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The law relating to the distribution of prize money in the Royal Navy and its relationship to the use of naval power in war, 1793-1815

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Prize money was paid to officers and crew of ships who captured enemy ships and cargo at sea in time of war. It was a form of bounty providing private profit for officers and crew involved in public service. In the absence of proper historical research the distribution of prize money to the Royal Navy has been categorised as state piracy at one extreme, and a system administered by the courts applying international law at the other. This thesis traces the development of the rules for prize money distribution in Royal Proclamations and their application through decisions of the English courts that have not previously been explored in any detail. It also considers the political context in which changes to the system were made.

The result of this research shows that neither assumption at the extremes is correct. The award of prize money was not state piracy. It was subject to the rule of law and the supervision of the courts. The law that it was subject to, however, was municipal law influenced by international concerns. It was not the administration of ‘international’ as opposed to municipal law. The research also provides a valuable insight into the customs and usage of the Royal Navy in a war for national survival.

Comparison with US provisions for prize payments and also with freight payments and head money in the Royal Navy using the same research methodology helps to understand the remarkable features of the Royal Navy prize system that ended not with the age of sail as commonly assumed, but in 1945.

This thesis contributes to a better understanding of how the Royal Navy functioned, but also challenges misplaced assumptions about the role of ‘international’ law in the decisions of English courts in the long eighteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Sep 2020


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