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Lettre de cachet

In French history, lettres de cachet were letters signed by the king of France, countersigned by one of his ministers, and closed with the royal seal, or cachet. They contained orders directly from the king, often to enforce arbitrary actions and judgements that could not be appealed.

In the case of organized bodies lettres de cachet were issued for the purpose of preventing assembly or to accomplish some other definite act. The provincial estates were convoked in this manner, and it was by a lettre de cachet (in this case, a lettre de jussipri) in which the king ordered a parliament to register a law in the teeth of its own refusal to pass it.

The best-known lettres de cachet, however, were penal, by which a subject was sentenced without trial and without an opportunity of defense to imprisonment in a state prison or an ordinary jail, confinement in a convent or a hospital, transportation to the colonies, or expulsion to another part of the realm. Wealthy people sometimes boughts such lettres to get rid of certain individuals.

Table of contents
1 Historical background
2 A practical tool of royal government
3 Protests against arbitrary power
4 Abolished in the Revolution, brought back by Napoleon

Historical background

This power was a royal privilege recognized by old French law, which can be traced to a maxim which furnished a text of the Digest of Justinian: "Rex solutus est a legibus", or "The king only is the law."

This meant that when the king intervened directly, he could decide without heeding the laws, and even contrary to the laws. This was an early conception, and in early times the order in question was simply verbal; some letters patent of Henry III of France in 1576 state that Francois de Mont-morency was "prisoner in our castle of the Bastille in Paris by verbal command" of the late king Charles IX.

In the 14th century the principle was introduced that the order should be written, and hence arose the lettre de cachet. The lettre de cachet belonged to the class of lettres closes, as opposed to lettres patentes, which contained the expression of the legal and permanent will of the king, and had to be furnished with the seal of state affixed by the chancellor.

The lettres de cachet, on the contrary, were signed simply by a secretary of state for the king; they bore merely the imprint of the king's privy seal, from which circumstance they were often called, in the 14th and 15th centuries, lettres de petit signet or lettres de petit cachet, and were entirely exempt from the control of the chancellor.

A practical tool of royal government

While serving the government as a silent weapon against political adversaries or dangerous writers and as a means of punishing culprits of high birth without the scandal of a lawsuit, the lettres de cachet had many other uses. They were employed by the police in dealing with prostitutes, and on their authority lunatics were shut up in hospitals and sometimes in prisons.

They were also often used by heads of families as a means of correction, for example, for protecting the family honour from the disorderly or criminal conduct of sons. Wives, too, took advantage of them to curb the profligacy of husbands and vice versa.

In reality, the secretary of state issued them in a completely arbitrary fashion, and in most cases the king was unaware of their issue. In the 18th century it is certain that the letters were often issued blank, i.e. without containing the name of the person against whom they were directed; the recipient, or mandatary, filled in the name in order to make the letter effective.

Protests against arbitrary power

Protests against the lettres de cachet were made continually by the parlement of Paris and by the provincial parlements, and often also by the States-General. In 1648 the sovereign courts of Paris procured their momentary suppression in a kind of charter of liberties which they imposed upon the crown, but which was ephemeral.

It was not until the reign of Louis XVI that a reaction against this abuse became clearly perceptible. At the beginning of that reign Malesherbes during his short ministry endeavoured to infuse some measure of justice into the system, and in March 1784 the baron de Breteuil, a minister of the king's household, addressed a circular to the intendants and the lieutenant of police with a view to preventing the crying abuses connected with the issue of lettres de cachet.

The Comte de Mirabeau wrote a scathing indictment of lettres de cachet while imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes (by lettre de cachet obtained by his father). The treatise was published after his liberation in 1782 under the title Les Lettres de cachet et des prisons d'etat and was widely read throughout Europe.

In Paris, in 1779, the Cour des Aides demanded their suppression, and in March 1788 the parlement of Paris made some exceedingly energetic remonstrances, which are important for the light they throw upon old French public law. The crown, however, did not decide to lay aside this weapon, and in a declaration to the States-General in the royal session of the 23rd of June 1789 (art. 15) it did not renounce it absolutely.

Abolished in the Revolution, brought back by Napoleon

Lettres de cachet were abolished after the French Revolution by the Constituent Assembly, but Napoleon reestablished their equivalent by a political measure in the decree of the 8th of March 1801 on the state prisons. This was one of the acts brought up against him by the senatus-consulte of the 3rd of April 1814, which pronounced his fall "considering that he has violated the constitutional laws by the decrees on the state prisons."

See Honore Mirabeau, Les Lettres de cachet et des prisons d'etat (Hamburg, 1782), written in the dungeon at Vincennes into which his father had thrown him by a lettre de cachet, one of the ablest and most eloquent of his works, which had an immense circulation and was translated into English in 1788.