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Denization is an obsolete or defunct process in England and Ireland and the later Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the British Empire, dating back to the 13th century, by which an alien (foreigner), through letters patent, became a denizen, thereby obtaining certain rights otherwise only normally enjoyed by the King's (or Queen's) subjects, including the right to hold land. Denization fell into obsolescence with the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 (4 & 5 Geo. 5) c. 17, which instituted certificates of naturalisation, instead of—as it was with divorce until the year 1858 with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 (20 & 21 Vict.) c. 85—necessitating the procuring of an expensive private act of Parliament or possibly of a colonial legislature.
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. For example when the Venetian mariner Gabriel Corbet was granted letters of denization in 1431 for service upon the seas to Henry V and Henry VI, he was required to pay 40 shillings into the hanaper for the privilege.
The denizen was neither 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 had limited political rights: he could vote, but could not be a member of parliament or hold any civil or military office. The status of denizen allowed a foreigner to purchase property, although a denizen could not inherit property.
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 naturalisation 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.
The term denizen may also refer to any national of a country, whether citizen or non-citizen, with a right to remain in and return to the country. In the United States, before they were made citizens by statute, unassimilated Native Americans, although born on U.S. soil, were not deemed to be citizens of the United States or any state, but of a domestic nation contained within the United States but whose members are not even nationals of it, but denizens of it, with a right to remain in and return to their reserved territories.
- Edmund G. Berry, "Cives Sine Suffragio in England"; The Classical Journal, Vol. 39, No. 8. (May, 1944), pp. 490-492, (JSTOR link. Citing, for Pless, the Times of London, December 18, 1943.
- Australian article on historical denization
- Blackstone Commentaries - Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries (1769), Book 1 Chapter X: ‘’Of People Whether Aliens, Denizens Or Natives’’
- On use of ‘denizen’ in the US – see quote from Hugh S. Legare (Attorney General of US)]
- Foreigners Voting Rights in the Kingdom of Hawaii
- 'Denizen' in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica