Of the Laws of England (William Blackstone)


“Of the Laws of England,” Excerpt 


By William Blackstone

[Blackstone, William. “Of the Laws of England.” Commentaries on the Laws of England. Volume 1. 1753. Reprint, Philadelphia: J. Lippincott Co. 1893. Introduction, Section III. The Online Library of Liberty. Used with permission of the Online Library of Liberty.] Several footnotes have been omitted.


The municipal law of England, or the rule of civil conduct prescribed to the inhabitants of this kingdom, may with sufficient propriety be divided into two kinds: the lex non scripta, the unwritten, or common law; and the lex scripta, the written, or statute law.

The lex non scripta, or unwritten law, includes not only general customs, or the common law properly so called; but also the particular customs of certain parts of the kingdom; and likewise those particular laws, that are by custom observed only in certain courts and jurisdictions.

When I call these parts of our law leges non scriptæ [“unwritten laws”], I would not be understood as if all those laws were at present merely oral, or communicated from the former ages to the present solely by word of mouth. It is true indeed that, in the profound ignorance of letters, which formerly overspread the whole western world, all laws were entirely traditional, for this plain reason, because the nations among which they prevailed had but little idea of writing. Thus the British as well as the Gallic Druids committed all their laws as well as learning to memory;[1] and it is said of the primitive Saxons here, as well as their brethren on the continent, that leges sola memoria et usu retinebant[2] [“they retained their laws only by memory and use”]. But, with us at present, the monuments and evidences of our legal customs are contained in the records of the several courts of justice in books of [-64-] reports and judicial decisions, and in the treatises of learned sages of the profession, preserved and handed down to us from the times of highest antiquity. However, I therefore style these parts of our law leges non scriptæ [“unwritten laws”], because their original institution and authority are not set down in writing, as acts of parliament are, but they receive their binding power, and the force of laws, by long and immemorial usage, and by their universal reception throughout the kingdom. In like manner as Aulus Gellius defines the jus non scriptum [“unwritten law”] to be that, which is “tacito et illiterato hominum consensu et moribus expressum” [“expressed by the silent and unwritten consent and customs of men”].

Our ancient lawyers, and particularly Fortescue,[3] insist with abundance of warmth that these customs are as old as the primitive Britons, and continued down through the several mutations of government and inhabitants, to the present time, unchanged and unadulterated. This may be the case as to some; but in general, as Mr. Selden in his notes observes, this assertion must be understood with many grains of allowance; and ought only to signify, as the truth seems to be, that there never was any formal exchange of one system of laws for another; though doubtless, by the intermixture of adventitious nations, the Romans, the Picts, the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans, they must have insensibly introduced and incorporated many of their own customs with those that were before established; thereby, in all probability, improving the texture and wisdom of the whole by the accumulated wisdom of divers particular countries. Our laws, saith Lord Bacon, are mixed as our language; and, as our language is so much the richer, the laws are the more complete.

And indeed our antiquaries and early historians do all positively assure us, that our body of laws is of this compounded nature. For they tell us that in the time of Alfred the local customs of the several provinces of the kingdom were grown so various, that he found it expedient to compile his Dome-Book, or Liber Judicialis [“Judicial Book”], for the general use of the whole kingdom. [-65-] This book is said to have been extant so late as the reign of King Edward the Fourth, but is now unfortunately lost. It contained, we may probably suppose, the principal maxims of the common law, the penalties for misdemeanors, and the forms of judicial proceedings. Thus much may at least be collected from that injunction to observe it, which we find in the laws of king Edward the elder, the son of Alfred. “Omnibus qui reipublicæ præsunt etiam atque etiam mando, ut omnibus æquos se præbeant judices, perinde ac in judiciali libro (Saxonice, dom-bec) scriptum habetur: nec quicquam formident quin jus commune (Saxonice, folcrihte) audacter libereque dicant” [‘I urgently command all who preside over the commonwealth, that judges show themselves fair to all, hence moreover in the Book of Judgment (in Saxon, Dome-Book) it is written: ‘nor let anyone be afraid to declare the common law (in Saxon, folkright) boldly and freely.’”]

But the irruption and establishment of the Danes in England, which followed soon after, introduced new customs, and caused this code of Alfred in many provinces to fall into disuse, or at least to be mixed and debased with other laws of a coarser alloy; so that about the beginning of the eleventh century there were three principal systems of laws prevailing in different districts. . . .

