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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