevailed. When king James the second invaded the fundamental constitution of the realm, the convention declared an abdication, whereby the throne was rendered vacant, which induced a new settlement of the crown. And so far as this precedent leads, and no farther, we may now be allowed to lay down the law of redress against public oppression. If therefore any future prince should endeavor to subvert the constitution by breaking the original contract between king and people, should violate the fundamental laws, and should withdraw himself out of the kingdom; we are now authorized to declare that this conjunction of circumstance would amount to an abdication, and the throne would be thereby vacant. But it is not for us to say, that any one, or two, of these ingredients would amount to such a situation; for other circumstances which a fertile imagination may furnish, since both law and history are silent, it becomes us to be silent too; leaving to future generations, whenever necessity and the safety of the whole shall require it, the exertion of those inherent (though latent) powers of society, which no climate, no time, no constitution, no contract, can ever destroy or diminish.

II. BESIDES the attribute of sovereignty, the law also ascribes to the king, in his political capacity, absolute perfection. The king can do no wrong. Which ancient and fundamental maxim is not to be understood, as if every thing transacted by the government was of course just and lawful, but means only two things. First, that whatever is exceptionable in the conduct of public affairs is not to be imputed to the king, nor is he answerable for it personally to his people: for this doctrine would totally destroy that constitutional independence of the crown, which is necessary for the balance of power, in our free and active, and therefore compounded, constitution. And, secondly, it means that the prerogative of the crown extends not to do any injury: it is created for the benefit of the people, and therefore cannot be exerted to their prejudice.18

THE king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness. And therefore, if the crown should be induced to grant any franchise or privilege to a subject contrary to reason, or in any wise prejudicial to the commonwealth, or a private person, the law will not suppose the king to have meant either an unwise or an injurious action, but declares that the king was deceived in his grant; and thereupon such grant is rendered void, merely upon the foundation of fraud and deception, either by or upon those agents, whom the crown has thought proper to employ. For the law will not cast an imputation on that magistrate whom it entrusts with the executive power, as if he was capable of intentionally disregarding his trust: but attributes to mere imposition (to which the most perfect of sublunary beings must still continue liable) those little inadvertencies, which, if charged on the will of the prince, might lessen him in the eyes of his subjects.

YET still, notwithstanding this personal perfection, which the law attributes to the sovereign, the constitution has allowed a latitude of supposing the contrary, in respect to both houses of parliament; each of which, in its turn, has exerted the right of remonstrating and complaining to the king even of those acts of royalty, which are most properly and personally his own; such as messages signed by himself, and speeches delivered from the throne. And yet, such is the reverence which is paid to the royal person, that though the two houses have an undoubted right to consider these acts of state in any light whatever, and accordingly treat them in their addresses as personally proceeding from the prince, yet, among themselves, (to preserve the more perfect decency, and for the greater freedom of debate) they usually suppose them to flow from the advice of the administration. But the privilege of canvassing thus freely the personal acts of the sovereign (either directly, or even through the medium of his reputed advisers) belongs to no individual, but is confined to those august assemblies; and there too the objections must be proposed with the utmost respect and deference. One member was sent to the tower,19 for suggesting that his majesty’s answer to the address of the commons contained “high words, to fright the members out of their duty;” and another,20 for saying that a part of the king’s speech “seemed rather to be calculated for the meridian of Germany than Great Britain,” and that the “king was a stranger to our language and constitution.”

IN farther pursuance of this principle, the law also determines that in the king can be no negligence, or laches, and therefore no delay will bar his right. Nullum tempus occurrit regi is the standing maxim upon all occasions: for the law intents that the king is always busied for the public good, and therefore has not leisure to assert his right within the times limited to subjects.21 In the king also can be no stain or corruption of blood: for if the heir to the crown were attainted of treason or felony, and afterwards the crown should descend to him, this would purge the attainder ipso facto.22 And therefore when Henry VII, who as earl of Richmond stood attainted, came to the crown, it was not thought necessary to pass an act of parliament to reverse this attainder; because, as lord Bacon in his history of that prince informs us, it was agreed that the assumption of the crown had at once purged all attainders. Neither can the king in judgment of law, as king, ever be a minor or under age; and therefore his royal grants and assents to acts of parliament are good, tough he has not in his natural capacity attained the legal age of twenty one.23 By a statute indeed, 28 Hen. VIII. c. 17. power was given to future kings to rescind and revoke all acts of parliament that should be made while they were under the age of twenty four: but this was repealed by the statute 1 Edw. VI. C. 11. so far as related to that prince; and both statutes are declared to be determined by 24 Geo. II. c. 24. It has also been usually thought prudent, when the heir apparent has been very young, to appoint a protector, guardian, or regent, for a limited time: but the very necessity of such extraordinary provision is sufficient to demonstrate the truth of that maxim of the common law, that in the king is no minority; and therefore he has no legal guardian.24

III. A THIRD attribute of the king’s majesty is his perpetuity. The law ascribes to him, in his political capacity, an absolute immortality. The king never dies. Henry, Edward, or George may die; but the king survives them all. For immediately upon the decease of the reigning prince in his natural capacity, his kingship or imperial dignity, by act of law, without any interregnum or interval, is vested at once in his heir; who, is, eo instanti, king to all intents and purposes. And so tender is the law of supposing even a possibility of his death, that his natural dissolution is generally called his demise; demissio regis, vel coronae: an expression which signifies merely a transfer of property; for, as is observed in Plowden,25 when we say the demise of the crown, we mean only that in consequence of the disunion of the king’s body natural from his body politic, the kingdom is transferred or demised to his successor; and so the royal dignity remains perpetual. Thus too, when Edward the fourth, in the tenth year of his reign, was driven from his throne for a few months by the house of Lancaster, this temporary transfer of his dignity was denominated his demise; and all process was held to be discontinued, as upon a natural death of the king.26

WE are next to consider those branches of the royal prerogative, which invest this our sovereign lord, thus all-perfect and immortal in his kingly capacity, with a number of authorities and powers; in the exertion whereof consists the executive part of government. This is wisely placed in a single hand by the British constitution, for the sake of unanimity, strength and dispatch. Were it placed in many hands, it would be subject to may wills: many wills, if disunited and drawing different ways, create weakness in a government: and to unite those several wills, and reduce them to one, is a work of more time and delay than the exigencies of state will afford. The king of England is therefore not only the chief, but properly the sole, magistrate of the nation; all others acting by commission from, and in due subordination to him: in like manner as, upon the great revolution in the Roman state, all the powers of the ancient magistracy of the commonwealth were concentrated in the new emperor; so that, as Gravina27 expresses it, “in ejus unius persona veteris reipublicae vis atque majestas per cumulatas magistratuum potestates exprimebatur.”

