Great scandal or slander. In England it is the slander of the great men, the nobility of the realm. 1
In England, if slander be spoken of a peer, or other great man, it is called Scandalum Magnatum. 2
scandalum magnatum - the utterance or publication of any malicious report against any person holding a position of dignity 3
The origins of Scandalum magnatum
Under English law defamation was originally a matter for the ecclesiastical courts, whose sole remedy for the offence was to order the offender to apologise. This was often deemed unsatisfactory by those who felt that their good name had been tarnished, who therefore resorted to arms as an alternative means of obtaining redress for the injury suffered, real or imagined.
The disorder that such personal feuds inspired was deemed unacceptable and therefore the Statute of Westminster 1275 introduced the offence of Scandalum Magnatum, the slander of great men, stating;
It is commanded, That from henceforth none be so hardy to tell or publish any false News or Tales, whereby discord, or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his People, or the Great Men of the Realm.
The purpose of such a prohibition was "not so much to guard the reputation of the magnates, as to safeguard the peace of the kingdom
, since by providing a remedy in law, it was hoped that the "Great Men of the Realm" would forbear from violence in settling their disputes.
The prohibition against spreading such "false News or Tales" was
reiterated and amplified in several subsequent acts of parliament, most specifically two statutes of Richard II in 1378 and 1388, the former of which forbade;
any false news, horrible and false tales concerning the Prelates, Dukes, Earls, and other Peers and great Men of the Realm ...by which danger, mischief and destruction may happen to the whole Realm
and again in legislation of 1554 and 1559 which expanded the scope of the prohibition to include "seditious words
" and transferred its enforcement to the Court of the Star Chamber
Together these various acts and statutes were collectively known as the statutes de scandalis magnatum.
The nature of Scandalum Magnatum
In contrast to the private action of slander for damages, scandalum magnatum was regarded as a public matter, that is a criminal rather than civil offense for which the penalties were potentially more severe; the damages were larger and offenders were frequently imprisoned. However even in a case of scandalum magnatum the accused was permitted the defense of justification, and was therefore able to produce evidence to show the truth of the words complained of. But during the reign of James I, the Court of Star Chamber held that in the case of a public prosecution for defamation "that the truth of the libel could not be shown by way of justification, because, whether true or false, it was equally dangerous to the public peace". 5
Thus the "Great Men of the Realm", which included all members of the peerage, judges, church officials, the holders of the Great Offices of state, indeed any individual in a position of authority within the British state, were theoretically protected from any criticism. This was justified on the grounds that uncontrolled criticism would both undermine public order and serve to disuade qualified individuals from entering public service. (It is worth noting that such ideas continue to surface from time to time.)
Amongst the most notable examples of the practical application of scandalum magnatum are the following;
- In 1606 Andrew Melville, the Scottish Religous Reformer, composed an epigram critical of the king's religous sympathies and found himself summoned before the privy council, found guilty of scandalum magnatum and ended up spending four years in the Tower of London.
- On the 10 May 1680 the now infamous Titus Oates who committed to prison for calling the Duke of York a traitor and later fined £100,000 for scandalum magnatum. (Titus Oates was also convicted of perjury, and sentenced to be whipped, degraded, and pilloried, and then imprisoned for life. His judge, the equally infamous Judge Jeffreys commented that "He has deserved more punishment than the laws of the land can inflict." )
- It was also in 1680 that the notorious Colonel Blood who was charged with scandalum magnatum for "fixing an imputation of a most scandalous nature upon the Duke of Buckingham" and found himself imprisoned and charged with damages of ten thousand pounds. (Colonel Blood was released on bail but died soon after.)
Even in March 1771, the printer of the Morning Chronicle found himself hauled up before the House of Lords and fined £100 and imprisoned in Newgate for one month, for allowing his newspaper to print an "obnoxious paragraph" referring to one of their members in an unflattering light.
But by the early nineteenth century Scandalum magnatum had fallen into disuse; Thomas Babington Macaulay referred to it as an obsolete privilige in 1833, although it lingered on in the statute books until formally abolished in the Statute Law Revision Act 1887.
- 1 Bouviers Law Dictionary 1856 Edition
- 2 The 'Lectric Law Library's Lexicon
- 3 A Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases
- 4 William Holdsworth, A History of English Law quoted in Toby Mendel
- 5 James Kent Commentaries on American Law
- Bouviers Law Dictionary 1856 Edition
- The 'Lectric Law Library's Lexicon On Slander http://www.lectlaw.com/def2/s052.htm
- A Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases
- Toby Mendel The Case against Criminal Defamation Laws from
Ending the Chilling Effect Working to Repeal Criminal Libel and Insult Laws; Proceedings of the Round Table “What Can Be Done to
Decriminalize Libel and Repeal Insult Laws” Paris, 24-25 November 2003
Edited by Ana Karlsreiter and Hanna Vuokko
- Mists of Antiquity An Anthology of Anachronistic Aristocratic Anecdotes
Chapter Four: Privilege and Precedence
- Bonnie Docherty Defamation Law: Positive Jurisprudence
- Kent, James. Commentaries on American Law. 4 vols. New York, 1826--30.
The University of Chicago Press
- Edmund Coke Reports Part Four (1602)
- Oates's Plot from The Catholic Encyclopedia
- Significant Scots Andrew Melville
- The Newgate Calendar