In an English High Court case in 1977, the late Lord Denning summed up the gist of the principle of the rule of law when he said:

To every subject in this land, no matter how powerful, I would use Thomas Fuller’s words over 300 years ago: ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’

Source: P7, How the Law Works, Gary Slapper

I know that Thomas Fuller lived in the 1600s, but still want to learn about the grammar and structure.

  1. What form is be in; it looks the English present subjunctive?

  2. How to anatomize/parse/unravel Be you never?
    I can guess the meaning here as "Even if you were so high..."

  • 2
    It's 16th-century English. I think in modern English, it could be phrased as either "You are never so high (because/since/as/for/;) the law is above you," or "Never be so high (because/since/as/for/;) the law is above you," depending on context. Aug 17 '14 at 10:56
  • How knowledgeable you are! :-) @DamkerngT.
    – Kinzle B
    Aug 17 '14 at 12:18
  • The best modern English interpretation is "No matter how high you are, the law is above you".
    – user38057
    Jul 20 '16 at 17:15

You have guessed very well, and arrived at the meaning.

  • Be here is indeed the old subjunctive, now used only in mandatives (“...ordered that he be released...”). Its former use as a conditional is no longer productive; it lingers today only in some traditional and fossilized expressions (“...be he alive or be he dead”).

  • Never here, as oerkelens observes, is a negative form of ever in its oldest sense of “at every time, in every degree”—the same ever found in whatever, however, whoever, &c. This is another fossilized use: never has been substituted for ever in conditional clauses bearing a sense of negation since the waning days of Old English. Today we would express this negative sense with an -ever compound or, as you suggest, with even:

    However high you are, the law is still above you.
    Even if you are ever so high, the law is still above you.


Be ye never is synonymous, exactly, with though ye be never

The word "be" is just a contraction of albe, which is a contraction of ALBEIT which mean "though it may be" and is still used, albeit rarely. So at full length it is

albeit ye be never

( See eg Spenser Shepheard's calendar) "Albe forswonk and forswot I am"

The same form is used in the old rhyme

Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, Be he alive, or be he dead I'll grind his bones to make my bread.


First, let's have a look at never. In many expressions, never and ever have similar, almost identical meanings:

The water was higher than (n)ever before.
I was as happy as I had (n)ever been.

Then, the use of the imperative here is reminiscent of modern expression like:

Try as you may, you won't catch me.
Study all you want, you will fail the exam.

These two loosely combined would lead me to formulate the sentence in question more or less as follows:

Be as high as [you can] (n)ever [be], [but] the law is [still] above you.

  • 1
    Did you come up with your first two sentences yourself, or are they quotes from something? To me, ever and never cannot be swapped in and out without changing the rest of the sentence. "I was happier than I had never been before" (meaning I have never been this happy) vs. "I was as happy as I had ever been" (meaning My level of happiness is equal to my happiness at some prior point in my life).
    – miltonaut
    Apr 21 '19 at 14:26

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