AFTER what has been premised in this chapter, I shall not (I trust) be considered as an advocate for arbitrary power, when I lay it down as a principle, that in the exertion of lawful prerogative, the king is and ought to be absolute; that is, so far absolute, that there is no legal authority that can either delay or resist him. He may reject what bills, may make what treaties, may coin what money, may create what peers, may pardon what offenses he pleases: unless where the constitution has expressly, or by evident consequence, laid down some exception or boundary; declaring, that thus far the prerogative shall go and no farther. For otherwise the power of the crown would indeed be but a name and a shadow, insufficient for the ends of government, if, where its jurisdiction is clearly established and allowed, any man or body of men were permitted to disobey it, in the ordinary course of law: I say, in the ordinary course of law; for I do not now speak of those extraordinary recourses to first principles, which are necessary when the contracts or society are in danger of dissolution, and the law proves too weak a defense against the violence of fraud or oppression. And yet the want of attending to this obvious distinction has occasioned these doctrines, of absolute power in the price and of national resistance by the people, to be much misunderstood and perverted by the advocates for slavery on the one hand, and the demagogues of faction on the other. The former, observing the absolute sovereignty and transcendent dominion of the crown laid down (as it certainly is) most strongly and emphatically in our lawbooks, as well as our homilies, have denied that any case can be excepted from so general and positive a rule; forgetting how impossible it is, in any practical system of laws, to pint out beforehand those eccentric remedies, which the sudden emergence of national distress may dictate, and which that alone can justify. On the other hand, over-zealous republicans, feeling the absurdity of unlimited passive obedience, have fancifully (or sometimes factiously) gone over to the other extreme: and,
because resistance is justifiable to the person of the prince when the being of the state is endangered, and the public voice proclaims such resistance necessary, they have therefore allowed to every individual the right of determining this expedience, and of employing private force to resist even private oppression. A doctrine productive of anarchy, and (in consequence) equally that to civil liberty as tyranny itself. For civil liberty, rightly understood, consists in protecting the rights of individuals by the united force of society: society cannot be maintained, and of course can exert no protection, without obedience to some sovereign power: and obedience is an empty name, it every individual has a right to decide how far he himself shall obey.

IN the exertion therefore of those prerogatives, which the law has given him, the king is irresistible and absolute, according to the forms of the constitution. And yet, if the consequence of that exertion be manifestly to the grievance or dishonor of the kingdom, the parliament will call his advisers to a just and severe account. For prerogative consisting (as Mr. Locke28 has well defined it) in the discretionary power of acting for the public good, where the positive laws are silent, if that discretionary power be abused to the public detriment, such prerogative is exerted in an unconstitutional manner. Thus the king may make a treaty with a foreign state, which shall irrevocably bind the nation; and yet, when such treaties have been judged pernicious, impeachments have pursued those ministers, by whose agency or advice they were concluded.

THE prerogatives of the crown (in the sense under which we are now considering them) respect either this nation’s intercourse with foreign nations, or its own domestic government and civil polity.

WITH regard to foreign concerns, the king is the delegate or representative of his people. It is impossible that the individuals of a state, in their collective capacity, can transact the affairs of that state with another community equally numerous as themselves. Unanimity must be wanting to their measures, and strength to the execution of their counsels. In the king therefore, as in a center, all the rays of his people are united, and form by that union a consistency, splendor, and power, that make him feared and respected by foreign potentates; who would scruple to enter into any engagements, that must afterwards be revised and ratified by a popular assembly. What is done by the royal authority, with regard to foreign powers, is the act of the whole nation: what is done without the king’s concurrence is the act only of private men. And so far is this point carried by our law, that it has been held,29 that should all the subjects of England make war with a king in league with the king of England, without the royal assent, such war is no breach of the league. And, by the statute 2 Hen. V. c. 6. any subject committing acts of hostility upon any nation in league with the king, was declared to be guilty of high treason: and, though that act was repealed by the statute 20 Hen. VI. c. 11. so far as relates to the making this offense high treason, yet still it remains a very great offense against the law of nations, and punishable by our laws, either capitally or otherwise, according to the circumstances of the case.

I. THE king therefore, considered as the representative of his people, has the sole power of sending ambassadors to foreign states, and receiving ambassadors at home. This may lead us into a short inquiry, how far the municipal laws of England intermeddle with or protect the rights of these messengers from one potentate to another, whom we call ambassadors.

THE rights, the powers, the duties, and the privileges of ambassadors are determined by the law of nature and nations, and not by any municipal constitutions. For, as they represent the persons of their respective masters, who owe no subjection to any laws but those of their own country, their actions are not subject to the control of the private law of that state, wherein they are appointed to reside. He that is subject to the coercion of laws is necessarily dependent on that power by whom those laws were made: but an ambassador ought to be independent of every power, except that by which he is sent; and of consequence ought not to be subject to the mere municipal laws of that nation, wherein he is to exercise his functions. If he gruffly offends, or makes an ill use of his character, he may be sent home and accused before his master;30 who is bound either to do justice upon him, or avow himself the accomplice of his crimes.31 But there is great dispute among the writers on the laws of nations, whether this exemption of ambassadors extends to all crimes, as well nature as positive; or whether it only extends to such as are mala prohibita, as coining, and not to those that are mala in se, as murder.32 Our law seems to have formerly taken in the restriction, as well as the general exemption. For it has been held, both by our common lawyers and civilians,33 that an ambassador is privileged by the law of nature and nations; and yet, if he commits any offense against the law of reason and nature, he shall lose his privilege:34 and that therefore, if an ambassador conspires the death of the king in whose land he is, he may be condemned and executed for treason; but if he commits any other species of treason, it is otherwise, and he must be sent to his own kingdom.35 And these positions seem to be built upon good appearance of reason. For since, as we have formerly shown, all municipal laws act in subordination to the primary law of nature, and, where thy annex a punishment to natural crimes, are only
declaratory of and auxiliary to that law; therefore to this natural, universal rule of justice ambassadors, as well as other men, are subject in all countries; and of consequence it is reasonable that wherever they transgress it, there they shall be liable to make atonement.36 But, however these principles might formerly obtain, the general practice of this country, as well as of the rest of Europe seems now to have adopted the sentiments of the learned Grotius, that the security of ambassadors is of more importance than the punishment of a particular crime.37 And therefore few, if any, examples have happened within a century past, where an ambassador has been punished for any offense, however atrocious in its nature.

IN respect to civil suits, all the foreign jurists agree, that neither an ambassador, nor any of his train or comites, can be prosecuted for any debt or contract in the courts of the kingdom wherein he is sent to reside. Yet Sir Edward Coke maintains, that, if an ambassador make a contract which is good jure gentium, he shall answer for it here.38 But the truth is, so few cases (if any) had arisen, wherein the privilege was either claimed or disputed, even with regard to civil suits, that our law books are silent upon it, previous to the reign of queen Anne; when an ambassador from Peter the great, czar of Muscovy, was actually arrested, and taken out of his coach in London,39 for a debt of 50œ which he had there contracted. Instead of applying to be discharged upon his privilege, he gave bail to the action, and the next day complained to the queen. The persons who were concerned in the arrest were examined before the privy council (of which the lord chief justice Holt was at the same time sworn a member)40 and seventeen were committed to prison:41 most of whom were prosecuted by information in the court of queen’s bench, at the suit of the attorney general,42 and at their trial before the lord chief justice were convicted of the facts by the jury;43 reserving the question of law, how far those facts were criminal, to be afterwards argued before the judges; which question was never determined. In the mean time the czar resented this affront very highly, and demanded that the sheriff of Middlesex and all others concerned in the arrest should be punished with instant death.44 But the queen (to the amazement of that despotic court directed her secretary to inform him,
“that she could inflict no punishment upon any, the meanest of the subjects unless warranted by the law of the land, and therefore was persuaded that he would not insist upon impossibilities.”45 To satisfy however the clamors of the foreign ministers, (who made it a common cause) as well as to appease the wrath of Peter, a bill was brought into parliament,46 and afterwards passed into a law,47 to prevent and to punish such outrageous insolence for the future. And with a copy of his act, elegantly engrossed and illuminated, accompanied by a letter from the queen, an ambassadors extraordinary48 was commissioned to appear at Moscow,49 who declared “that though her majesty could not inflict such a punishment as was required, because of the defect in that particular of the former established constitutions of her kingdom, yet, with the unanimous consent of the parliament, she had caused a new act to be passed, to serve as a law for the future.” This humiliating step was accepted as a full satisfaction by the czar; and the offenders, at his request, were discharged from all farther prosecution. This statute50 recites the arrest which had been made, “in contempt of the protection granted by her majesty, contrary to the law of nations, and in prejudice of the rights and privileges, which ambassadors and other public ministers have at all times been thereby possessed of, and ought to be kept sacred and inviolable:” wherefore it enacts, that for the future all process whereby the person of any ambassador, or of his domestic or domestic servant, may be arrested, or his goods distrained or seized, shall be utterly null and void; and the persons prosecuting, soliciting, or executing such process shall be deemed violators of the law of nations, and disturbers
of the public repose; and shall suffer such penalties and corporal punishment as the lord chancellor and the two chief justices, or any two of them, shall think fit. But it is expressly provided, that no trader, within the description of the bankrupt laws, who shall be in the service of any ambassador, shall be privileged or protected by this act; nor shall any one be punished for arresting an ambassador’s servant, unless his name be registered with the secretary of state, and by him transmitted to the sheriffs of London and Middlesex. Exceptions, that are strictly conformable to the rights of ambassadors,51 as observed in the most civilized countries. And, in consequence of this statute, thus enforcing the law of nations, these privileges are now held to be part of the law of the land, and are usually allowed in the court of common law.52

