Inns of Court


Inns of Chancery

Court of Chancery in C18 (?). Wikimedia Commons.

The Inns of Chancery were the downstream law schools, originally lodgings for the clerks of Chancery. The clerks are the ones sitting at the judge’s feet in the picture, scribbling away with their quills.

In the sixteenth century, you might live in an Inn of Chancery, desperately trying to pretend you didn’t belong there, while waiting to be admitted to an Inn of Court. More likely you were one of the lesser sort — the son of a yeoman or modest merchant — rather than a gentleman. You would thus never be eligible for an Inn of Court and could aspire only to becoming a solicitor, aka a pettifogger. OED defines the word thus: “an inferior legal practitioner who dealt with petty cases.” They offer a quote from a letter written in 1586: “A moste wicked promotor, and wretched petifogar, enriched him self by other mens ruynes.”

Such was the reputation of lawyers back then. What else is new? Thomas Clarady properly belongs at Staple Inn rather than Gray’s; if his father weren’t rich and Francis Bacon weren’t chronically in debt, that’s where he would be. He knows it, too; he’s always looking over his shoulder. Someday I’ll have to bring some pettifoggers into a book, maybe in a story involving courtroom action. (I know the title of that one, actually, but not yet where it goes in the series.)

Each Inn of Chancery was associated by tradition with a particular Inn of Court. Gray’s had Staple Inn (145 students, 69 permanent residents) and Barnard’s Inn. Lincoln’s had Furnival Inn, where Charles Dickens was living when he started writing the Pickwick Papers. Middle Temple had New Inn and Strand Inn; Inner Temple had Clement’s, Lyon’s, and Clifford’s. If you’re getting the impression that the legal profession was booming in the sixteenth century, you are not wrong.

Staple Inn. Wikimedia Commons.

Staple Inn is, as far as I know, the best surviving example of the sort of building my characters lived in. It survived the Great Fire in 1666, but was damaged by the Nazis in 1944.

The rebuilt building in the first picture has 7 gables. Below is another picture from 1886, which looks very much the same. If each gable has its own stair, we get 14 sets of chambers on each floor. I see 4 stories, including the topmost, which might have held just one set.

Staple Inn in 1886. Wikimedia Commons.


Let’s pretend the top floor has two meager rooms — the cheapest lodgings you could get with a London legal address. That gives us 56 sets of chambers. Sufficient for the 69 permanent residents, but a heck of a squeeze when everyone comes to town for a Reading or the Christmas festivities. Worth it though, unless you were a fussy sleeper.


Holborn Road was busy and noisy back then, though nothing like it is now. Then you would have heard horses and wagons during the day: neighing, braying, leather squeaking, whips cracking, cartmen shouting, vendors singing, dogs barking. All would fall silent after dark, except the dogs and the odd drunken pettifogger stumbling back from the tavern.

Inns of Court, part 1

Clockwise from top left: Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple. From wikipedia.

Francis Bacon became a member of Gray’s Inn in 1576 at the age of 15. He and his brother Anthony were admitted as ancients, in spite of their youth and complete lack of experience, because their father Sir Nicholas was the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and thus the preeminent justice in England. Sons of judges were routinely admitted to the Inns of Court in an honorary capacity. Nepotism was the norm in the sixteenth century, after all. Why shouldn’t your father’s honors earn you an advantage?

There are four Inns of Court: Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s, and Gray’s. Inner and Middle Temples can trace their origins to the late 14th century, while Lincoln’s has records going back to 1422. Gray’s Inn’s records don’t begin until 1569, 8 years after Francis was born. His father probably helped instigate the practice.

 The Pension Book of Gray’s Inn

The Pension Book contains minutes of meetings of Gray’s governing board from 1569-1800. It can be downloaded in PDF format from the California Digital Library or read in a cool, quiet, law school library. The 1901 edition available at CDL includes a nice introduction to the Inns of Court. Like any other diary, these notes supply both fascinating glimpses into another world and minutiae of brain-numbing tedium. Oh, wait — I just described research in general.

pensionbookofgraysinn_title_pageFrancis makes his first appearance as a member of the board on page 73:

“Pension 20th May, 28 Eliz [1586]: Present:–Brograve, Anger, Whiskins, Yelverton, Cardinall, Kempe, Feasant and Spurling, Lect: ‘et Franciscus Bacon Arm.’