[-66-] Out of these three laws, Roger Hoveden and Ranulphus Cestrensis inform us, king Edward the confessor extracted one uniform law, or digest of laws, to be observed throughout the whole kingdom. . . . And indeed a general digest of the same nature has been constantly found expedient, and therefore put in practice by other great nations, which were formed from an assemblage of little provinces, governed by peculiar customs, as in Portugal, under king Edward, about the beginning of the fifteenth century: in Spain under Alonzo X., who, about the year 1250, executed the plan of his father St. Ferdinand, and collected all the provincial customs into one uniform law, in the celebrated code entitled Las Partidas: and in Sweden, about the same era, when a universal body of common law was compiled out of the particular customs established by the laghman (“lawman”) of every province, and entitled the land’s lagh, being analogous to the common law of England.

Both these undertakings of king Edgar and Edward the confessor seem to have been no more than a new edition, or fresh promulgation, of Alfred’s code or dome-book, with such additions and improvements as the experience of a century and a half had suggested; for Alfred is generally styled by the same historians the legum Anglicanarum conditor [“founder of the laws of the English”], as Edward the confessor is the restitutor [“restorer”]. These, however, are the laws which our histories so often mention under the name of the laws of Edward the confessor, which our ancestors struggled so hardly to maintain, under the first princes of the Norman line; and which subsequent princes so frequently promised to keep and restore, as the most popular act they could do, when pressed by foreign emergencies or domestic discontents. These are the laws that so vigorously withstood [-67-] the repeated attacks of the civil law, which established in the twelfth century a new Roman empire over most of the states of the continent; states that have lost, and perhaps upon that account, their political liberties: while the free constitution of England, perhaps upon the same account, has been rather improved than debased. These, in short, are the laws which gave rise and original to that collection of maxims and customs which is now known by the name of the common law; a name either given to it in contradistinction to other laws, as the statute law, the civil law, the law merchant, and the like; or, more probably, as a law common to all the realm, the jus commune, or folkright, mentioned by king Edward the elder, after the abolition of the several provincial customs and particular laws before mentioned.

But though this is the most likely foundation of this collection of maxims and customs, yet the maxims and customs, so collected, are of higher antiquity than memory or history can reach, nothing being more difficult than to ascertain the precise beginning and first spring of an ancient and long established custom. Whence it is that in our law the goodness of a custom depends upon its having been used time out of mind; or, in the solemnity of our legal phrase, time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. This it is that gives it its weight and authority: and of this nature are the maxims and customs which compose the common law, or lex non scripta, of this kingdom.

This unwritten, or common, law is properly distinguishable into three kinds: 1. General customs; which are the universal rule of the whole kingdom, and form the common law, in its stricter and more usual signification. 2. Particular customs; which, for the most part, affect only the inhabitants of particular districts. 3. Certain particular laws; which, by custom, are adopted and used by some particular courts, of pretty general and extensive jurisdiction.

[-68-] I. As to general customs, or the common law, properly so called; this is that law, by which proceedings and determinations in the king’s ordinary courts of justice are guided and directed. This, for the most part, settles the course in which lands descend by inheritance; the manner and form of acquiring and transferring property; the solemnities and obligation of contracts; the rules of expounding wills, deeds, and acts of parliament; the respective remedies of civil injuries; the several species of temporal offences, with the manner and degree of punishment; and an infinite number of minuter particulars, which diffuse themselves as extensively as the ordinary distribution of common justice requires. Thus, for example, that there shall be four superior courts of record, the Chancery, the King’s Bench, the Common Pleas, and the Exchequer;—that the eldest son alone is heir to his ancestor;—that property may be acquired and transferred by writing;—that a deed is of no validity unless sealed and delivered;—that wills shall be construed more favourably, and deeds more strictly;—that money lent upon bond is recoverable by action of debt;—that breaking the public peace is an offence, and punishable by fine and imprisonment:—all these are doctrines that are not set down in any written statute or ordinance, but depend merely upon immemorial usage, that is, upon common law, for their support.

Some have divided the common law into two principal grounds or foundations: 1. Established customs; such as that, where there are three brothers, the eldest brother shall be heir to the second, in exclusion of the youngest: and 2. Established rules and maxims; as, “that the king can do no wrong, that no man shall be bound to accuse himself,” and the like. But I take these to be one and the same thing. For the authority of these maxims rests entirely upon general reception and usage: and the only method of proving, that this or that maxim is a rule of the common law, is by showing that it hath been always the custom to observe it.