II. IT is also the king’s prerogative to make treaties, leagues, and alliances with foreign states and princes. For it is by the law of nations essential to the goodness of a league, that it be made by the sovereign power;53 and then it is binding upon the whole community: and in England the sovereign power, quoad hoc, is vested in the person of the king. Whatever contracts therefore he engages in, no other power in the kingdom can legally delay, resist, or annul. And yet, lest this plenitude of authority should be abused to the detriment of the public, the constitution (as was hinted before) has here interposed a check, by the means of parliamentary impeachment, for the punishment of such ministers as advise or conclude any treaty, which shall afterwards be judged to derogate from the honor and interest of the nation.

III. UPON the same principle the king has also the sole prerogative of making war and peace. For it is held by all the writers on the law of nature and nations, that the right of making war, which by nature subsisted in every individual, is given up by all private persons that enter into society, and is vested in the sovereign power:54 and this right is given up not only by individuals, but even by the entire body of people, that are under the dominion of a sovereign. It would indeed be extremely improper, that any number of subjects should have the power of binding the supreme magistrate, and putting him against his will in a state of war. Whatever hostilities therefore may be committed by private citizens, the state ought not to be affected thereby; unless that should justify their proceedings, and thereby become partner in the guilt. Such unauthorized volunteers in violence are not ranked among open enemies, but are treated like pirates and robbers: according to that rule of the civil law;55 hostes hi sunt qui nobis, aut quibis nos, publice bellum decrevimus: caeteri latrones aut praedones sunt. And the reason which is given by Grotius,56 why according to the law of nations a denunciation of war ought always to precede the actual commencement of hostilities, is not so much that the enemy may be put upon his guard, (which is matter rather of magnanimity that right) but that it may be certainly clear that the war is not undertaken by private persons, but by the will of the whole community; whose right of willing is in this case transferred to the supreme magistrate by the fundamental laws of society. So that, in order to make a war completely effectual, it is necessary with us in England that it be publicly declared and duly proclaimed by the king’s authority; and, then, all parts of both the contending nations, from the highest to the lowest, are bound by it. And, wherever the right resides of beginning a
national war, there also must reside the right of ending it, or the power of making peace. And the same check of parliamentary impeachment, for improper or inglorious conduct, in beginning, conducting, or concluding a national war, is in general sufficient to restrain the ministers of the crown from a wanton or injurious exertion of this great prerogative.

IV. BUT, as the delay of making war may sometimes be detrimental to individuals who have suffered by depredations from foreign potentates, our laws have in some respect armed the subject with powers to impel the prerogative; by directing the ministers of the crown to issue letters of marque and reprisal upon due demand: the prerogative of granting which is nearly related to, and plainly derived from, that other of making war; this being indeed only an incomplete state of hostilities, and generally ending in a formal denunciation of war. These letters are grantable by the law of nations,57 whenever the subject of one state are oppressed and injured by those of another; and justice is denied by that state to which the oppressor belongs. In this case letters or marque and reprisal (words in themselves synonymous and signifying a taking in return) may be obtained, in order to seize the bodies or goods of the subjects of the offending state, until satisfaction be made, wherever they happen to be found. Indeed this custom of reprisals seems dictated by nature herself; and accordingly we find in the most ancient times very notable instances of it.58 But here the necessity is obvious of calling in the sovereign power, to determine when reprisals may be made; else every private sufferer would be a judge in his own cause. And, in pursuance of this principle, it is with us declared by the statute 4 Hen. V. c. 7. that, it any subjects of the realm are oppressed in time of truce by any foreigners, the king will grant marque in due form, to all that feel themselves grieved. Which form is thus directed to be observed: the sufferer must first apply to the lord privy-seal, and he shall make out letters of request under the privy seal; and, if, after such request of satisfaction made, the party required do not within convenient time make due satisfaction or restitution to the party grieved, the lord chancellor shall make him out letters of marque under the great seal; and by virtue of these he may attack and
seize the property of the aggressor nation, without hazard of being condemned as a robber or pirate.

V. UPON exactly the same reason stands the prerogative of granting safe-conducts, without which by the law of nations no member of one society has a right to intrude into another. And therefore Pufendorf very justly resolves,59 that it is left in the power of all states, to take such measures about the admissions of strangers, as they think convenient; those being ever excepted who are driven on the coasts by necessity, or by any cause that deserves pity or compassion. Great tenderness is shown by our laws, not only to foreigners in distress (as will appear when we come to speak of shipwrecks) but with regard also to the admissions of strangers who come spontaneously. For so long as their nation continues at peace with ours, and they themselves behave peaceably, they are under the king’s protection; though liable to be sent home whenever the king sees occasion. But no subject of a nation at war with us can, by the law of nations, come into the realm, nor can travel himself upon the high seas, or send his goods and merchandise from one place to another, without danger of being seized by our subject, unless he had letters of safe-conduct; which by diverse ancient statutes60 must be granted under the king’s great seal and enrolled in chancery, or else are of no effect: the king being supposed the best judge of such emergencies, as may deserve exception from the general law of arms. But passports under the king’s sign manual, or licenses from his ambassadors abroad, are now more usually obtained, and are allowed to be of equal validity.

INDEED the law of England, as a commercial country, pays a very particular regard to foreign merchants in innumerable instances. One I cannot omit to mention: that by magna carta61 it is provided, that all merchants (unless publicly prohibited beforehand) shall have safe conduct to depart from, to come into, to tarry in, and to go through England, for the exercise of merchandise, without any unreasonable imposts, except in time of war: and, if a war breaks out between us and their country, they shall be attached (if in England) without harm of body or goods, till the king or his chief justiciary be informed how our merchants are treated in the land with which we are at war; and, if ours be secure in that land, they shall be secure in ours. This seems to have been a common rule of equity among all the northern nations; for we learn from Stiernhook,62 that it was a maxim among the Goths and Swedes, “quam legem exteri nobis posuere, eandem illis ponemus.” But it is somewhat extraordinary, that it should have found a place in magna carta, a mere interior treaty between the king and his natural-born subjects; which occasions the learned Montesquieu to remark with a degree of admiration, “that the English have made the protection of foreign merchants one of the articles of their national liberty.”63 But indeed it well justifies another observation which he has made,64 “that the English know better than any other people upon earth, how to value at the same time these three great advantages, religion, liberty, and commerce.” Very different from the genius of the Roman people; who in their manners, their constitution, and even in their laws, treated commerce as a dishonorable employment, and prohibited the exercise thereof to persons of birth, or rank, or fortune:65 and equally different from
the bigotry of the canonists, who looked on trade as inconsistent with Christianity,66 and determined at the council of Melfi, under pope Urban II, A. D. 1090, that it was impossible with a safe conscience to exercise any traffic, or follow the profession of the law.67

THESE are the principal prerogatives of the king, respecting this nation’s intercourse with foreign nations; in all of which he is considered as the delegate or representative of his people. But in domestic affairs he is considered in a great variety of characters, and from thence there arises an abundant number of other prerogatives.

