Commentaries on the Laws of England/Of the King's Duties

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Chapter the sixth.

Of the King's Duties.


I Proceed next to the duties, incumbent on the king by our constitution ; in consideration of which duties his dignity and prerogative are established by the laws of the land : it being a maxim in the law, that protection and subjection are reciprocal[1]. And these reciprocal duties are what, I apprehend, were meant by the convention in 1688, when they declared that king James had broken the original contract between king and people. But however, as the terms of that original contract were in some measure disputed, being alleged to exist principally in theory, and to be only deducible by reason and the rules of natural law ; in which deduction different understandings might very considerably differ ; it was, after the revolution, judged proper to declare these duties expressly, and to reduce that contract to a plain certainty. So that, whatever doubts might be formerly raised by weak and scrupulous minds about the existence of such an original contract, they must now entirely cease ; especially with regard to every prince, who hath reigned since the year 1688.

The principal duty of the king is, to govern his people according to law. Nec regibus infinita aut libera potestas, was the constitution of our German ancestors on the continent [2] . And this is not only consonant to the principles of nature, of liberty, of reason, and of society, but has always been esteemed an express part of the common law of England, even when prerogative was at the highest. "The king," saith Bracton [3] , who wrote under Henry III, "ought not to be subject to man, but to God, and to the law ; for the law maketh the king. Let the king therefore render to the law, what the law has invested in him with regard to others ; dominion, and power : for he is not truly king, where will and pleasure rules, and not the law." And again [4] ; "the king also hath a superior, namely God, and also the law, by which he was made a king." Thus Bracton : and Fortescue also[5], having first well distinguished between a monarchy absolutely and despotically regal, which is introduced by conquest and violence, and a political or civil monarchy, which arises from mutual consent ; (of which last species he asserts the government of England to be) immediately lays it down as a principle, that "the king of England must rule his people according to the decrees of the laws thereof: insomuch that he is bound by an oath at his coronation to the observance and keeping of his own laws." But, to obviate all doubts and difficulties concerning this matter, it is expressly declared by statute 12 & 13 W.III. c.2. that "the laws of England are the birthright of the people thereof ; and all the kings and queens who shall ascend the throne of this realm ought to administer the government of the same according to the said laws ; and all their officers and ministers ought to serve them respectively according to the same : and therefore all the laws and statutes of this realm, for securing the established religion, and the rights and liberties of the people thereof, and all other laws and statutes of the same now in force, are by his majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal and commons, and by authority of the same, ratified and confirmed accordingly."

And, as to the terms of the original contract between king and people, these I apprehend to be now couched in the coronation oath, which by the statute 1 W. & M. st. 1. c. 6. is to be administred to every king and queen, who shall succeed to the imperial crown of these realms, by one of the archbishops or bishops of the realm, in the presence of all the people ; who on their parts do reciprocally take the oath of allegiance to the crown. This coronation oath is conceived in the following terms :

"The archbishop or bishop shall say, Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of this kingdom of England, and the dominions thereto belonging, according to the statutes in parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same ? ———The king or queen shall say, I solemnly promise so to do.

"Archbishop or bishop. Will you to your power cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgments ?—— King or queen. I will.

"Archbishop or bishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the gospel, and the protestant reformed religion established by the law ? And will you preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm, and to the churches committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them, or any of them ? —— King or queen. All this I promise to do.

"After this the king or queen, laying his or her hand upon the holy gospel, shall say, The things which I have here before promised I will perform and keep : so help me God. And then shall kiss the book."

This is the form of the coronation oath, as it is now prescribed by our laws : the principal articles of which appear to be at least as antient as the mirror of justices [6] , and even as the time of Bracton [7] : but the wording of it was changed at the revolution, because (as the statute alleges) the oath itself had been framed in doubtful words and expressions, with relation to antient laws and constitutions at this time unknown [8] . However, in what form soever it be conceived, this is most indisputably a fundamental and original express contract ; though doubtless the duty of protection is impliedly as much incumbent on the sovereign before coronation as after : in the same manner as allegiance to the king becomes the duty of the subject immediately on the descent of the crown, before he has taken the oath of allegiance, or whether he ever takes it at all. This reciprocal duty of the subject will be considered in it's proper place. At present we are only to observe, that in the king's part of this original contract are expressed all the duties that a monarch can owe to his people; viz. to govern according to law : to execute judgment in mercy: and to maintain the established religion. And, with respect to the latter of these three branches, we may farther remark, that by the act of union, 5 Ann. c.8. two preceding statutes are recited and confirmed ; the one of the parliament of Scotland, the other of the parliament of England : which enact; the former, that every king at his accession shall take and subscribe an oath, to preserve the protestant religion and presbyterian church government in Scotland ; the latter, that at his coronation he shall take and subscribe a similar oath, to preserve the settlement of the church of England within England, Ireland, Wales, and Berwick, and the territories thereunto belonging.


  1. 7 Rep. 5.
  2. Tac. de mer. Germ. c. 7.
  3. l. 1. c. 8.
  4. l. 2. c. 16. §. 3.
  5. c. 9 & 34.
  6. cap. I. §. 2.
  7. l. 3. tr. 1. c. 9.
  8. In the old folio abridgment of the statutes, printed by Lettou and Machlinia in the reign of Edward IV, (penes me) there is preserved a copy of the old coronation oath ; which, as the book is extremely scarce, I will here transcribe. Ceo est le serement que le roy jurre a soun coronement : que il gardera et meintenera lez droitez et lez franchisez de saynt esglise grauntez auncienment dez droitez roys christiens dEngletere, et quil gardera toutez sez terrez honoures et dignities droiturelx et franks del coron du roialme d Engletere en tout maner dentierte fanz null maner damenusement, et lez droitez dispergez dilapidez ou perdux de la corone a soun poiair reappeller en launcien estate, et quil gardera le peas de seynt esglise et al clergie et al people de bon accorde, et quil face faire en toutez sez jugementez owel et droit justice oue discrecion et misericorde, et quil grauntera a tenure lez leyes et custumez da roialme, et a soun poiair lez face garder et affermer que lez gentez du people avont faitez et estiez, et les malveys leyz et custumes de tout oustera, et ferme peas et establie al people de soun roialme en ceo garde esgardera a soun poiair : come Dieu luy aide. Tit. sacramentum regis. fol. m. ij.