[-69-] But here a very natural, and very material, question arises: how are these customs or maxims to be known, and by whom is their validity to be determined? The answer is, by the judges in the several courts of justice. They are the depositaries of the laws; the living oracles, who must decide in all cases of doubt, and who are bound by an oath to decide according to the law of the land. The knowledge of that law is derived from experience and study; from the “viginti annorum lucubrationes,” [“the nighttime labors of twenty years”] which Fortescue[4] mentions; and from being long personally accustomed to the judicial decisions of their predecessors. And indeed these judicial decisions are the principal and most authoritative evidence, that can be given, of the existence of such a custom as shall form a part of the common law. The judgment itself, and all the proceedings previous thereto, are carefully registered and preserved, under the name of records, in public repositories set apart for that particular purpose; and to them frequent recourse is had, when any critical question arises, in the determination of which former precedents may give light or assistance. And therefore, even so early as the conquest, we find the “præteritorum memoria eventorum” [“the memory of past events”] reckoned up as one of the chief qualifications of those, who were held to be “legibus patriæ optime instituti[5] [“best instructed in the laws of the country”]  For it is an established rule to abide by former precedents, where the same points come again in litigation: as well to keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinion; as also because the law in that case being solemnly declared and determined, what before was uncertain, and perhaps indifferent, is now become a permanent rule, which it is not in the breast of any subsequent judge to alter or vary from according to his private sentiments: he being sworn to determine, not according to his own private judgement, but according to the known laws and customs of the land; not delegated to pronounce a new law, but to maintain and expound the old one. Yet this rule admits of exception, where the former determination is most evidently contrary to reason; [-70-] much more if it be clearly contrary to the divine law. But even in such cases the subsequent judges do not pretend to make a new law, but to vindicate the old one from misrepresentation. For if it be found that the former decision is manifestly absurd or unjust, it is declared, not that such a sentence was bad law, but that it was not law; that is, that it is not the established custom of the realm, as has been erroneously determined. And hence it is that our lawyers are with justice so copious in their encomiums on the reason of the common law; that they tell us, that the law is the perfection of reason, that it always intends to conform thereto, and that what is not reason is not law. Not that the particular reason of every rule in the law can at this distance of time be always precisely assigned; but it is sufficient that there be nothing in the rule flatly contradictory to reason, and then the law will presume it to be well founded.[6] And it hath been an ancient observation in the laws of England, that whenever a standing rule of law of which the reason perhaps could not be remembered or discerned, hath been wantonly broken in upon by statutes or new resolutions, the wisdom of the rule hath in the end appeared from the inconveniences that have followed the innovation.

The doctrine of the law then is this: that precedents and rules must be followed, unless flatly absurd or unjust; for though their reason be not obvious at first view, yet we owe such a deference to former times as not to suppose that they acted wholly without consideration. To illustrate this doctrine by examples. It has been determined, time out of mind, that a brother of the half blood shall never succeed as heir to the estate of his half-brother, but it shall rather escheat to the king or other superior lord. Now this is a positive law, fixed and established by custom, which custom is evidenced by judicial decisions, and therefore can never be departed from by any modern judge without a breach of his oath and [-71-] the law. For herein there is nothing repugnant to natural justice; though the artificial reason of it, drawn from the feudal law, may not be quite obvious to everybody. And therefore, though a modern judge, on account of a supposed hardship upon the half-brother, might wish it had been otherwise settled, yet it is not in his power to alter it. But if any court were now to determine, that an elder brother of the half blood might enter upon and seize any lands that were purchased by his younger brother, no subsequent judges would scruple to declare that such prior determination was unjust, was unreasonable, and therefore was not law. So that the law, and the opinion of the judge, are not always convertible terms, or one and the same thing; since it sometimes may happen that the judge may mistake the law. Upon the whole, however, we may take it as a general rule, “that the decisions of courts of justice are the evidence of what is common law:” in the same manner as, in the civil law, what the emperor had once determined was to serve for a guide for the future.