I. FIRST, he is a constituent part of the supreme legislative power; and, as such, has the prerogative of rejecting such provisions in parliament, is he judges improper to be passed. The expediency of which constitution has before been evinced at large.68 I shall only farther remark, that the king is not bound by any act of parliament, unless he be named therein by special and particular words. The most general words that can be devised (“any person or persons, bodies politic, or corporate, etc.”) affect not him in the least, if they may tend to restrain or diminish any of his rights or interests.69 For it would be of most mischievous consequence to the public, if the strength of the executive power were liable to be curtailed without its own express consent, by constructions and implications of the subject. Yet where an act of parliament is expressly made for the preservation of public rights and the suppression of public wrongs, and does not interfere with the established rights or the crown, it is said to be binding as well upon the king as upon the subject:70 and, likewise, the king may take the benefit on any particular act, though he be not especially named.71

II. THE king is considered, in the next place, as the generalissimo, or the first in military command, within the kingdom. The great end of society is to protect the weakness of individuals by the united strength of the community: and the principal use of government is to direct that united strength in the best and most effectual manner, to answer the end proposed. Monarchical government is allowed to be the fittest of any for this purpose: it follows therefore, from the very end of its institution, that in a monarchy the military power must be trusted in the hands of the prince.

IN this capacity therefore, of general of the kingdom, the king has the sole power of raising and regulating fleets and armies. Of the manner in which they are raised and regulated I shall speak more, when I come to consider the military state. We are now only to consider the prerogative of enlisting and of governing them: which indeed was disputed and claimed, contrary to all reason and precedent, by the long parliament of king Charles I; but, upon the restoration of his son, was solemnly declared by the statute 13 Car. II. c. 6. to be in the king alone: for that the sole supreme government and command of the militia within all his majesty’s realms and dominions, and of all forces by sea and land, and of all sorts and places of strength, ever was and is the undoubted right of his majesty, and his royal predecessors, kings and queens of England; and that both or either house of parliament cannot, nor ought to, pretend to the same.

THIS statute, it is obvious to observe, extends not only to fleets and armies, but also to forts, and other places of strength, within the realm; the sole prerogative as well of erecting, as manning and governing of which, belongs to the king is his capacity of general of the kingdom:72 and all lands were formerly subject to a tax, for building of castles wherever the king thought proper. This was one of the three things, from contributing to the performance of which no lands were exempted; and therefore called by our Saxon ancestors the trinoda necessitas: scopontis reparatio, arcis constructio, et expeditio contra hostem.73 And this they were called upon to do so often, that, as Sir Edward Coke from M. Paris assures us,74 there were in the time of Henry II 1115 castles subsisting in England. The inconvenience of which, when granted out to private subjects, the lordly barons of those times, was severely felt by the whole kingdom; for, as William of Newbury remarks in the reign of king Stephen, “erant in Anglia quodammodo tot reges vel potius tyranni quot domini castellorum“: but it was felt by none more sensibly than by two succeeding princes, king John and king Henry III. And therefore, the greatest part of them being demolished in the barons’ wars, the kings of after times have been very cautious of suffering them to be rebuilt in a fortified manner: and Sir Edward Coke lays it down,75 that no subject can build a castle, or house of strength embattled, or other fortress defensible, without the license of the king; for the danger which might ensue, if every man at his pleasure might do it.

It is partly upon the same, and partly upon a fiscal foundation, to secure his marine revenue, that the king has the prerogative of appointing ports and havens, or such places only, for persons and merchandise to pass into and out of the realm, as he in his wisdom sees proper. By the feudal law all navigable rivers and havens were computed among the regalia,76 and were subject to the sovereign of the state. And in England it has always been held, that the king is lord of the whole shore,77 and particularly is the guardian of the ports and havens, which are the inlets and gates of the realm:78 and therefore, so early as the reign of king John, we find ships seized by the king’s officers for putting in at a place that was not a legal port.79 These legal ports were undoubtedly at first assigned by the crown; since to each of them a court of portmore is incident,80 the jurisdiction of which must flow from the royal authority: the great ports of the sea are also referred to, as well known and established, by statute 4 Hen. IV. c. 20. which prohibits the landing elsewhere under pain of Confiscation: and the statute 1 Eliz. c. 11. recites that the franchise of lading and discharging had been frequently granted by the crown.

But though the king had a power of granting the franchise of havens and ports, yet he had not the power of resumption, or of narrowing and confining their limits when once established; but any person had a right to load or discharge his merchandise in any part of the haven: whereby the revenue of the customs was much impaired and diminished, by fraudulent landings in obscure and private corners. This occasioned the statutes of 1 Eliz. c. 11. and 13 & 14 Car. II. c. 11. . 14. which enable the crown by commission to ascertain the limits of all ports, and to assign proper wharfs and quays in each port, for the exclusive landing and loading of merchandise.

The erection of beacons, light-houses, and sea-marks, is also a branch of the royal prerogative: whereof the first were anciently used in order to alarm the country, in case of the approach of an enemy; and all of them are signally useful in guiding and preserving vessels at sea by night as well as by day. For this purpose the king has the exclusive power, by commission under his great seal,81 to cause them to be erected in fit and convenient places,82 as well upon the lands of the subject as upon the demesnes of the crown: which power is usually vested by letters patent in the office of lord high admiral.83 And by statute 8 Eliz. c. 13. the corporation of the trinity-house are empowered to set up any beacons or sea-marks wherever they shall think them necessary; and if the owner of the land or any other person shall destroy them, or shall take down any steeple, tree, or other known sea-mark, he shall forfeit 100œ or, in case of inability to pay it, shall be ipso facto outlawed.

To this branch of the prerogative may be referred the power vested in his majesty, by statutes 12 Car. II. c. 4. and 29 Geo. II. c. 16. of prohibiting the exportation of arms of ammunition out of this kingdom, under severe penalties: and likewise the right which the king has, whenever he sees proper, of confining his subjects to stay within the realm, or of recalling them when beyond the seas. By the common law,84 every man may go out of the realm for whatever cause he pleases, without obtaining the king’s leave; provided he is under no injunction of staying at home: (which liberty was expressly declared in king John’s great charter, though left out in that of Henry III) but, because that every man ought of right to defend the king and his realm, therefore the king at his pleasure may command him by his writ that he go not beyond the seas, or out of the realm without license; and if he do the contrary, he shall be punished for disobeying the king’s command. Some persons were anciently were, that, by reason of their stations, were under a perpetual prohibition of going abroad without license obtained; among which were reckoned all peers, on account of their being counselors of the crown; all knights, who were bound to defend the kingdom from invasions; all ecclesiastics, who were expressly confined by cap. 4. of the constitutions of Clarendon, on account of their attachment in the times of popery to the see of Rome; all archers and other artificers, lest they should instruct foreigners to rival us in their several trades and manufactures. This was law in the times of Britton,85 who wrote in the reign of Edward I: and Sir Edward Coke86 gives us many instances to this effect in the time of Edward III. In the succeeding reign the affair of traveling were a very different aspect: as act of parliament being made,87 forbidding all persons whatever to go abroad
without license; except only the lords and other great men of the realm; and true and notable merchants; and the king’s soldiers. But this act was repealed by the statute 4 Jac. I. c. 1. And at present every body has, or at least assumes, the liberty of going abroad when he pleases. Yet undoubtedly if the king, by writ of ne exeat regnum, under his great seal or privy seal, thinks proper to prohibit him from so doing; or if the king sends a writ to any man, when abroad, commanding his return; and in either case the subject disobeys; it is a high contempt of the king’s prerogative, for which the offender’s lands shall be seized till he return; and then he is liable to fine and imprisonment.88

