Inns of Court


Gray's Inn, part 2: Daily routine

The gentlemen of the Inns of Court were mocked in their day by the likes of Thomas Nashe as waste-goods and idlers. Fair enough for the average run, who were only there to acquire a bit of urban polish. But those who wanted to pursue careers in the law spent a goodly portion of their time studying.

Becoming a lawyer in Elizabethan England

(Taken almost verbatim from The Pension Book of Gray’s Inn, Records of the Honourable Society 1569-1669, edited by Reginald J. Fletcher. 1901. London: The Chiswick Press.)

His admission would take place at the time of life when young men go nowadays to the Universities. If he had studied previously at Staple Inn or Barnard’s Inn, he would be admitted at a fee of 40s. to the clerks’ mess, or third table, the members of which waited on the rest of the company in Hall. Otherwise, he joined the masters’ mess and paid £3 6s 8d. Shortly afterwards he would secure a share in a chamber and begin the course of study prescribed for inner-barristers.

Much of his work was no doubt done in private, but during Readings his mornings would be spent in the Hall, listening to lectures on the selected statute and joining in the subsequent disputations. His evenings both then and in term would be devoted to the moots and bolts. So passed a period of from six to nine years.

When the allotted time was completed he had to produce, as a condition of his call to be an utter-barrister, a certificate that he had argued twice at the grand moots in the Hall, twice at moots in one of the Inns of Chancery and twice on the bench in the Library. He was then sworn “openly at the cupboard in the Hall” and allowed his degree.

After call he had to serve the next three learning vacations, attending the Readings both at Gray’s and at the Inns of Chancery, and presiding at bolts whereat students put cases.

When he had been for five years an utter-barrister he might begin to practise in the courts at Westminster, and some ten years after his call to the Bar he was admitted to the grand Company of Ancients.

 Doesn’t sound idle to me!

 An average day

(This is from Prest, Wilfrid R. 1972. The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts. Longman.)

 5:00 – 6:00                  Ad Sacra. Begin with God by reading and prayer.

6:00 – 9:00                  Ad Jura. Read the law carefully and understandingly.

9:00 – 11:00                Ad Arma. Carry on harmless acts of manhood, fencing, dancing, etc.

11:00 – 12:00               Ad Artes. Forget not academic learning, rhetoric, logic.

12:00 – 2:00                 Ad Victium. Eat seasonably, moderately, and allow time to digest.

2:00  – 5:00                 Ad Amictias. Visit civilly your friends, and repay kindness in kind.

5:00  – 6:00                 Ad Artes. Read history, romances and poetry.

6:00  – 8:00                 Ad Victium

8:00  – 9:00                 Ad Repetitionem et Sacra. Repeat your parts and say your prayers.

9:00  – 5:00                 Ad Noctem et somnium

Hard to imagine a building full of young men between the ages of 17 and 25 going to bed at 9:00 pm. But those were different times and there were no streetlights. If you went out after dark, you brought your own lantern. I do like the idea of those harmless acts of manhood, however.

The legal calendar

The royal courts met from 8:00 – 11:00, Monday – Saturday, during terms. Barristers, both inner and outer, were expected to spend time observing the courts in session. Diligent students would dash home to write down everything they could remember in their commonplace books.


Terms: roughly 3 weeks each

  • Hilary: Jan 13 to Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday
  • Easter: 17 days after Easter Sunday to Eve of Ascension
  • Trinity: Friday afer Corpus Christi day to 19 days later (mid-May to mid-June)
  • Michaelmas: Tuesday after feast of St. Michael (29 Sept) to Nov 26~Dec 4
  • Learning Vacations: barristers were required to be in residence
  • Lent Vacation: from first Monday in Lent, for 3 weeks &3 days
  • Summer/Autumn Vacation: first Monday after Lammas (Aug 1) for 3 weeks & 3 days
  • Mesne (mean/dead) Vacations: You could go home for the rest of the year and refresh yourself.



Inns of Court, part 3: How they dressed

Giovanni Battista Moroni. Wikimedia commons.

I can’t find any portraits of inner barristers — students at the Inns of Court — and precious few portraits of barristers. I find no portraits of lawyers in their work clothes; at least none that prominently feature the details of their robes. The kids in the Harry Potter movies wore wizard’s robes over their everyday jeans and sneakers. Replace the jeans with galligaskins and you’ll get the general idea.

The picture shows an Italian lawyer, very correctly dressed in somber black, with restrained — yet impeccable — ruffs and cuffs. He’s not wearing a gown over his doublet and hose, but note the velvet welts on his sleeves.

Regulation dress

One’s status at the Inns of Court was displayed by means of one’s robe or gown.

  • Benchers, governors of the Inns, wore knee-length gowns tufted with silk and velvet.
  • Barristers, aka outer barristers, or men who had passed the bar, wore long black grogram gowns with two velvet welts on the long hanging sleeves.
  • Students, aka inner barristers, wore sleeveless black gowns with a flap collar, topped by a round black cloth cap.


Student caps are not like academic mortar boards. They’re like this fine fellow (thanks to A bluestocking knits  for the link.) Ludger_tom_Ring_d__J__Selbstbildnis_wikiped

Grogram is a blend of silk and mohair. According to Knitpicks , “the silk adds a radiant core that shimmers and shines through the soft halo of the mohair.” Warm, too.

Rules made to be broken

Has any dress code ever, anywhere, been obeyed?

Legal gowns were to be worn at all times in the Inns and presumably in the Westminster courts. It was forbidden to wear them into the City, any further than Fleet bridge, Holborn bridge, or the Savoy. Why, I have no idea. Francis Bacon was often seen walking about the City in his barrister’s gown, so it can’t have been much enforced. They announce one’s status. Who would give that up?

Like sumptuary laws in general, the dress code at the Inns of Court seems to have needed constant reinforcement. I get the sense that the benchers kept having to add items to the list of forbidden garments and accessories, posting and reposting their rules on the screen in the hall. (When you enter a hall in this period, you first encounter a floor-to-ceiling screen of oak paneling. Such a screens passage  can be quite elaborate and long enough to form a corridor. This is where notices were pinned.)

Here’s a sampling of forbidden items of dress:

  • Breeches of any light color, coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on study gowns. Great breeches made after the Dutch, Spanish, or German fashion; or cut [slashed] doublets.
  • Any light colors in hose or doublets, except scarlet and crimson.
  • White jerkins.
  • Buskins or velvet shoes.
  • Double cuffs on shirts.
  • Feathers or ribbons in caps.
  • Spanish cloak, sword and buckler, or rapier.
  • None under the degree of a knight do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of 1 s. and so double for every week after monition.


For some reason I thought lace would be on that list, but apparently not. The rules about beards seem peculiar too. They seem to be promoting a sexy stubble. Pointed short beards and long hair became increasingly stylish over the 1590’s.

The always stylish Sir Walter Raleigh
The always stylish Sir Walter Raleigh

Punishment was 3s. 4d. for the first offense, upon pain to forfeit, and expulsion for the second. I sincerely doubt anyone was ever really expelled for clothing violations. The most common punishment was undoubtedly a stern frown, an open palm, and the command, “Give me that feather, Mr. Clarady. And don’t let me catch you wearing such fripperies again!”


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