Lettres de cachet (French pronunciation: [lɛtʁ də kaʃɛ]) 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 judgments 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), or by showing in person in a lit de justice, that the king ordered a parlement 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. The wealthy sometimes bought such lettres to dispose of unwanted individuals.
In this respect, the lettres de cachet were a prominent symbol of the abuses of the ancien régime monarchy, and as such were suppressed during the French Revolution.
The power to issue lettres de cachet was a royal privilege recognized by the French monarchic civil law that developed during the 13th century, as the Capetian monarchy overcame its initial distrust of Roman law. The principle can be traced to a maxim which furnished a text of the Pandects of Justinian: in their Latin version, "Rex solutus est a legibus", or "The king is released from the laws." "The French legal scholars interpreted the imperial office of the Justinian code in a generic way and arrived at the conclusion that every 'king is an emperor in his own kingdom,' that is, he possesses the prerogatives of legal absolutism that the Corpus Juris Civilis attributes to the Roman emperor."
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 François de Montmorency 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.
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