Godden v Hales – Summary

April 02, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to Godden v Hales – Summary

In 1686, the English legal system witnessed a landmark case with significant implications for religious freedom and the balance of power. Godden v Hales, decided by the King’s Bench, stands as a pivotal moment in English history. Sir Edward Hales, a Catholic convert, was appointed to a military position despite laws requiring religious oaths for such offices. Mr. Godden challenged this, sparking a legal battle that tested the validity of the Test Acts and the King’s claimed prerogative of dispensation.

Factual Background

Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, England enacted a series of laws known as the Test Acts. These statutes aimed to exclude Catholics from positions of power by requiring all public officials to take oaths of allegiance and supremacy, along with receiving the Anglican sacrament. These tests explicitly targeted Catholics, who refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the King over the Pope in religious matters.

Sir Edward Hales, a former Protestant, converted to Catholicism in 1685. Despite his conversion, King James II, a Catholic himself, appointed Hales to command a regiment of foot soldiers. This move directly contravened the Test Acts, as Hales hadn’t taken the required oaths. Mr. Godden, likely acting on behalf of the Protestant establishment, brought legal action against Hales, arguing his ineligibility for the position.

Legal Issue

The central legal question in Godden v Hales revolved around the King’s claimed “dispensing power.” This prerogative asserted the King’s authority to exempt individuals from the application of specific laws in certain situations. In this case, the crux was whether the King could exempt someone from the Test Acts, effectively nullifying their anti-Catholic provisions.

Holding and Reasoning

The King’s Bench ultimately ruled in favor of Sir Edward Hales. The court’s reasoning employed a few key arguments. One centered on a theological analogy. The judges compared the King’s power to dispense with laws to God’s ability to dispense with divine laws. In essence, they argued that just as God held ultimate power, the King, as sovereign, held the authority to make exceptions to man-made laws (including the Test Acts) when deemed necessary.

Furthermore, the court emphasized the concept of the King as the source of English law. They reasoned that since all laws stemmed from the King’s authority, he inherently possessed the power to dispense with them in specific circumstances. This view strengthened the King’s position as the ultimate legal authority in England.


The decision in Godden v Hales had a significant but short-lived impact. It served as a major victory for King James II, bolstering his claim to a broad dispensing power. This allowed him to promote more Catholics to positions of power, potentially eroding the Protestant hold on government and military. However, the decision also heightened tensions between the King and Parliament, who viewed the dispensing power as a threat to the rule of law and the supremacy of Parliament.


Godden v Hales stands as a critical case in English history, revealing the complex interplay between religious beliefs, royal power, and the limitations of the law. It highlights the struggle for religious tolerance and the ongoing tension between the monarch and Parliament. While the decision itself was short-lived due to the Glorious Revolution that eventually deposed James II, it serves as a reminder of the historical significance of legal battles in shaping the balance of power and the principles of religious freedom.

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