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  • Paul Anthony Jones

“The case is altered,” quoth Plowden

(phr.) used to imply that new, game-changing information has come to light

judge's judicial wooden gavel and law books

A tweet from a few weeks ago on HH resurfaced this week:

...and it seems we never quite acknowledged the full story behind it.

Fans of the English playwright Ben Jonson will likely know this phrase already: The Case Is Altered was the title of perhaps the earliest of Jonson’s plays, believed to have been written several years before it was published in 1609. Whether Jonson himself coined the phrase the case is altered is debatable (as, for that matter, is whether he even wrote the play or not), but some accounts nevertheless credit it to the distinguished English lawyer and statesmen whose name eventually became attached to it.

Sir Edmund Plowden was born in Shropshire in 1518. Educated at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, he qualified first as a lawyer and then as a practising surgeon and physician, and in 1553 was elected to parliament, serving several constituencies across central England for much of the following a decade.

portrait of edward plowden

But it is for his work as a lawyer that Plowden is best remembered today—partly because of his authorship of several scholarly works of English legal theory, and partly because of his involvement in this curious expression.

A number of anecdotes purport to explain Plowden’s involvement in the case is altered. According to one such tale, Plowden was once approached by a neighbour seeking legal advice after some pigs had escaped and trampled their way across his property. Plowden, being the fount of all legal knowledge that he was, began to explain that the neighbour could indeed seek compensation—but on learning that the escaped pigs were in fact his, muttered the immortal line, “Nay then, the case is altered.”

Another story claims that Plowden, who was a Roman Catholic at a time when Catholicism was banned in England, was tricked into attending a clandestine Catholic mass in a forest near his home. The priest and his fellow parishioners were all stooges in on the ploy, and once Plowden turned up he was arrested, imprisoned and called into court. Witnesses were called to attest to Plowden having attended the mass—including one man who had acted as the priest. Plowden, defending himself in the case, quickly saw a loophole. “Art thou a priest, then?” he asked, to which the man replied that he was not. “Why then,” Plowden continued, “the case is altered: no priest, no mass.”

Whether either of these two incidents (or any of the other tales purporting to explain the origin of this phrase) actually took place is unclear. As is whether or not Plowden himself coined the expression, or whether Jonson invented it and Plowden’s name, as that of one of the foremost legal minds of his day, simply ended up being attached to it.

Whatever the truth, the case is altered, quoth Plowden soon became a popular proverb in early seventeenth century England, employed whenever any case-altering or game-changing information comes to light.

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