III. ANOTHER capacity, in which the king is considered in domestic affairs, is as the fountain of justice and general conservator of the peace of the kingdom. By the fountain of justice the law does not mean the author or original, but only the distributor. Justice is not derived from the king, as from his free gift; but he is the steward of the public, of dispense it to whom it is due.89 He is not the spring, but the reservoir; from whence right and equity are conducted, by a thousand channels, to every individual. The original power of judicature, by the fundamental principles of society, is lodged in the society at large: but as it would be impracticable to render complete justice to every individual, by the people in their collective capacity, therefore every nation has committed that power to certain select magistrates, who with more case and expedition can hear and determine complaints; and in England this authority has immemorially been exercised by the king of his substitutes. He therefore has alone the right of erecting courts of judicature: for, though the constitution of the kingdom has entrusted him with the whole executive power of the laws, it is impossible, as well as improper, that he should personally carry into execution this great and extensive trust: it is consequently necessary, that courts should be erected, to assist him in executing this power; and equally necessary, that, if erected, they should be erected by his authority. And hence it is, that all jurisdictions of courts are either mediately or immediately derived from the crown, their proceedings run generally in the king’s name, they pass under his seal, and are executed by his officers.

IT is probable, and almost certain, that in very early times, before our constitution arrived at its full perfection, our kings in person often heard and determined causes between and party. But at present, by the long and uniform usage of many ages, our kings have delegated their whole judicial power to the judges of their several courts; which are the grand depositary of the fundamental laws of the kingdom, and have gained a known and stated jurisdiction, regulated by certain and established rules, which the crown itself cannot now alter but by act of parliament.90 And, in order to maintain both the dignity and independence of the judges in the superior courts, it is enacted by the statute 13 W. III. c. 2. that their commissions shall be made (not, as formerly, durante bene placito, but) quamdiu bene se gesserint, and their salaries ascertained and established; but that it may be lawful to remove them on the address of both houses of parliament. And now, by the noble improvements of that law in the statute of 1 Geo. III. c. 23. enacted at the earnest recommendation of the king himself from the throne, the judges are continued in their offices during their good behavior, notwithstanding any demise of the crown (which was formerly held91 immediately to vacate their seats) and their full salaries are absolutely secured to them during the continuance of their commissions: his majesty having been pleased to declare, that “he looked upon the independence and uprightness of the judges, as essential to the impartial administration of justice; as one of the best securities of the rights and liberties of his subjects; and as most conducive to the honor of the crown.”92

IN criminal proceedings, or prosecutions for offenses, it would still be a higher absurdity, if the king personally sat in judgment; because in regard to these he appears in another capacity, that of prosecutor. All offenses are either against the king’s peace, or his crown and dignity; and are so laid in every indictment. For, though in their consequences they generally seem (except in the case of treason and a very few others) to be rather offenses against the kingdom than the king; yet, as the public, which is an invisible body, has delegated all its power and rights, with regard to the execution of the laws, to one visible magistrate, all affronts to that power, and breaches of those rights, are immediately offenses against him, to whom they are so delegated by the public. He is therefore the proper person to prosecute for all public offenses and breaches of the peace, being the person injured in the eye of the law. And this notion was carried for far in the old Gothic constitution, (wherein the king was bound by his coronation oath to conserve the peace that in case of any forcible injury offered to the person of a fellow subject, the offender was accused of a kind of perjury, in having violated the king’s coronation oath; dicebatur fregisse juramentum regis juratum.93 And hence also arises another branch of the prerogative, that of pardoning offenses; for it is reasonable that he only who is injured should have the power of forgiving. And therefore, in parliamentary impeachments, the king has no prerogative of pardoning: because there the commons of Great Britain are in their own names the prosecutors, and not the crown; the offense being for the most part avowedly taken to the done against the public. Of prosecutions and pardons I shall treat more at large hereafter; and only mention them here, in this cursory manner, to show the constitutional grounds of this power of the crown, and how regularly connected all the links are in this vast chain of prerogative.

IN this distinct and separate existence of the judicial power, in a peculiar body of men, nominated indeed, but not removable at pleasure, by the crown, consists one main preservative of the public liberty; which cannot subsist long in any state, unless the administration of common justice be in some degree separated both from the legislative and also from the executive power. Were it joined with the legislative, the life, liberty, and property, of the subject would be in the hands of arbitrary judges, whose decisions would be then regulated only by their own opinions, and not by any fundamental principles of law; which, though legislators may depart from, yet judges are bound to observe. Were it joined with the executive, this union might soon be an overbalance for the legislative. For which reason, by the statute of 16 Car. I. c. 10. which abolished the court of star chamber. Effectual care is taken to remove all judicial power out of the hands of the king’s privy council; who, as then was evident from recent instances, might soon be inclined to pronounce that for law, which was most agreeable to the prince or his officers. Nothing therefore is more to be avoided, in a free constitution, than uniting the provinces of a judge and minister of state. And indeed, that the absolute power, claimed and exercised n a neighboring nation, is more tolerable than that of the eastern empires, is in great measure owing to their having vested the judicial power in their parliaments, a body separate and distinct from both the legislative and executive: and, if ever that nation recovers its former liberty, it will owe it to the efforts of those assemblies. In Turkey, where every thing is centered in the sultan or his ministers, despotic power is in its meridian, and wears a more dreadful aspect.

A CONSEQUENCE of this prerogative is the legal ubiquity of the king. His majesty, in the eye of the law, is always present in all his courts, though he cannot personally distribute justice.94 His judges are the mirror by which the king’s image is reflected. It is the regal office, and not the royal person, that is always present in court, always ready to undertake prosecutions, or pronounce judgment, for the benefit and protection of the subject. And from this ubiquity it follows, that the king can never be nonsuit;95 for a nonsuit is the desertion of the suit or action by the non-appearance of the plaintiff in court. For the same reason also, in the forms of legal proceedings, the king is not said to appear by his attorney, as other men do; for he always appears in contemplation of law in his own proper person.96

FROM the same original, of the king’s being the fountain of justice, we may also deduce the prerogative of issuing proclamations, which is vested in the king alone. These proclamations have then a binding force, when (as Sir Edward Coke observes97) they are grounded upon and enforce the laws of the realm. For, though the making of laws is entirely the work of a distinct part, the legislative branch, of the sovereign power, yet the manner, time, and circumstances of putting those laws in execution must frequently be left to the discretion of the executive magistrate. And therefore his constitutions or edicts, concerning these points, which we call proclamations, are binding upon the subject, where they do not either contradict the old laws, or tend to establish new ones; but only enforce the execution of such laws as are already in being, in such manner as the king shall judge necessary. Thus the established law is, that the king may prohibit any of his subjects from leaving the realm: a proclamation therefore forbidding this in general for three weeks, by laying an embargo upon all shipping in time of war,98 will be equally binding as an act of parliament, because founded upon a prior law. A proclamation for disarming papists99 is also binding, being only in execution of what the legislature has first ordained: but a proclamation for allowing arms to papists, or for disarming any protestant subject, will not bind; because the first would be to assume a dispensing power, the latter a legislative one; to the vesting of either of which in any single person the laws of England are absolutely strangers. Indeed by the statute 31 Hen. VIII. c. 8. it was enacted, that the king’s proclamations should have the force of acts of parliament: a statute, which was calculated to introduce the most despotic tyranny; and which must have proved fatal to the liberties of this kingdom, had it not been luckily repealed in the minority of his
successor, about five years after.

