The Homage of the People to Charles III: Allegiance in British Nationality Law


In the Church of England liturgy for the Coronation of King Charles III on 6 May 2023 provision has been made for the Homage of the People to be said in the following form:

“I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”

This looks much like the oath of allegiance taken when an adult person becomes a British citizen under the British Nationality Act 1981:

“I, [name], swear by Almighty God that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to [His Majesty King Charles the Third, His] Heirs and Successors according to law.”

The liturgical Homage and the statutory British citizenship oath are in similar terms. Yet in critical respects they are different. First, the liturgical Homage contains no discrete requirement to be faithful. Second, it does not act legally so as to transform the status of the person concerned so that they become a British citizen. In fact, as the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury immediately preceding the Homage in the Order of Service indicates, the liturgical Homage applies to those who non-legal status remains the same before and after the Homage, such persons being:

“…all persons of goodwill of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the other Realms and the Territories…”

Both the liturgical Homage and statutory British citizenship oath deploy a sworn act of allegiance. In the former, it is performed by those who already belong to a notional community and will remain so after paying homage (‘all persons of goodwill’); in the latter it is performed by those who seek to join those who belong to the United Kingdom by virtue to possessing its principal legal mode of attachment: British citizenship. Why is swearing allegiance used in these two different ways?

Allegiance in British nationality law

Prior to the general statutory regulation of British nationality from the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 onwards, at common law everyone born within the Crown’s dominions was a natural-born British subject and everyone born outside those dominions was an alien. This is a natural law doctrine. Allegiance was indelible.

The limited exceptions to this rule were rooted in the notion that allegiance might nonetheless be owed even when born outside the realm: the children born to a reigning Sovereign and his or her heir born outside the Crown’s dominions were also British subjects, as were the children of the Sovereign’s ambassadors so born, and also those born on a British ship on the High Seas.  Further exceptions were made by 18th Century statutes to provide for the first and second generation by descent born outside the Crown’s dominions to British subject fathers to be natural-born British subjects. All such persons simply owed allegiance. No oath of allegiance to the Sovereign needed to be sworn.

Conversely, those born within the Crown’s dominions but who did not owe allegiance, did not become British subjects at birth, for example the children of foreign ambassadors and members of foreign invading, armed forces. No oath of allegiance could save them from being aliens.

Other than natural­-born British subjects, an alien could become a British subject by acquisition, such as by naturalisation. As regards the latter, an oath of allegiance to the Sovereign was required (then as now).

Allegiance was sworn to the Sovereign in person not to the realm in question (see Calvin’s Case (1608)), a Sovereign might have more than one realm, yet in practice it had long meant not the creation of a personal bond of attachment to the Sovereign but allegiance and fidelity to the laws of their realm or realms: that is to the statute book and to the common law.

In the contemporary era, for those seeking to naturalise as British citizens, the oath of allegiance to the Sovereign is accompanied by a pledge of loyalty to the United Kingdom that captures the obligation of fidelity to the country’s laws:

“I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.”

Whatever one makes of the pledge of loyalty to the UK, it captures with greater precision the substantive content of what allegiance means for those seeking to join the principal constituent community of a democratic state that is bound by the rule of law and which aspires to protect the rights and freedoms of its inhabitants.

As regards respect for the law, the doctrine of allegiance may be deployed even to express the relationship  to public authority of an alien (foreigner) present in the UK. Such a person may be said to owe temporary allegiance to the Crown, being bound by the country’s laws and being subject to its jurisdiction.

The Homage of the People

The Homage of the People to be performed in the Coronation liturgy reflects a different tradition of allegiance-declaration to that undertaken by those who swore allegiance to naturalise as British subjects formerly or who swear allegiance to naturalise as British citizens today. It does not create but rather supplements and affirms existing allegiance. In so doing it reflects aspects of earlier practice. 

Its origins lie in feudal law and custom, for example in the practice that sought to bind all male persons present in the realm by making them swear fealty in a court to the King and his heirs, regardless of whether they were subjects or aliens. The performative force of such an act must have served a disciplinary function and so, in that respect, it is unlike the Homage of the People, which is voluntary and of a sentimental character.

Further, the insertion of the Homage of the People into the Coronation liturgy is a novelty that draws on earlier tradition but which in pursuit of an inclusionary device appears to fuse two separate notions: that of feudal homage such as that paid by a tenant to his lord or by a peer to his Sovereign  (two people in a direct legal relationship), with the overarching duty of fidelity to the Sovereign owed by inhabitants of the realm. Like the British citizenship oath of allegiance (but without the pledge of loyalty to the UK as a democratic state), it manifests a direct relationship between Sovereign and the person swearing allegiance, unmediated by other public institutions and principles.

For those of a republican constitution and for many others seemingly hitherto indifferent, the Homage of the People will raise their blood pressure. For those more sentimentally attached to existing public ritual, it may serve to re-enforce communal feeling in anxious times. Whatever view is taken, its appearance is a reminder that the doctrine of allegiance is not yet extinguished in public life.

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