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

Sir Edward Coke

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 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.