The decisions therefore of courts are held in the highest regard, and are not only preserved as authentic records in the treasuries of the several courts, but are handed out to public view in the numerous volumes of reports which furnish the lawyer’s library. These reports are histories of the several cases, with a short summary of the proceedings, which are preserved at large in the record; the arguments on both sides, and the reasons the court gave for its judgment; taken down in short notes by persons present at the determination. And these serve as indexes to, and also to explain the records, which always, in matters of consequence and nicety, the judges direct to be searched. The reports are extant in a regular series from the reign of king Edward the Second inclusive; and from this time to that of Henry the [-72-] Eighth, were taken by the prothonotaries, or chief scribes of the court, at the expense of the crown, and published annually, whence they are known under the denomination of the year books. And it is much to be wished that this beneficial custom had, under proper regulations, been continued to this day; for, though king James the First, at the instance of Lord Bacon, appointed two reporters with a handsome stipend for this purpose, yet that wise institution was soon neglected, and from the reign of Henry the Eighth to the present time this task has been executed by many private and contemporary hands; who sometimes through haste and inaccuracy, sometimes through mistake and want of skill, have published very crude and imperfect (perhaps contradictory) accounts of one and the same determination. Some of the most valuable of the ancient reports are those published by Lord Chief-Justice Coke; a man of infinite learning in his profession, though not a little infected with the pedantry and quaintness of the times he lived in, which appear strongly in all his works. However, his writings are so highly esteemed, that they are generally cited without the author’s name.

Besides these reporters, there are also other authors, to whom great veneration and respect is paid by the students of the common law. Such are Glanvil and Bracton, Britton and Fleta, Hengham and Littleton, Statham, Brooke, Fitzherbert, and Staundforde, with some others of ancient date; whose treatises are cited as authority, and are evidence that cases have formerly happened in which such and such points were determined, which are now become settled and first principles. One of the last of these methodical writers in point of time, whose works are of any intrinsic authority in the courts of justice, and do not entirely depend on the strength of their quotations from older authors, is the [-73-] same learned judge we have just mentioned, Sir Edward Coke; who hath written four volumes of institutes, as he is pleased to call them, though they have little of the institutional method to warrant such a title. The first volume is a very extensive comment upon a little excellent treatise of tenures, compiled by Judge Littleton in the reign of Edward the Fourth. This comment is a rich mine of valuable common law learning, collected and heaped together from the ancient reports and year books, but greatly defective in method. The second volume is a comment upon many old acts of parliament, without any systematical order; the third a more methodical treatise of the pleas of the crown; and the fourth an account of the several species of courts.

And thus much for the first ground and chief corner-stone of the laws of England, which is general immemorial custom, or common law, from time to time declared in the decisions of the courts of justice; which decisions are preserved among our public records, explained in our reports, and digested for general use in the authoritative writings of the venerable sages of the law.

The Roman law, as practised in the times of its liberty, paid also a great regard to custom; but not so much as our law: it only then adopting it, when the written law was deficient. Though the reasons alleged in the digest will fully justify our practice, in making it of equal authority with, when it is not contradicted by, the written law. “For since, (says Julianus,) the written law binds us for no other reason but because it is approved by the judgment of the people, therefore those laws which the people have approved without writing ought also to bind everybody. For where is the difference, whether the people declare their [-74-] assent to a law by suffrage, or by a uniform course of acting accordingly?” Thus did they reason while Rome had some remains of her freedom; but, when the imperial tyranny came to be fully established, the civil laws speak a very different language. “Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem, cum populus ei et in eum omne suum imperium et potestatem conferat,” [“What has pleased the princeps (Caesar) has the force of law, because the people confers all its command and authority to him and onto him”] says Ulpian.[7]Imperator solus et conditor et interpres legis existimatur,” [“The emperor alone is thought to be both the founder and interpreter of the law”] says the code.[8] And again, “sacrilegii instar est rescripto principis obviari” [“it is like a sacrilege for the decree of the princeps (Caesar) to be impeded”].[9] And indeed it is one of the characteristic marks of English liberty, that our common law depends upon custom; which carries this internal evidence of freedom along with it, that it probably was introduced by the voluntary consent of the people.

[Sections II and III, on particular customs, Roman law, and canon law are omitted]

[1] Julius Caesar, On the Gallic Wars, Book 6, chapter 13.

[2] Sir Henry Spelman, Glossary, 362.

[3] Sir John Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliae [In Praise of the Laws of England], Chapter 17.

[4] Ibid., Chapter 8.

[5] Selden, History of Tithes, Chapter 8.

[6] Herein agreeing with the civil law, Ff. 1, 3, 20, 21: “Non omnium, quæ a majoribus nostris constituta sunt, ratio reddi potest. Et ideo rationes eorum, quæ constituuntur, inquiri non oportet: alioquin multa ex his, quæ certa sunt, subvertuntur.” [“One cannot give the reason for all the things that were established by our ancestors. And therefore the reasons for those things that have been established must not be sought after: otherwise many of those things that are certain [will be] overturned.” –Site Editor]

[7] Justinian, The Digest [or Pandects] [of Roman Law], 1.4.1.

[8] Ibid., 1.14.12.

[9] Ibid., 1.23.5.

Original Author Sort: 
Blackstone, William