Thomas Broxholme elected Reader.

Mr. Doctor Crooke is to be allowed for six weicks comons at Christemas & fowre weeks after the Lent Reding after the rate of fowre shillings.’

The Laundres is at this pention allowed xiii iiii more that is to saye xx a quarter for this yere onely because wood & coles is verey dear.”

I have no idea what ‘Arm.’ means (armigerous – arms-bearing?) or why Francis was singled out as ‘Lect’ (Reader? but he hadn’t read yet.) It’s like him to attend every meeting that he could, though — that special combination of arrogance, sense of duty, and determination to do anything to keep himself in the eyes of those who could advance him. The said Laundress must have been over forty and homely, since women of any appeal were barred from these masculine institutions. 


Each Inn of Court was governed by a group of senior members known as ‘benchers. These were senior barristers who had performed a Reading, a week-long exhibition of legal knowledge and oratorical skill attended by members of the Inns of Court and often many noblepersons as well. Expensive, important to one’s career, and a central element in the plot of Murder by Misrule. In practice, a smaller board led by the Treasurer made most of the decisions. Clicking through the Pension Book, I rarely see more than 12 names listed as Present. Benchers got to add tufts of silk and velvet to their knee-length legal robes and have breakfast served to them in their chambers.

Barristers came in two styles, outer and inner. Outer (utter) barristers were those who had passed outside the bar that literally stood in the courts to separate the judges from everyone else. Lawyers still sit at tables before the judge’s bench, separated from the audience by a bar — a short wooden barrier. At least, on Law & Order they do.

Ancients were outer barristers of 8-12 years’ standing who had not yet performed a Reading. They were allowed two stripes of velvet on the long sleeves of their gowns, in exchange for which they had to serve 9 consecutive learning vacations, intervals between court terms during which students conducted moot courts and other exercises. They were responsible for whatever teaching went on at the Inns.

Inner barristers were what we would call law students. They had not passed the bar and could not argue cases in court. They were expected to live in the Inn, dine in commons every day, and attend all the learning exercises. They wore sleeveless black gowns with a flap collar and short wings at the shoulder instead of sleeves, topped by a round, black cloth cap.

Gray’s was the most popular Inn of Court in the late sixteenth century, thanks to illustrious members like Lord Treasurer Burghley. There were about 350 members in 1586, although not more than 200 would typically dine in commons at once. Of the 350, about 20 were benchers, 30+ outer barristers, and the rest inner barristers. Wait — 300 inner barristers? That can’t be right. Where would they all sleep? Some 150 members must be nominal, like Francis’s older brothers and Burghley’s son Robert Cecil. They were admitted as youths, but never lived there, or practiced law. Other members would be country gentlemen who preferred hunting to court appearances. Looking only at the 200 active members, we get a more reasonable 150 students. If all the seniors were engaged in teaching the juniors, which they most distinctly were not, we’d have a respectable teaching ratio of 3-to-1. Alas, contemporary accounts suggest that young men were tossed into the Inn to learn as they might, according to their natures.

There doesn’t seem to be a public domain picture of Gray’s Inn Hall and they don’t allow tourists inside to take pictures. Fussy, what? Just because it’s still a working institution and members still have dinner there on a regular basis. Liza Picard, author of the extremely excellent Elizabeth’s London, is a member of Gray’s Inn. The original building is still standing, sort of. It was badly damaged in the Blitz and needed extensive repairs, although the art was saved. The picture here is of Middle Temple Hall, which must be very similar. Thanks to the Harry Potter movies, we have an excellent idea of how the hall looked and sounded when all the inner barristers were seated at their long tables and the benchers watching from their table on the dais. Apart from things like Howlers and owls, of course.

Middle Temple Hall by Herbert Railton. From Wikipedia.
Middle Temple Hall by Herbert Railton. From Wikipedia.

Source: mainly Wilfrid R. Prest. 1972. The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts. Longman.


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