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The meaning and origin of the expression: An Englishman's home is his castle

An Englishman's home is his castle

What's the meaning of the phrase 'An Englishman's home is his castle'?

The English dictum that a man's home is his refuge.

What's the origin of the phrase 'An Englishman's home is his castle'?

The maxim that 'An Englishman's home (or occasionally, house) is his castle' is most often cited these days in articles in the British right-wing press that bemoan the apparent undermining of the perceived principle that a man can do as he pleases in his own house, which they hold up as an ancient right. The grumbles centre about the feminist response 'what about Englishwomen?' and the public disquiet about the smacking of children, attacking of intruders etc. The proverb was used in almost all of the articles about the court case of Tony Martin in 2000. Martin was convicted by jury trial of murder, after shooting and killing a 16-year old who had broken into his house in Norfolk, UK.

An Englishman's home is his castleDid Englishmen actually ever have a unique right to act as they pleased within the walls of their own home? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it has been a legal precept in England, since at least the 17th century, that no one may enter a home, which would typically then have been in male ownership, unless by invitation. This was established as common law by the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke (pronounced Cook), in The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628:

"For a man's house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man's home is his safest refuge]."

This enshrined into law the popular belief at the time, expressed in print by several authors in the late 16th century:

Henri Estienne's The Stage of Popish Toyes: conteining both tragicall and comicall partes, 1581, includes:

[The English papists owe it to the Queen that] "youre house is youre Castell."

Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster of Merchant Taylors' School in London, echoed this in his treatise on education - Positions, which are necessarie for the training up of children, 1581:

"He [the householder] is the appointer of his owne circumstance, and his house is his castle."

Judged against the standards of his time, Mulcaster was an enlightened educationalist. His charges were nevertheless terrified of him and he condoned methods in the 'castle' of his school that would result these days in a visit from Social Services. His own experience in castles wasn't that happy either - he was imprisoned for theft in 1555 in the Tower of London and probably tortured into a confession.

What was meant by 'castle' was defined in 1763 by the British Prime Minister with an admirable selection of names to choose from - William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham, also known as Pitt the Elder:

"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter."

It is clear from the above that the law was established to give householders the right to prevent entry to their homes. Like the 'rule of thumb', which was popularly and mistakenly believed to be the right of a man to beat his wife, the 'Englishman's home is his castle' rule didn't establish a man's right to take actions inside the home that would be illegal outside it.

The principle was exported to the United States where, not unnaturally, the 'Englishman' was removed from the phrase. In 1800, Joel Chandler Harris's biography of Henry W. Grady, the journalist and writer on the US Constitution, included this line:

"Exalt the citizen. As the State is the unit of government he is the unit of the State. Teach him that his home is his castle, and his sovereignty rests beneath his hat."

These days, with all the news of banking collapses and mortgage foreclosures, men and women, English or American, might be glad to have somewhere to call home, even if they have to obey the law when inside it.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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