IV. THE king is likewise the fountain of honor, of office, and of privilege: and this in a different sense from that wherein he is styled the fountain of justice; for here he is really the parent of them. It is impossible that government can be maintained without a due subordination of rank; that the people may know and distinguish such as are set over them, in order to yield them their due respect and obedience; and also that the officers themselves, being encouraged by emulation and the hopes of superiority, may the better discharge their functions: and the law supposes, that no one can be so good a judge of their several merits and services, as the king himself who employs them. It has therefore entrusted with him the sole power of conferring dignities and honors, in confidence that he will bestow them upon none, but such as deserve them. And therefore all degrees of nobility, of knighthood, and other titles, are received by immediate grant from the crown: either expressed in writing, by writs or letters patent, as in the creations of peers and baronets; or by corporeal investiture, as in the creation of a simple knight.

FROM the same principle also arises the prerogative of erecting and disposing of offices: for honors and offices are in their nature convertible and synonymous. All offices under the crown carry in the eye of the law an honor along with them; because they imply a superiority of parts and abilities, being supposed to be always filled with those that are most able to execute them. And, on the other hand, all honors in their original had duties or offices annexed to them: an earl, comes, was the conservator or governor of a county; and a knight, miles, was bound to attend the king in his wars. For the same reason therefore that honors are in the disposal of the king, offices ought to be so likewise; and as the king may create new titles, so may he create new offices: but with this restriction, that he cannot create new offices with new fees annexed to them, nor annex new fees to old offices; for this would be a tax upon the subject, which cannot be imposed but by act of parliament.100 Wherefore, in 13 Hen. IV, a new office being created by the king’s letters patent for measuring cloths, with a new fee for the same, the letters patent were, on account of the new fee, revoked and declared void in parliament.

UPON the same, or a like reason, the king has also the prerogative of conferring privileges upon private persons. Such as granting place or precedence to any of his subjects, as shall seem good to his royal wisdom:101 or such as converting aliens, or persons born out of the king’s dominions, into denizens; whereby some very considerable privileges of natural-born subjects are conferred upon them. Such also is the prerogative of erecting corporations; whereby a number of private persons are united and knit together, and enjoy many liberties, powers, and immunities in their politic capacity, which they were utterly incapable of in their natural. Of aliens, denizens, natural-born, and naturalized subjects, I shall speak more largely in a subsequent chapter; as also of corporations at the close of this book of our commentaries. I now only mention them incidentally, in order to remark the king’s prerogative of making them; which is grounded upon this foundation, that the king, having the sole administration of the government in his hands, in the best and the only judge, in what capacities, with what qualified to serve, and to act under what distinctions, his people are the best qualified to serve, and to act under him. A principle, which was carried so far by the imperial law, that it was determined to be the crime of sacrilege, even to doubt whether the prince and appointed proper officers in the state.102

V. ANOTHER light in which the laws of England consider the king with regard to domestic concerns, is as the arbiter of commerce. By commerce, I at present mean domestic commerce only. It would lead me into too large a field, if I were to attempt to enter upon the nature of foreign trade, its privileges, regulations, and restrictions; and would be also quite beside the purpose of these commentaries, which are confined to the laws of England. Whereas no municipal laws can be sufficient to order and determine the very extensive and complicated affairs of traffic and merchandise; neither can they have a proper authority for this purpose. For as these are transactions carried on between the subjects of independent states, the municipal laws of one will not be regarded by the other. For which reason the affairs of commerce are regulated by a law of their own, called the law merchant or lex mercatoria, which all nations agree in and take notice of. And in particular the law of England does in many cases refer itself to it, and leaves the causes of merchants to be tried by their own peculiar customs; and that often even in matters relating to inland trade, as for instance with regard to the drawing, the acceptance, and the transfer, of bills of exchange.103

WITH us in England, the king’s prerogative, for far as it relates to mere domestic commerce, will fall principally under the following articles:

FIRST, the establishment of public marts, or places of buying and selling, such as markets and fairs, with the tolls thereunto belonging. These can only be set up by virtue of the king’s grant, or by long and immemorial usage and prescription, which presupposes such a grant.104 The limitation of these public resorts, to such time and such place as may be most convenient for the neighborhood, forms a part of economics, or domestic polity; which, considering the kingdom as a large family, and the king as the master of it, he clearly has a right to disposed and order as he pleases.

SECONDLY, the regulation of weights and measures. These for the advantage of the public, ought to be universally the same duce all things to the same or an equivalent value. But, as weight and measure are things in their nature arbitrary and uncertain, it is therefore expedient that they be reduced to some fixed rule or standard: which standard it is impossible to fix by any written law or oral proclamation; for no man can, by words only, give another an adequate idea of a foot-rule, or a pound-weight. It is therefore necessary to have recourse to some visible, palpable, material standard; by forming a comparison with which, all weights and measures may be reduced to one uniform size: and the prerogative of fixing this standard, our ancient law vested in the crown; as in Normandy it belonged to the duke.105 This standard was originally kept at Winchester: and we find in the laws of king Edgar,106 near a century before the conquest, an injunction that the one measure, which was kept at Winchester, should be observed throughout the realm. Most nations have regulated the standard of measures of length by comparison with the parts of the human body; as the palm, the hand, the span, the foot, the cubit, the ell (ulna, or arm) the pace, and the fathom. But, as these are of different dimensions in men of different proportions, our ancient historians107 inform us, that a new standard of longitudinal measure was ascertained by king Henry the first; who commanded that the ulna or ancient ell, which answers to the modern year, should be made of the exact length of his own arm. And, one standard of measures of length being gained, all others are easily derived from thence; those of greater length by multiplying, those of less by subdividing, that original standard. Thus, by the statute called compositio ulnarum et perticarum, five years and an half make a perch; and the yard is subdivided into three
feet, and each foot into twelve inches; which inches will be each of the length of three gains of barley. Superficial measures are derived by squaring those of length; and measures of capacity by cubing them. The standard of weights was originally taken from corns of wheat, whence the lowest denomination of weights we have is still called a grain; thirty two of which are directed, by the statute called compositio mensurarum, to compose a penny weight, whereof twenty make an ounce, twelve ounces a pound, and so upwards. And upon these principles the first standards were made; which, being originally so fixed by the crown, their subsequent regulations have been generally made by the king in parliament. Thus, under king Richard I, in his parliament holden at Westminster, A. D. 1197, it was ordained that there shall be only one weight and one measure throughout the kingdom, and that the custody of the assize or standard of weights and measures shall be committed to certain persons in every city and borough;108 from whence the ancient office of the king’s aulnager seems to have been derived, whose duty it was, for a certain fee, to measure all cloths made for sale, till the office was abolished by the statute II & 12 W. III. c. 20. In king John’s time this ordinance of king Richard was frequently dispensed with for money;109 which occasioned a provision to be made for enforcing it, in the great charters of king John and his son.110 These original standards were called pondus regis,111 and mensura domini regis;112 and are directed by a variety of subsequent statutes to be kept in the exchequer, and all weights and measures to be made conformable thereto.113 But, as Sir Edward Coke observes,114 though this has so often by authority of parliament been enacted, yet it could never be effected; for forcible is custom with the multitude, when it has gotten an head.

THIRDLY, as money is the medium of commerce, it is the king’s prerogative, as the arbiter of domestic commerce, to give it authority or make it current. Money is an universal medium, or common standard, by comparison with which the value of all merchandise may be ascertained: or it is a sign, which represents the respective values of all commodities. Metals are well calculated for this sign, because they are durable and are capable of many subdivisions: and a precious metal is still better calculated for this purpose, because it is the most portable. A metal is also the most proper for a common measure, because it can easily be reduced to the same standard in all nations; and every particular nation fixed on its own impression, that the weight and standard (wherein consists the intrinsic value) may both be known by inspection only.

