A Labyrinth of Words

In honor of the Queen giving her Royal Assent and License to Amending Canon No. 33, I thought I’d post this delightfully arcane example of similar instrument from Queen Victoria’s reign. It is, without a doubt, one of the most grandiloquent documents ever written–a torturous labyrinth of legalese that would give any member of the Plain English Campaign a heart attack:

Victoria, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, and so forth: To all to whom these presents shall come, Greeting!

Whereas in and by one Act of Parliament made at Westminster in the Five-and-twentieth Year of King Henry the Eighth, reciting that whereas the King’s humble and obedient subjects, the Clergy of the Realm of England, had not only acknowledged according to the truth that the Convocations of the same Clergy were always, had been, and ought to be assembled only by the King’s Writ, but also, submitting themselves unto the King’s Majesty, had promised in verbo sacerdotii that they would never from thenceforth presume to attempt, allege, claim, or put in ure, or exact, promulge, or execute any new Canons, Constitutions, Ordinances, Provincial or other, or by whatsoever other name they should be called, in the Convocation, unless the said King’s give His most Royal Assent and authority in that behalf;

It was therefore enacted by the authority of the said Parliament, according to the said submission and petition of the said Clergy, amongst other things, that they, or any of them, from thenceforth should enact, promulge, or execute any such Canons, Constitutions, or Ordinances Provincial, by whatsoever name or names they might be called, in their Convocations in time coming, which always should be assembled by authority of the King’s Writ, unless the same Clergy might have the King’s most Royal Assent and Licence to make, promulge, and execute such Canons, Constitutions, and Ordinances, Provincial or Synodal, upon pain of every one of the said Clergy doing contrary to the said Act, and being therefore convict, to suffer imprisonment and make fine at the King’s will;

And further, by the said Act it is provided that no Canons, Constitutions, or Ordinances should be made or put in execution within this Realm, by authority of the Convocation of the Clergy, which shall be contrariant or repugnant to the King’s Prerogative Royal, or the Customs, Laws, or Statutes of this Realm, anything in the said Act to the contrary thereof notwithstanding;

And lastly, it is also provided by the said Act, that such Canons, Constitutions, Ordinances, and Synodals Provincial which then were already made, and which were not contrary or repugnant to the Laws, Statutes, and Customs of this Realm, nor to the damage or hurt of the King’s Prerogative Royal, should then still be used and executed as they were afore the making of the said Act, till such time as they should be viewed, searched, or otherwise ordered and determined by the persons mentioned in the said Act, or the more part of them, according to the tenor or form and effect of the said Act, as by the said Act amongst divers  other things more fully and at large doth and may appear:

And whereas We have lately received a humble representation and petition from the Archbishop, Bishops, and Clergy of the Province of Canterbury in Convocation, of the tenour following, to wit :—We, Your Majesty’s faithful subjects, the Archbishop, Bishops, and Clergy of the Province of Canterbury in Convocation assembled, humbly represent to Your Majesty that, in obedience to Your Majesty’s Royal Writ, we have conferred together and considered of divers urgent matters concerning Your Majesty, the security and defence of the Church of England, and the peace and tranquility, public good and defence of Your Majesty’s kingdom and subjects: And particularly we have conferred together and considered the twenty-ninth canon of 1603 of the said Church, and We are desirous that the said canon should be altered and amended or repealed and a new canon substituted in the place thereof. And we humbly pray that Your Majesty will be graciously pleased to grant to us Your Majesty’s Royal Licence to make, promulge, and execute such altered and amended Canon, or such new Canon accordingly;

Know ye that We, for divers urgent and weighty causes and considerations Us thereunto especially moving, of Our special grace, by virtue of Our Prerogative Royal and supreme authority in causes Ecclesiastical, have given and granted, and by these presents do give and grant full, free, and lawful liberty, licence, power, and authority unto the Most Reverend Father in God, Our right trusty and well-beloved Counsellor, John Bird, Archbishop of Canterbury, President of this present Convocation of the Clergy for this present Parliament now assembled, and to the rest of the Bishops of the same Province, and to all the Deans of Cathedral Churches, Archdeacons, Chapters, and Colleges, and the whole of the Clergy of every Diocese within the said Province, that they the said Archbishop of Canterbury, President of the said Convocation, and the rest of the Bishops of the said Province, or the greater number of them, whereof the said President of the said Convocation to be one, and the rest of the Clergy of this present Convocation, within the said Province of Canterbury, or the greater part of them, shall and may, from time to time during the present Parliament, confer, treat, debate, consider, consult, and agree of and upon and concerning the altering, amending, or repealing the said twenty-ninth canon of 1603, of the said Church of England, all or any part of the same;

