|Ely Cathedral and the fens|
Narratives of perpetual necessity aroused concern in the early seventeenth century. Sir Edward Coke, for example, was worried about the power that the commissioners of sewers possessed over property in the Case of the Isle of Ely of 1609. The famed jurist heard these arguments while he was chief justice of the common pleas, a position he had obtained in 1606. This case was just one of several involving the ambitious undertakers of the English fens who sought, through mechanical improvements, to obtain control over the flood waters that engulfed the low-lying regions around Ely, in order to create productive, and enclosed, farmland. Their pursuits put them squarely at odds with those who wanted to keep the fens as they were so they could continue to enjoy public rights in the marshlands, with inhabitants from surrounding regions who did not want to pay the taxes required for the building of the pumps and dykes, and sometimes with landholders who had parts of their property expropriated so that the dykes could be built.
Legal cases arose over the statutes that authorized the commissioners of sewers. As David Chan Smith has so carefully shown in his recent book on Edward Coke’s jurisprudence, conflicts arose over ‘how taxes should be assessed to pay for sewer works and whether the commissioners had the power to direct the creation of new works’. The particular background to the Ely case involved a group of projectors who, in 1605, were going to drain the fens around Ely and pay for it either through direct or indirect expropriation of lands. While the commissioners of sewers decreed the project legal, the 1607 parliament had refused to sanction it.
In a reversal of previous judgements friendly to the discretionary powers of the commissioners, Coke attempted to bind them through a restrictive definition of necessity. For Coke, the commissioners of sewers could not tax English subjects unless there was an ‘inevitable necessity’ that mandated the construction of dykes, walls or other technologies to defend the land against floodwaters. Innovation was not included in Coke’s narrative of necessity. He only allowed taxation or the expropriation of property for the repair of pre-existing dykes or walls. For Coke, it was only for the sake of a structure that defended the English countryside against inevitable danger — a danger that was not presently visible but would assuredly manifest itself in the future, as the English knew from flood patterns and ocean forces through hundreds of years of experience — that the commissioners of sewers could transform the property of English subjects to achieve the preservation of the commonwealth. If any type of actual innovation was going to be made, the houses of parliament needed to approve it.
In many ways, Coke was an exceptional figure within the English legal community, as those judges who ruled before him on the various statutes of sewers and those who read after him, most notably Robert Callis, did not agree with his restrictive understanding of necessity. For Callis, who gave a reading on Henry VIII’s statute on sewers in 1622 at Gray’s Inn, Coke’s ruling did not fully appreciate the equity embedded in the powers given to the commissioners of sewers. Because their work was of such a ‘great and urgent necessity and use for the good of the whole Commonwealth of the Realm’, the intent ‘maybe extended in exposition beyond the letter of the words’. An equitable reading of the statute allowed judges to ‘inlarge the letter of the Law in the sence of construction, because it tends so much to the advancement of the Commonwealth’. For Callis (who in all likelihood stood to gain from the drainage projects), the soul of the law allowed for new projects even while its strict wording did not. Callis’s reading, at least in 1622, was the legal victor. Stuart lawyers in general allowed a relatively wide latitude when it came to the application of the law of necessity. Utility and improvement, as well as preservation, fitted into their narrative of necessity, which in turn provided those empowered to utilize such narratives a broad remit to generate novel positive laws.