AS the quantity of precious metals increases, that is, the more of them there is extracted from the mine, this universal medium or common sign will sink in value, and grow less precious. Above a thousand millions of bullion are calculated to have been imported into Europe from America within less than three centuries; and the quantity is daily increasing. The consequence is, that more money must be given now for the same commodity than was given an hundred years ago. And, if any accident was to diminish the quantity of gold and silver, their value would proportionally rise. A horse, that was formerly worth ten pounds, is now perhaps worth twenty; and, by any failure of current specie, the price may be reduced to what it was. Yet is the horse in reality neither dearer nor cheaper at one time than another: for, if the metal which constitutes the coin was formerly twice as scarce as at present, the commodity was then as dear at half the price, as now it is at the whole.

THE coining of money is in all states the act of the sovereign power; for the reason just mentioned, that its value may be known on inspection. And with respect to coinage in general, there are three things to be considered therein; the materials, the impression, and the denomination.

WITH regard to the materials, Sir Edward Coke lays it down,115 that the money of England must either be of gold or silver; and none other was ever issued by the royal authority till 1672, when copper farthings and half-pence were coined by king Charles the second, and ordered by proclamation to be current in all payments, under the value of six-pence, and not otherwise. But this copper coin is not upon the same footing with the other in many respects, particularly with regard to the offense of counterfeiting it. As to the impression, the stamping thereof is the unquestionable prerogative of the crown: for, though diverse bishops and monasteries had formerly the privilege of coining money, yet, as Sir Matthew Hale observes,116 this was usually done by special grant from the king, or by prescription which supposes one; and therefore was derived from, and not in derogation of, the royal prerogative. Besides that they had only the profit of the coinage, and not the power of instituting either the impression or denomination; but had usually the stamp sent them from the exchequer.

THE denomination, or the value for which the coin is to pass current, is likewise in the breast of the king; and, if any unusual pieces are coined, that value must be ascertained by proclamation. In order to fix the value, the weight, and the fineness of the metal are to be taken into consideration together. When a given weight of gold or silver is of a given fineness, it is then of the true standard, and called sterling metal; a name for which there are various reasons given,117 but none of them entirely satisfactory. And of this sterling metal all the coin of the kingdom must be made by the statute 25 Edw. III. c. 13. So that the king’s prerogative seems not to extend to the debasing or enhancing the value of the coin, below or above the sterling value:118 though Sir Matthew Hale appears to be of another opinion.119 The king may also, by his proclamation, legitimate foreign coin, and make it current here: declaring at what value it shall be taken in payments.120 But this, I apprehend, ought to be by comparison with the standard of our own coin; otherwise the consent of parliament will be necessary. There is at present no such legitimated money; Portugal coin being only current by private consent, so that any one who pleases may refuse to take it in payment. The king may also at any time decry, or cry down, any coin of the kingdom, and make it no longer current.121

VI. THE king is, lastly, considered by the laws of England as the head and supreme governor of the national church.

TO enter into the reasons upon which this prerogative is founded is matter rather of divinity than of law. I shall therefore only observe that by statute 26 Hen. VIII. c. 1. (reciting that the king’s majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the church of England; and so had been recognized by the clergy of this kingdom in their convocation) it is enacted, that the king shall be reputed the only supreme head in earth of the church of England, and shall have, annexed to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the titles and stile thereof, as all jurisdictions, authorities, and commodities, to the said dignity of supreme head of the church appertaining. And another statute to the same purport was made, 1 Eliz. c. 1.

IN virtue of this authority the king convenes, prorogues, restrains, regulates, and dissolves all ecclesiastical synods or convocations. This was an inherent prerogative of the crown, long before the time of Henry VIII, as appears by the statute 8 Hen. VI. c. 1. and the many authors, both lawyers and historians, vouched by Sir Edward Coke.122 So that the statute 25 Hen. VIII. c. 19. which restrains the convocation from making or putting in execution any canons repugnant to the king’s prerogative, or the laws, customs, and statutes of the realm, was merely declaratory of the old common law: that part of it only being new, which makes the king’s royal assent actually necessary to the validity of every canon. The convocation or ecclesiastical synod, in England, differs considerably in its constitution from the synods of other Christian kingdoms: those consisting wholly of bishops; whereas with us the convocation is the miniature of a parliament, wherein the archbishop presides with regal state; the upper house of bishops represents the house of lords; and the lower house, composed of representative of the several dioceses at large, and of each particular chapter therein, resembles the house of commons with its knights of the shire and burgesses.123 This constitution is said to be owing to the policy of Edward I; who thereby at one and the same time let in the inferior clergy to the privilege of forming ecclesiastical canons, (which before they had not) and also introduced a method of taxing ecclesiastical benefices, by consent of convocation.124

FROM this prerogative also of being the head of the church arises the king’s right of nomination to vacant bishoprics, and certain other ecclesiastical preferments; which will better be considered when we come to treat of the clergy. I shall only here observe, that this is now done in consequence of the statute 25 Hen. VIII. c. 20.

AS head of the church, the king is likewise the dernier resort in all ecclesiastical causes; an appeal lying ultimately to him in chancery from the sentence of every ecclesiastical judge: which right was restored to the crown by statute 25 Hen. VIII. c. 19. as will more fully be shown hereafter.


Blackstone’s Footnotes (Tucker’s notes not yet added)

