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.

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