Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Praemunire Definition:

An offence initially to prefer the Pope or his authority as against the King of England or Parliament, but later included a wide assortment of offenses against the King and always leading to serious penalties.

As the kings of England struggled to assert their sovereignty against a Roman Catholic Pope who spoke no less than on behalf of God, the statute drafters rose to the occasion.

At first, Animal Farm-like, the intentions were laudable: to strike against a foreign power (the Church was based in Italy) which was flexing its muscle even within England.

William Blackstone referred to the offense as

"... introducing a foreign power into this land (England) and creating a (government within a government) by paying that obedience to papal process which constitutionally belonged to the king alone ...."

The first salvos were clearly aimed at the Pope and included:

  • Asking the Vatican or "Rome" for a dispensation;
  • If the British Church authorities refused to appoint the King's delegate to a Church post;
  • To refuse to take an oath that the King was supreme; and
  • To import Roman Catholic relics such as "crosses" and "beads".

The penalty for any person convicted of praemunire were severe and included imprisonment at the King's pleasure and forfeiture of all property to the King. Even stalwarts such as Sir Thomas More fell.

A person with no less standing that Edward Coke himself issued a legal opinion that it was a complete defence to murder to prove that the victim was guilty of praemunire.

Even as late as 1756, Blackstone stated that the common law was such that a person convicted of praemunire:

".. such a delinquent ... can bring no action for any private injury, how atrocious soever, being so far out of the protection of the law that it will not guard his civil rights nor remedy any grievance which he as an individual may suffer. And no man knowing him guilty (of preamunire) can with safety give him comfort, aid or relief."

Once the Kings were given this powerful and lucrative statute, they quickly began adding offenses such that preamunire was no longer directed only at curtailing the political or other influence of the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope in England, but to protect the person and property of the King.... or anything else that came to mind(!) such as:

  • Acting as a broker in a loan contract where the rate of interest was greater than 10%;
  • To assert a gunpowder or firearm monopoly;
  • To publicly state that Parliament may act without the Kng's authority; and
  • To refuse, upon reaching the age of 18, to take an oath of allegiance to the King.

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