     1.    chap. 1. page 137.
     2.    Dewes. 479.
     3.    Ibid. 645.
     4.    King James’s works. 557, 531.
     5.    Finch. L. 84, 85.
     6.    Bract. l. 3. tr. 1. c. 9.
     7.    Nov. 105 §. 2.
     8.    Ff. 32. 1. 23.
     9.    Finch. L. 85.
   10.    Peregrix. de jure fisc. l. 1. c. 1. num. 9.
   11.    l. 1. c. 8.
   12.    Seld. tit. of hon. 1. 2.
   13.    Rex allegavit, quod ipse omnes libertates haberet in regno suo, quas imperator vindicabat in imperio. (M. Paris, A. D. 1095.)
   14.    Finch. L. 83.
   15.    Finch. L. 255.
   16.    Law of N. and N. 1. 8. c. 10.
   17.    on Gov. p. 2. §. 205.
   18.    Plowd. 487.
   19.    Com. Journ. 18 Nov. 1685.
   20.    Com. Journ. 4 Dec. 1717.
   21.    Finch. L. 82. Co. Litt. 90 b.
   22.    Finch. L. 82.
   23.    Co. Litt. 43.
   24.    The methods of appointing this guardian or regent have been so various, and the duration of his power so uncertain, that from thence alone it may be collected that his office is unknown to the common law; and therefore (as Sir Edward Coke says, 4 Inst. 58.) the surest way is to have him made by authority of the great council in parliament. The earl of Pembroke by his own authority assumed, in very troublesome times, the regency of Henry III, who was then only nine years old; but was declared of full age by the pope at seventeen, confirmed the great charter at eighteen, and took upon him the administration of the government at twenty. A guardian and council of regency were named for Edward III, by the parliament which deposed his father; the young king being them fifteen, and not assuming the government till three years after. When Richard II succeeded at the age of eleven, the duke of Lancaster took upon him the management of the kingdom, till the parliament met, which appointed a nominal council to assist him. Henry V on his death-bed named a regent and a guardian for his infant son Henry VI, then nine months old: but the parliament altered his disposition, and appointed a protector and council, with a special limited authority. Both these princes remained in a state of pupilage till the age of twenty three. Edward V, at the age of thirteen, was recommended by his father to the care of the duke of Gloucester; who was declared protector by the privy council. The statutes 25 Hen. VIII. c. 12. and 28 Hen. VIII. c. 7. provided, that the successor, if a male and under eighteen, or if a female and under sixteen, should be till such age in the governance of his or her natural mother, (if approved by the king) and such other counselors as his majesty should by will or otherwise appoint: and he accordingly appointed his sixteen executors to have the government of is son, Edward VI, and the kingdom; which executors elected the earl of Hertford protector. The statute 24 Geo. II. c. 24. in case the crown should
descend to any of the children of Frederick late prince of Wales under the age of eighteen, appoints the princess dowager; and that of 5 Geo. III. c. 27. in case of a like descent to any of his present majesty’s children, empowers the king to name either the queen, the princess dowager, or any descendant of king George II residing in this kingdom; to be guardian and regent, till the successor attains such age, assisted by a council of regency: the powers of them all being expressly defined and set down in the several acts.
   25.    Plowd. 177. 234.
   26.    M. 49 Hen. VI. pl. 1 8.
   27.    Orig. 1. §. 105.
   28.    on Gov. 2. §. 166.
   29.    4 Inst. 152.
   30.    As was done with count Gyllenberg the Swedish minister to Great Britain, A. D. 1716.
   31.    Sp. L. 26. 21.
   32.    Van Leeuwen in Ff. 50. 7. 17. Barbeyrac’s Puf. 1. 8. c. 9. & 17. Van Bynkershoek de foro legator. c. 17, 18, 19.
   33.    1 Roll. Rep. 175. 3 Bulstr. 27.
   34.    4 Inst. 153.
   35.    1 Roll. Rep. 185.
   36.    Foster’s reports. 188.
   37.    Securitas legatorum utilitati quae ex poena est praeponderat. De jur. b. & p. 2. 18. 4. 4.
   38.    4 Inst, 153.
   39.    21 July. 1708. Boyer’s annals of queen Anne.
   40.    25 July. 1708. ibid.
   41.    25, 29 Jul. 1708. ibid.
   42.    23 Oct. 1708. ibid.
   43.    14 Feb. 1708. ibid.
   44.    17 Sept. 1708. ibid.
   45.    11 Jan. 1708. ibid. Mod. Un. Hist. xxxv. 454.
   46.    Com. journ. 1708.
   47.    21 Apr. 1709. Boyer, ibid.
   48.    Mr. Whitworth.
   49.    8 Jan. 1709. Boyer, ibid.
   50.    7 Ann. c. 12.
   51.    Saepe quaesitum est an comitum numero et jure habendi sunt, qui legatum comitantur, non ut instructior fiat legatio, sed unicè ut lucro suo consulant, institores forte et mercatores. Et quamvis hos saepe defenderint et comitum loco habere voluerint legati, apparet tamen satis eo non pertinere, qui in legati legationisve officio non sunt. Quum autem ea res nonnunquam turban dederit, optimo exemplo in quibusdam aulis olim receptum fuit, ut legatus teneretur exhibere nomenclaturam comitum suorum. Van Bynkersh. c. 15. propc finem.
   52.    Fitzg. 200. Stra. 797.
   53.    Puf. L. of N. b. 8. c. 9. §. 6.
   54.    Puf. l. 8. c. 6. §. 8. and Barbeyr. in loc.
   55.    Ff. 50. 16. 118.
   56.    de jur. b. & p. l. 3. c. 3. §. 11.
   57.    Grot. de jur. b. & p. l. 3. c. 2. §. 4 & 5.
   58.    See the account given by Nestor, in the eleventh book of the Iliad, of the reprisals made by himself on the Epeian nation; from whom he took a multitude of cattle, as a satisfaction for a prize won at the Elian games by his father Neleus, and for debts due to many private subjects of the Pylian kingdom: our of which booty the king took three hundred head of cattle for his own demand, and the rest were equitably divided among the other creditors.
   59.    Law of N. and N. b. 3. c. 3. §. 9.
   60.    15 Hen. VI. c. 3. 18 Hen. VI. c. 8. 30 Hen. VI. c. 1.
   61.    c. 30.
   62.    de jure Suton. l. 2. c. 4.
   63.    Sp. L. 20. 13.
   64.    Sp. L. 20. 6.
   65.    Nobiliores natalibus, et honorum luce conspicuos, et patrimonio ditiores, perniciosum urbibus mercimonium exercere prohibemus. C. 4. 63. 3.
   66.    Homo mercator vix aut nunquam potest Deo placere: et ideo nullus Christianus debet esse mercator; aut si voluerit esse, projiciatur de ecclesia Dei. Decret. 1. 88. 11.
   67.    Falsa fit poenitentia cum penitus ab officio curiali vel negotiali non recedit, quae sine peccatis agi ulla ratione non praevalet. Act. Concil. Apud Baron. c. 16.
   68.    ch. 2. pag. 149.
   69.    11 Rep. 74 b.
   70.    11 Rep. 71.
   71.    7 Rep. 32.
   72.    2 Inst. 30.
   73.    Cowel’s interpr. tit, casteilorum operatio. Seld. Fan. Angl. 1. 42.
   74.    2 Inst. 31.
   75.    1 Inst. 5.
   76.    2 Feud. t. 56. Crag. 1. 15. 15.
   77.    F. N. B. 113.
   78.    Dav. 9. 56.
   79.    Madox hist. exch. 530.
   80.    4 Inst. 148.
   81.    3 Inst. 204. 4. Inst. 148.
   82.    Rot. Clauf. 1 Ric. II. m. 42. Pryn. on. 4 Inst. 136.
   83.    1 Sid. 158. r. Inst. 149.
   84.    F. N. B. 85.
   85.    c. 123.
   86.    3 Inst. 175.
   87.    5 Ric. II. c. 2.
   88.    1 Hawk. P. C. 22.
   89.    Ad hoc autem creatus est et electus, ut justitiam faciat universis. Bract. l. 3. tr. 1. c. 9.
   90.    2 Hawk. P. C. 2.
   91.    Ld Raym. 747.
   92.    Com. Journ. 3 Mar. 1761.
   93.    Stiernh. de jure Goth. l. 3. c. 3. A notion somewhat similar to this may be found in the mirrour. c. 1. §. 5.
   94.    Fortesc. c. 8. 2 Inst. 186.
   95.    Co. Litt. 139.
   96.    Finch. L. 81.
   97.    3 Inst. 162.
   98.    4 Mod. 177, 179.
   99.    Stat. 1 Edw. VI. c. 12.
   100.    2 Inst. 533.
   101.    4 Inst. 361.
   102.     Disputare de principali judicio non oportet; sacrilegii enim instar est, dubitare an is dignus sit quem eligerit imperator. C. 9. 29. 3.
   103.    Co. Litt. 172. Ld Raym. 181. 1542.
   104.    2 Inst. 220.
   105.    Gr. Coustum. C. 16.
   106.    cap. 8.
   107.    William of Malmfb. in vita hen. I. Spelm. Hen. I. ap. Wilkins. 299.
   108.    Hoved. Matth. Paris.
   109.    Hoved. A. d. 1201.
   110.    9 Hen. III. c. 25.
   111.    Plac. 35 Edw. I. apud Cowel’s Interpr. tit. pondus regis.
   112.    Flet. 2. 12.
   113.    14 Edw. III. St. 1. c. 12. 25 Edw. III. St. 5. c. 10. 16 Rip. II. c. 3. 8 Hen. VI. c. 5. 11 Hen. VI. c. 8. 21 Hen. VII. c. 4. 33 Car. II. c. 8.
   114.    2 Inst. 41.
   115.    2 Inst. 577.
   116.    1 hist. P. C. 191.
   117.    Spelm. Gloss. 203.
   118.    2 Inst. 277.
   119.    1 H. P. C. 194.
   120.    Ibid. 197.
   121.    Ibid.
   122.    4 Inst. 322, 323.
   123.    In the diet of Sweden, where the ecclesiastics form one of the branches of the legislature, the chamber of the clergy resembles the convocation of England. It is composed of the bishops and superintendents; and also of deputies, one of which is chosen by every ten parishes or rural deanery. Mod. Un. hist. xxxiii. 18.
   124.    Gilb. hist. of exch. c. 4.