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Sir Edward Coke declares that your house is your “Castle and Fortress” (1604)

The English judge and jurist Sir Edward Coke (pronounced cook) (1552-1634) declared in a ruling known as Semayne’s Case that there were strict limits on how Sheriffs may enter a person’s house in order to issue writs:

That the house of every one is to him as his Castle and Fortress as well for defence against injury and violence, as for his repose; and although the life of man is precious and favoured in law; so that although a man kill another in his defence, or kill one per infortuntun’ (by misfortune), without any intent, yet it is felony, and in such case he shall forfeit his goods and chattels, for the great regard which the law hath of a mans life; But if theeves come to a mans house to rob him, or murder, and the owner or his servants kill any of the theeves in defence of himself and his house, it is no felony, and he shall lose nothing, and therewith agreeth 3 Edw. 3. Coron. 303, & 305. & 26 Ass. pl. 23. So it is holden in 21 Hen. 7. 39. every one may assemble his friends or neighbours to defend his house against violence: But he cannot assemble them to goe with him to the Market or elsewhere to keep him from violence: And the reason of all the same is, because domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium. [everyone’s house is his safest refuge (“Every man’s home is his castle.”)]

In an Action on the Case by Peter Semayne, Plaintiff, and Richard Gresham, Defendant, the Case was such; The Plaintiff and one George Berisford were Joynt-tenants of a house in Black Friars in London for years. George Berisford acknowledged a Recognizance in the nature of a Statute-Staple to the Plaintiff, and being possessed of divers goods in the said house, died, by which the Defendant was possessed of the house by survivorship, in which the goods continued and remained; The Plaintiff sued process of extent upon the Statute to the Sheriffs of London; The Sheriffs returned the conusor dead, uponwhich the Plaintiff had another Writ to extend all the lands which he had at the time of the Statute acknowledged, or any time after, and all his goods which he had at the day of his death; which Writ the Plaintiff delivered to the Sheriffs of London, and told them that divers goods which were the said George Berisford’s goods at the time of his death were in the said house: And thereupon the Sheriffs by virtue of the said Writ, charged a Jury to make enquiry according to the said writ, and the Sheriff and Jury accesserunt ad domum praedictam ostio domus praedict’ aperto existen’ et bonis praedictis in praedicta domo tunc existen’,1 and they offered to enter the said house, to extend the |[91 b] said goods according to the said Writ; And the Defendant, praemissorum non ignarus, intending to disturb the execution, ostio proed’ domus tunc aperto existen’, claudebat [137] contra Vicecom’ & jurator’ praed,’ by which they could not enter, and extend the said goods, nor the Sheriff seize them, by which he lost the benefit and profit of his Writ: And in this Case these points were resolved.

1. That the house of every one is to him as his Castle and Fortress as well for defence against injury and violence, as for his repose; and although the life of man is precious and favoured in law; so that although a man kill another in his defence, or kill one per infortuntun’ (by misfortune), without any intent, yet it is felony, and in such case he shall forfeit his goods and chattels, for the great regard which the law hath of a mans life; But if theeves come to a mans house to rob him, or murder, and the owner or his servants kill any of the theeves in defence of himself and his house, it is no felony, and he shall lose nothing, and therewith agreeth 3 Edw. 3. Coron. 303, & 305. & 26 Ass. pl. 23. So it is holden in 21 Hen. 7. 39. every one may assemble his friends or neighbours to defend his house against violence: But he cannot assemble them to goe with him to the Market or elsewhere to keep him from violence: And the reason of all the same is, because domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium. [everyone’s house is his safest refuge (“Every man’s home is his castle.”)]

5. It was resolved, That the house of any one is not a Castle or privilege [141] but for himself, and shall not extend to protect any person who flieth to his house, or the goods of any other which are brought and conveyed into his house, to prevent a lawful execution, and to escape the ordinary process of Law; for the privilege of his house extends onely to him and his family, and to his own proper goods, or to those which are lawfully and without fraud or covin there; And therefore in such Cases after denial upon request made, the Sheriff may break the house; and that is proved by the Statute of West. 1. c. 17. by which it is declared, That the Sheriff may break a house or Castle to make Replevin, when the goods of another which he hath distrained are by him conveyed to his house or Castle, to prevent the owner to have a Replevin of his goods; which Act is but an affirmance of the Common Law in such points. But it appeareth there, that before the Sheriff in such Case break the house, that he is to require the goods to be delivered to him; for the words of the Statute are, After that the castle shall be solemnly demanded by the Sheriffs &c.

6. It was resolved, admitting that the Sheriff after denial made may break the house, as the Plaintiffs Councel pretend he may, then it followeth that he hath not done his duty, for it doth not appear, that he made any request to open the door of the house. Also the Defendant, as this Case is, hath done that which he may well doe by the Law, scil. to shut the door of his own house.

About this Quotation:

In a famous and much quoted decision from 1604 Coke declared that “the house of every one is to him as his Castle and Fortress as well for defence against injury and violence, as for his repose” which over the years has become simplified to “a man’s home is his castle”. It even became the idea behind an Australian film “The Castle” (1997) directed by Rob Sitch. Coke’s ruling was rather more complex in that did allow for the forcible entry of Sheriffs into a person’s house in order to issue a writ for the return of stolen property or goods that were owed in a debt. However, the Sheriffs had to follow strict procedures in doing this, such as requesting entry first. Also, the house owner could not hide within his house a fugitive or the stolen property of another person. That being said, Coke did make it very clear that the “prime directive” which Sheriffs had to follow was that a house owner had the absolute right to defend him/herself against thieves and murderers and also had the right to “assemble his friends or neighbours to defend his house against violence”. If the Sheriffs did not follow the correct procedure in issuing writs, then the home owner had the right “to shut the door of his own house” in their faces.

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