Denization is an obsolete process in English Common Law, dating from the 13th century, by which a foreigner became a denizen, gaining some privileges of a British subject, including the right to hold English land, through letters patent. Denization fell into disuse when statutory mechanisms for naturalisation developed.

Denization at English Common Law

Denization occurred by a grant of letters patent, an exercise of the royal prerogative. Denizens paid a fee and took an oath of allegiance to the crown.

The denizen was not a citizen nor an alien: but had a status akin to permanent residency today; it has also been compared to the Roman civitas sine suffragio, although the rights of denizens were restricted by the Act of Settlement 1701, not by common or immemorial law. Sir William Blackstone noted:

"A denizen is a kind of middle state, between an alien and a natural-born subject, and partakes of both." – (Blackstone: Commentaries, Book 1, Chapter X, p374)

The denizen was not a citizen because he did not have any political rights: he could not be a member of parliament or hold any civil or military office. However, the status of denizen allowed a foreigner to purchase property, although a denizen could not inherit property. Historically, paying for letters patent was thus a requirement of foreign land ownership in England.

Denization was expressly preserved by the Naturalisation Act of 1870 and by s25 of the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 . (See Early British Nationality Law.) According to the British Home Office, the last denization was granted to the Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1873; the Home Office considered it obsolete when the Prince of Pless applied for it in 1933, and instructed him to apply for naturalization instead. The British Nationality Act 1948, a major reform of citizenship law in Britain, made no mention of denization and neither abolished nor preserved the practice.

Denization, as an exercise of royal power, was applicable throughout the British dominion to all British subjects. That is, it was exercisable in the colonies. For example, denization occurred in the colony of New South Wales. As in England, the practice became obsolete to naturalisation, with the last known denization in 1848.


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