HL Deb 24 March 1823 vol 8 cc651-4

On the order of the day for the third reading of this bill,

Lord Ellenborough

begged to ask the learned lord on the woolsack for his opinion, as to the right of the king to dispose of the personal chattels of the crown, without an act of parliament.

The Lord Chancellor

, in reply to the question of the noble lord, said, there were two things to be considered; first, the capacity of the donor to give; and secondly, the capacity of the donee to take. If it had been a question as to giving the library to a corporation, such as the Museum, he should have said, that with respect to the personal chattels of the crown, his majesty might dispose of them, if the party to whom they were disposed was capable of taking; but when the question was put, whether the nation could take, and in what manner it was to take, he had thought it right to give some consideration before he replied. With respect to the question generally, his decided opinion was, that his majesty had the power of giving away the personal chattels of the crown in his life-time; and he should say, before the 39th and 40th of the late king, it was at least doubtful whether he could not dispose of them by will. His majesty could originally (as the 39th and 40th of Geo. 3rd contained nothing but enacting clauses) dispose by will of the personal chattels of the crown; and if the chattels were of the description specified in the act (it must be taken as the better opinion), that they could not be disposed of by will. Before the restraining acts of parliament, the power of alienation was supposed to be incidental to being seized in fee, and lands were constantly disposed of by the crown. The lands of the monasteries and abbeys at the time of their suppression, were granted to great families in so liberal a manner as to secure the gratitude of their posterity, as had been often seen; and his majesty might lawfully do it. He used the word lawful as a lawyer, not as a statesman; and in that sense he would say, that the crown might do lawfully in the premises what it was not restrained from doing by act of parliament. One al the arguments used by lord Coke applied to the present case. He said, that, supposing a person to be possessed of large estates before coining to the crown, if the jus coronœ attached to those estates, he would be placed in a worse situation than any other person, notwithstanding the accession to the crown cured all other defects; and he was of opinion the crown had the right of disposing of such estates. Whether he gave a right opinion as a statesman, he (the lord chancellor) world not say. Statesmen thought lawyers had statesmen; and lawyers certainly thought themselves good statesmen. He would say, when asked his opinion as a lawyer, that if the law conferred the power now contemplated by the bill to be vested in the crown, he had no right to contemplate the abuse of such a power. If the noble lord wanted authorities in support of the legal principle recognized in the bill, he would find them in Bracton and Fleta, and other writers of equal antiquity.

Lord Ellenborough

regretted that the learned lord's answer was not so satisfactory as he could have wished. Although entirely incompetent to enter into a legal argument with the learned lord, he must still entertain considerable doubts as to the power of the crown to dispose of personal chattels, in the same manner as a private individual could; and, when a question arose upon such a point, he thought it was their duty to prevent the possibility of abuse with respect to the chattels of the king. In early times the property of the crown was governed upon principles quite distinct from those which regulated the distribution of private effects. From the time of Alfred down through successive reigns, it was held that crown property was inalienable: that it belonged to the kingdom, not to the king. Lord Coke had held that the king could not dispose of the crown jewels, and that they were an heir-loom to the throne. He knew that the common law had made great inroads upon the jus coronœ but still he entertained great doubts, from the current of authorities, that the crown had not the power to dispose of personal chattels. Taking, then, the present bill in conjunction with the other contemplated legislative proceeding respecting the transfer of the late king's library to the British Museum, he could not avoid viewing both with great suspicion, and as indicating the introduction of a de- claratory principle, the object of which was to separate the personal property of the sovereign before his accession to the crown, from that subsequently acquired, and to create a new power of distribution not recognized by the previous law. There might be some motive for a new arrangement, were there children, for whom a separate provision might be necessary; but here there was no such plea, and why not allow the crown property generally to devolve upon the successor to the throne? The king had, for the last eight years, been applying the crown property, to improve certain personal property, which he was now, according to this bill, to have the power of selling. It was a matter of record, that in the year 1816, 20,000l. was given from the droits of the Admiralty to the present king, to buy furniture for his residence at Brighton; and now a new light, as it were, broke in upon ministers, and they saw the necessity of introducing a bill to create a distinction between the personal chattels of the sovereign and crown property. He had a general objection, on principle, to invest the crown with personal rights of property; it would be accumulating upon the king two incompatible rights, not only inconsistent but inconvenient in their exercise.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, he felt it a duty which he owed the sovereign, as well as his majesty's government, to do away the impression conveyed by the speech of the noble lord, as if some trick were intended to be practised by this bill, and as if it were to be ingrafted upon another bill connected with a most liberal gift from his majesty to the public. He would call upon the learned lord on the woolsack, and his other noble friends who were ministers of the crown, to say, whether the present bill was not quite distinct from the transaction of the munificent gift alluded to, and whether it had not been under consideration three years ago, and long before that gift had been thought of. He must lament, that an act which had excited throughout the country almost one universal feeling of gratitude—a transaction which reflected as much honour upon the memory of the late king, who, in the long period of 60 years, had acquired one of the most valuable collections of learning which ever existed in one library, as it did upon his present majesty, who had evinced a willingness to devote such a collection to the public service, in the way which appeared to parliament most eligible for the general advantage, should have been so misconstrued. His majesty had made no stipulation that it should be given to this or to that place; but had left it to the discretion of parliament to dispose of it in the manner most beneficial to the country. It was too much that an act in itself so gracious, and conducted in so constitutional a manner, should be described as something like a trick, to promote some particular object. He would not now enter into the justice or injustice of the acts of the 39th and 40th of the late king; but he would say, that upon the general principles of justice and the analogy of law, nothing would be more unfair than to deprive the king of power over his private property, acquired out of his revenues when prince of Wales, and which at such time he could, without any possibility of cavil, have disposed of as he thought proper, now that he had succeeded to the crown; or to place his majesty in such a situation, as to be the only person in the kingdom whose recognized rights were to be taken from him upon his accession to a higher dignity.

The Lord Chancellor

declared, in the most solemn and unequivocal manner, that there was no connexion between the present bill and that contemplated elsewhere respecting the late king's library. The transactions were wholly distinct.

Lord Redesdale

contended, that until the act of queen Anne, the power of the crown to grant laud had been unlimited. It was true, that when those grants were not approved of, the ministers, by whose advice they had been made, had been impeached; but even then the grants had not been revoked. Why had the act of queen Anne been passed, if the crown had not previously possessed the right of granting lands? But the fact was, that half the lands in the kingdom were holden by, grants from the crown.

The bill was then read a third time.