Archive Natural Law Simon Kennedy

Sir Edward Coke on the Natural Law

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) was an eminent English jurist. The excerpt below comes from a famous report of Calvin’s Case (1608). Robert Calvin was a Scottish born freeholder who inherited land in England. His right to inherit was challenged on the grounds that he was not a natural born Englishman, but a Scot.

The historical context around this is of importance, because the case turned on the question of whether Calvin was an alien in England, and whether he was a subject of the King of England. James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, and united both Kingdoms under one Crown. This new situation brought with it new legal questions, and the case of Calvin’s inheritance was one of them. The question before the court in Calvin’s Case was: was Robert Calvin, born in Scotland after James ascended to the English throne, subject to the same King as an Englishman was subject? Does a Scot possess the same rights as an Englishman? And more particular to the case: did Robert Calvin the Scot have a right to own English land?

The question of ‘ligeance’ or ‘obedience’ to the Crown is in question as Coke discusses the natural law. It was argued that ligeance was due to the King by the ‘law of nature’. Coke, here, goes on to describe the natural law like so (Latin translations are in square brackets)1:

The law of nature is that which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction; and this is lex eterna [the eternal law], the moral law, called also the law of nature. And by this law, written with the finger of God in the heart of man, were the people of God a long time governed, before the law was written by Moses, who was the first reporter or writer of law in the world. The Apostle in the second chapter to the Romans saith, Cum enim gentes quæ legem non habent naturaliter ea quæ legissunt faciunt [For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, naturally do the things of the law]. And this is within the command of that moral law, honora patrem [Honour your father], which doubtless doth extend to him that is pater patriæ [father of the fatherland]. And that Apostle saith Omnis anima potestatibus sublimioribus subdita sit [Every soul is subject to the higher powers]. And these be the words of the Great Divine, Hoc Deus in Sacris Scripturis jubet, hoc lex naturæ dictari, ut quilibet subditus obediat superio [God decrees this in sacred scripture, the law of nature dictates this, that everybody should be subject to, and obey, his superior] and Aristotle, nature’s secretary, lib. 5. Ethic. saith, that jus naturale est, quod apud omnes homines eandem habet potentiam [It is the law of nature, which has the same force among all men].2

Sir Coke goes on to say:

And the reason hereof is, for that God and nature is one … to all, and therefore the law of God and nature is one to all. By this law of nature is the faith, ligeance, and obedience of the subject due to his Sovereign or superior. And Aristotle 1. Politicorum [Politics] proveth, that to command and to obey is of nature, and that magistracy is of nature: for whatsoever is necessary and profitable for the preservation of the society of man is due by the law of nature: but magistracy and government are necessary and profitable for the preservation of the society of man; therefore magistracy and government are of nature. And herewith accordeth Tully [Cicero], lib. 3. De legibus [On Laws], sine imperio nec domus ulla, nec civitas, nec gens, nec hominum universum genus stare, nec ipse denique mundus potest [without command neither a home nor a city, nor a people nor the whole of mankind can remain standing, nor finally the universe itself].3 This law of nature, which indeed is the eternal law of the Creator, infused into the heart of the creature at the time of his creation, was two thousand years before any laws written, and before any judicial or municipal laws. And certain it is, that before judicial or municipal laws were made, Kings did decide causes according to natural equity, and were not tied to any rule or formality of law, but did dare jura [give laws].4

As for the conclusion of the case, it was decided in Calvin’s favour.

  1. The translations are my own, with thanks to E. J. Hutchinson for his (much needed!) editorial oversight.
  2. “Calvin’s Case.” English Reports Full Reprint Vol. 77 – King’s Bench 77 (1378-1865), p. 392
  3. The context for the Cicero quote shows that imperio [command] is related to the existence of ‘law’, which he says is ‘suitable to … the condition of nature’.
  4. “Calvin’s Case.” English Reports Full Reprint Vol. 77 – King’s Bench 77 (1378-1865), p. 392

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.