Petition of Right (1628)

The first major English constitutional document since Magna Carta, the Petition of Right grew out of problems raised by England’s war with France in 1627. The Crown, short of money, dredged up soldiers from the scum of society and then forced private citizens to quarter them in their homes. The soldiers misbehaved terribly in the homes and in the streets, and when the government, trying to restore order, imposed martial law in port towns, proud merchants appealed to their allies in Parliament for relief against Charles I.

The petition was entirely a work of Parliament, but technically it was neither a statute nor strictly legislative. Its authors, fearing a royal veto if it were presented as a bill, used the form employed by individuals seeking special royal grace for the redress of specific grievances. Its drafters also insisted that no new rights were claimed, only that old ones were recognized. Fairly brief, it had only four sections, all of which dealt with royal power and phrased in the negative: No person should be required to pay a tax without parliamentary approval; no person should be imprisoned without cause being shown (and the royal command did not amount to sufficient cause); no troops should be quartered in private homes without the consent of and compensation to the owner; and the Crown could issue no commissions for proceedings by martial law.

Hard-strapped for cash to carry on his war, Charles I had little choice but to agree, but gave his assent in the phrase common to individual requests, ‘‘Soit droit fait,’’ rather than the legislative ‘‘Le roi le vault.’’ Despite this matter of form, the Petition of Right has come to be regarded as a statute and an essential part of the English Constitution.

MELVIN I. UROFSKY

References and Further Reading

  • Lovell, Colin Rhys. English Constitutional and Legal History: A Survey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

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