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Letters patent issued by Queen Victoria in 1900, creating the office of Governor-General of Australia as part of the process of Federation
Letters patent issued by the United States General Land Office

Letters patent are a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch or president, generally granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation. They are so named from the Latin verb pateo, to lie open, exposed, accessible.[1] The originator's seal was attached pendent from the document, so that it did not have to be broken in order for the document to be read.

They are called "letters" (plural) from their Latin name litterae patentes, used by medieval and later scribes when the documents were written in Latin, in the ancient sense of a collection of letters of the alphabet arranged to be read rather than in the modern sense of an "epistle" or item of correspondence: thus no singular form exists.[2]

Letters patent can be used for the creation of corporations or government offices, or for the granting of city status or a coat of arms. A particular form of letters patent has evolved into the modern patent (referred to as a utility patent or design patent in United States patent law) granting exclusive rights in an invention (or a design in the case of a design patent). Clearly in this case it is essential that the written grant should be in the form of a public document so other inventors can consult it to avoid infringement.

The opposite of letters patent are letters close (Latin: litterae clausae), which are personal in nature and sealed so that only the recipient can read their contents. Letters patent are thus comparable to other kinds of open letter in that their audience is wide. It is not clear how the contents of letters patent became widely published before collection by the addressee, for example whether they were left after sealing by the king for inspection during a certain period by courtiers in a royal palace, who would disseminate the contents back to the gentry in the shires through normal conversation and social intercourse. Clearly some such mechanism was essential. Today, for example, it is a convention for the British prime minister to announce that he has left a document he wishes to enter the public domain "in the library of the House of Commons", where it may be freely perused by all MPs.

Usage[edit]

Letters patent are a form of open or public proclamation[3] and a vestigial exercise of extra-parliamentary power by a monarch or president. Prior to the establishment of parliament, the monarch ruled absolutely by the issuing of his personal written orders, open or closed.

They can thus be contrasted with the Act of Parliament, which is in effect a written order by parliament, approved by the monarch whose signature gives it force. No explicit government approval is contained within letters patent, only the seal or signature of the monarch.

Parliaments today tolerate only a very narrow exercise of the royal prerogative by issuance of letters patent, and such documents are issued with prior informal government approval, or indeed are now generated by government itself with the monarch's seal affixed as a mere formality. In their original form they were simply written instructions or orders from the king, whose order was law, which were made public to reinforce their effect.

For the sake of good governance it is clearly of little use if the king appoints a person to a position of authority if he does not at the same time inform those over whom such authority is to be exercised of the validity of the appointment. Litterae in Latin meant "that which is written" or "writing", in the sense of letters of the alphabet placed together in meaningful sequence on a writing surface, not a specific format of composition as the modern word "letter" suggests. Thus letters patent do not equate to an open letter but rather to any form of document, deed, contract, letter, despatch, edict, decree, epistle etc.[4] made public.

Commonwealth realms[edit]

In the Commonwealth realms, letters patent are issued under the prerogative powers of the head of state ("royal prerogative"). They constitute a rare, if significant, form of legislation without the consent of the parliament. Letters patent may also be used to grant Royal Assent to legislation. The Patent Rolls, made up of office copies of English (and later United Kingdom) royal letters patent, run in an almost unbroken series from 1201 to the present day: most of those to 1625 have been published.

According to the UK Ministry of Justice, there are 92 different types of letters patent.[5]

In the United States[edit]

The primary source of letters patent in the United States are intellectual property patents and land patents, though letters patent are issued for a variety of purposes. They function dually as public records and personal certificates.

In the United States, the forgery of letters patent granted by the President is a crime subject to fine, imprisonment up to ten years or both (18 U.S.C. § 497). Without letters patent, a person is unable to assume an appointed office. Such an issue prompted the Marbury v. Madison suit, where William Marbury and three others petitioned the United States Supreme Court to order James Madison to deliver their letters for appointments made under the previous administration.

Form of royal proclamations post 1992[edit]

The use of letters patent in making royal proclamations has been reduced by order of a statutory instrument (number 1730) issued by Queen Elizabeth II at[dubious ], the 15th day of July 1992 in the presence of the privy council. It is known as "The Crown Office (Forms and Proclamations Rules) Order 1992"[6] and was laid before parliament on 23 July 1992. It was issued in exercise of the powers conferred on the monarch by section 3 of the Crown Office Act 1877. Section 3 of this statutory instrument is entitled "Publication of Royal Proclamations" and states:

"It shall be sufficient for Royal Proclamations to be published in the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes; but if the Lord President of the Council, thinking it expedient, directs that copies of such proclamations shall in addition be sent to such High Sheriffs, Sheriffs, Lord Mayors and Mayors in England and Wales and to such Sheriffs Principal in Scotland as he thinks fit, the contents of such proclamations shall thereupon be made known in the manner accustomed."

Here "the manner accustomed" refers to traditional letters patent.

Form of British letters patent[edit]

The form of letters patent for creating peerages has been fixed by the same statutory instrument. The schedule in part 3 lays down nine pro forma texts (A-I) for creating various ranks of the peerage, lords of appeal and baronets.

The following table organises the text from the letters patent by columns for each rank, with common text spanning multiple columns, depicting some of the similarities and differences among the proclamations. Gender-specific differences are highlighted in italics.