And We do give and grant full, free, and lawful liberty, licence, power, and authority to them to substitute a new canon in place thereof, and to make, promulge, and execute such altered and amended canon or such new canon accordingly as they the said President and the Bishops, or the greater part of them, and the Clergy of the said Province, or the greater part of them, shall think necessary, fit, and convenient for the honour and service of Almighty God, the good and quiet of the Church and better government thereof, to be, when allowed, approved, and considered by Us, from time to time observed, performed, fulfilled, and kept, as well by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops and their successors, and the rest of the whole Clergy of the said Province of Canterbury, in their several callings, offices, said Archbishop’s Courts, Guardians of Spiritualities, Chancellors, Deans and Chapters, Archdeacons, Commissaries, Officials, Registers, and all and every other Ecclesiastical Officers and their inferior Ministers whatsoever, of the same Province of Canterbury, in their and every of their District Courts, and in the order, manner, and form of their and every of their proceedings, and by all other persons within this Realm as far as lawfully being members of the Church it may concern them;

And We do also by these Presents give and grant unto the said Archbishop of Canterbury, President of the said Convocation, and to the rest of the Bishops of the Province of Canterbury, and unto all Deans of Cathedral Churches, Archdeacons, Chapters, and Colleges, and the whole Clergy of Our several Dioceses within the said Province, full, free, and lawful liberty, license, power and authority, that they the said Archbishop of Canterbury, President of the said Convocation, and the rest of the said Bishops of the same Province, or the greater number of them, the said canon, all or any part thereof, so altered, amended, or repealed, or a new canon made, promulged, and executed, altered, amended, or substituted in place thereof, so by them from time to time conferred, treated, debated, considered, consulted, and agreed upon, shall and may set down in writing, in such form as heretofore hath been accustomed, and the same so set down in writing to exhibit and deliver, or cause to be exhibited and delivered unto Us, to the end that We, upon mature consideration by Us to be taken thereupon, may allow, approve, confirm, and ratify, or otherwise disallow, annihilate, and make void the whole or any part of the said Canon, so to be by force of these Presents altered or amended, considered, consulted, made, promulged, executed, and agreed upon, as We shall think fit and requisite and convenient. Provided always that the said Canon so to be altered or amended, considered, consulted, made, promulged, executed, and agreed upon, as aforesaid, be not contrary or repugnant to the doctrines, orders, and ceremonies of the Church of England already established. Provided also, and Our express will, pleasure, and command is, that the said Canon, or any part thereof, so to be by the force of these presents altered or amended, considered, consulted, made, promulged, executed, and agreed upon, shall not be of any force, effect, or validity in law, but only so much thereof as after such time as We by Our Letters Patent under Our Great Seal shall allow, approve, and confirm the same, anything before in these presents contained to the contrary thereof on any wise notwithstanding. In witness, &c. Witness, &c., the Twenty-seventh day of June.

By Her Majesty’s Command,

Edmunds

It’s all terribly grand, but there’s one little problem: the document doesn’t make much sense. After recording the fact that Convocation had discussed amendments to Canon 29, it proceeds to give Convocation power to discuss amendments to Canon 29. As James Joyce (no, not that James Joyce) pointed out, “this certainly was an odd imagination, to grant prospective liberty of a future approach towards acts already consummated.[1]

What’s even stranger is that, after the new or altered canon was “made, promulged, and executed,” it was to be set down in writing and delivered to the Queen so she could “allow, approve, confirm, and ratify, or otherwise disallow, annihilate, and make void the whole or any part of the said Canon.” It doesn’t take a seasoned ecclesiastical lawyer to realize that there’s something screwy about that order of events.

In the end, I think Joyce sums up the document best when he says that the learned men who drafted it “lost themselves hopelessly in their own mazes of verbiage, for they certainly contrived to construct a labyrinth of circumlocution transcending the skill of Daedalus, and defying human intelligence to discover either means of ingress or of egress.[2]

Eventually, the document mavens in the Crown Office seemed to have cottoned on to the fact that this instrument didn’t make much sense. Their response was to create two separate Royal Licenses. The first, which was largely the same as the above document (minus the contradictory bits), was a license to make new or amended canons and submit them for royal approval. The second was a license that approved the newly made canons and allowed Convocation to formally enact them. This two-step procedure had its critics–some churchmen argued that the Crown should simply grant permission to make canons and then let Convocation do what it pleased. However, the Crown’s legal advisers took a dim view of this approach,[3] and the system of dual licenses seems to have remained in force until the General Synod took over the Convocations’ legislative competence in 1969. Since then, however, the Sovereign has only issued one instrument (the so-called ‘Royal Assent and License’) at the very end of the legislative process.

NOTES

[1] James Wayland Joyce, Acts of the Church 1531-1885 (London: J. Whitaker, 1886), 371.

[2] Joyce, 372.

[3] For a rather Erastian defense of the two-step process, see Sir William Anson, The Law and Custom of the Constitution: The Crown (London: Clarendon Press, 1896), 411-412.

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4 Responses to A Labyrinth of Words

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Unfortunately, there seems to be a rule in legal documents that says you are not allowed to use a full stop, except at the very end. I agree that it makes them almost impossible to read, which is why lawyers get paid so much to find the mistakes and to take advantage of them. If only they were allowed to use tags like and they could write everything in between in English that ordinary people can understand. Since this has been going on for around 1000 years (at least we don’t have our Laws written in Norman French any longer), I don’t anticipate any change soon.

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