Dukes and Duchesses Marquesses and Marchionesses Earls and Countesses Viscounts Barons Life Barons Life Baronesses Baronets Lords of Appeal in Ordinary
“ELIZABETH THE SECOND by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen Head of the Commonwealth Defender of the Faith To all Lords Spiritual and Temporal and all other Our Subjects whatsoever to whom these Presents shall come, Greeting!
Know Ye that We of Our especial grace certain knowledge and mere motion do by these Presents advance create and prefer Our:[7]
  • "right trusty and well-beloved John Smith (created baron);
  • "right trusty and well-beloved counsellor John Smith (if Privy Councillor, baron);
  • "right trusty and well-beloved cousin (and counsellor) John Smith (created Viscount, if PC)
  • "Our right trusty and entirely beloved cousin" (and counsellor) John Smith (created Earl or Marquess, if PC)
  • "Our right trusty and right entirely beloved cousin" (and counsellor) John Smith (created Duke, if PC)

to the state degree style dignity title and honour of

Know Ye that We of Our especial grace certain knowledge and mere motion do by these Presents erect appoint and create Our (name of grantee in relevant courtly language) to the dignity state and degree of a Whereas Our (name of grantee in relevant courtly language) has resigned his Office of a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and the same is now vacant Now Know Ye that We of Our especial grace have in pursuance of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 as amended by subsequent enactments nominated and appointed and by these Presents Do nominate and appoint Our (name of grantee in relevant courtly language) to be a
DUKE OF xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Duke of and by these Presents do dignify invest and ennoble him by girding him with a sword and putting a cap of honour and a coronet of gold on his head and by giving into his hand a rod of gold [or, if the grant is to a woman, "dignify invest and really ennoble her with such name state degree title and honour of Duchess of "] to have and to hold the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Duke of unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that he and his heirs male aforesaid and every of them successively may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Dukes And also that he and his heirs male aforesaid successively may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of a Duke duly and of right belonging which Dukes of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. MARQUESS OF xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Marquess of and by these Presents do dignify invest and ennoble him by girding him with a sword and putting a cap of honour and a coronet of gold on his head and by giving into his hand a rod of gold [or, if the grant is to a woman, "to dignify invest and really ennoble her with such name state degree title and honour of Marchioness of"] to have and to hold the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Marquess of unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that he and his heirs male aforesaid and every of them successively may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Marquesses And also that he his heirs male aforesaid successively may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of a Marquess duly and of right belonging which Marquesses of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. EARL xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Earl and by these Presents do dignify invest and ennoble him by girding him with a sword and putting a cap of honour and a coronet of gold on his head [or, if the grant is to a woman, "to dignify invest and really ennoble her with such name state degree title and honour of Countess of"] to have and to hold the said name degree style dignity title and honour of Earl unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that he and his heirs male aforesaid and every of them successively may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Earls And also that he and his heirs male aforesaid successively may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of an Earl duly and of right belonging which Earls of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. VISCOUNT of xxx in xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Viscount to have and to hold unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that he and his heirs male aforesaid and every of them successively may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Viscounts And also that he and his heirs male aforesaid successively may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of a Viscount duly and of right belonging which Viscounts of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. BARON of xxx in xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Baron to have and to hold unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that he and his heirs male aforesaid and every of them successively may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Barons And also that he and his heirs male aforesaid successively may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of a Baron duly and of right belonging which Barons of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. BARON of xxx in xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Baron to have and to hold unto him for his life. Willing and by these Presents granting of Us Our heirs and successors that he may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Barons And also that he may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of a Baron duly and of right belonging which Barons of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. BARONESS of xxx in xxx. And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto her the said name state degree style dignity title and honour of Baroness to have and to hold unto her for her life. Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that she may have hold and possess a seat place and voice in the Parliaments and Public Assemblies and Councils of Us Our heirs and successors within Our United Kingdom amongst the Barons And also that she may enjoy and use all the rights privileges pre-eminences immunities and advantages to the degree of a Baron duly and of right belonging which Barons of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. BARONET And for Us Our heirs and successors do appoint give and grant unto him the name dignity state degree style and title of Baronet to have and to hold unto him and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten and to be begotten Willing and by these Presents granting for Us Our heirs and successors that he and his heirs male aforesaid may enjoy and use all the rights privileges precedences and advantages to the degree of a Baronet duly and of right belonging which Baronets of Our United Kingdom have heretofore used and enjoyed or as they do at present use and enjoy. LORD OF APPEAL IN ORDINARY by the style of BARON To hold the said Office so long as he shall well behave himself therein subject to the provisions in the said Act mentioned with all wages profits privileges rank and precedence whatsoever to the said Office belonging or in anywise appertaining and to hold the said style of Baron unto him the said during his life.
In Witness whereof We have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent. WITNESS Ourself at Westminster the day of in the year of Our Reign”

Form of American letters patent[edit]

American letters patent generally do not fit a specific form, except for the eschatocol, or formal ending:

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, the undersigned [public official], in accordance with [relevant law], has in the name of the United States, Caused these letters to be made Patent and the Seal of [relevant agency or government official] to be hereunto affixed.

GIVEN under my hand, in [city] the [date] in the year of our Lord [year] and of the Independence of the United States the [years since July 4, 1776].

By [signature of public official issuing letter]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Examples of letters patent[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised by Marchant & Charles, 260th. thousand
  2. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised by Marchant & Charles, 260th. thousand: "Literae, Plur: that which is written; Cicero: Dare alicui literas (plur) ad aliquem: to give to a messenger a letter for a third person"
  3. ^ E.g. document dated 13 July 1527 issued Teste Rege titled: "A Proclamation for establishing of trade and merchandizing and traffique within the towne and marches of Callice with divers immunities and freedoms concerning the same", which is self-referenced in the document by the phrase "by theis his lettres patentes of proclamacion" Nichols, John Gough. The Chronicle of Calais from the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the year 1540, London, 1846 p.102
  4. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary, op.cit., p.321
  5. ^ http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/108336/response/284995/attach/html/3/FOI%2076096%20Elibank.doc.html
  6. ^ http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1992/1730/made
  7. ^ http://www.hereditarytitles.com/Page12.html
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