Inns of Court, part 2: Where they lived

Gray's Inn Hall today

Gray’s Inn Hall today

The Inns of Court began as inns: lodgings for barristers who lived in Westminster while the courts were in session. They ganged together to save money and ensure quality. They began to give lectures and hold moot courts and gradually evolved into institutions for training lawyers, as well as a sort of legal guild. By Francis Bacon’s time, each Inn had a campus consisting of a central hall, a chapel, and several buildings divided into residential chambers.

These were modeled on the university colleges: sets of chambers organized around staircases, each set consisting of an inner and an outer room. They didn’t build hallways in those days, when lighting was supplied by costly torches and candles.

I belabor this point because it’s hard to find information about how exactly men lived in these institutions. Antiquarians and historians of architecture write endless chapters about the halls and the chapels, but say next to nothing about the rooms in which men slept and studied. Frustrating! I skimmed many large and dusty volumes containing histories of Oxford and Cambridge, searching for details about chambers, to no avail. I needed information specifically about Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, since Tom lives there in book 2 (Death by Disputation, to appear Dec 1). The Old College is still standing, so I can get a sense of proportion, although I’ve never been inside the college. Still, the dimensions are perceptible


Corpus Christi Old Court, east range. Wikimedia Commons.

The best I could do on actual interiors was the information about Charles Darwin’s room at  Corpus Christi College. The BBC Cambridgeshire gallery has photographs. There is an article about the restoration which I can no longer find (Jo Poole, “The Restoration of Darwin’s Rooms.” Links broken on Corpus Christi College website.) In that article was a picture of a restorer standing on a ladder, which was the best thing I could find about proportions. The ceilings were lower than I would have thought, about 8 feet. People were a little shorter, so it must have felt roomy enough. And these buildings were designed to be utilitarian accommodations for hardy young men, not showpieces for the college or the benefactor like the chapels and halls.

Buildings inhabited by those who study, including lawyers, were designed for maximum light. I think chambers in a college consisted of one large room with windows front and back and fireplaces set into the walls that alternated with staircases. All academic institutions enjoyed rapidly rising popularity over the Tudor century, so they crammed the boys in. Christopher Marlowe shared a room with 3 others, sleeping probably all together, but with private desks in each corner. Some students lived with a tutor sharing one large room on the first floor for study and sleeping in the cockloft above.

The Inns of Court were also overcrowded, but lawyers were not quite so densely packed together. Barristers were obliged to share chambers, two to a set, until they achieved the status of Ancients. I imagine younger members — inner barristers — might have two or even three chums. I don’t know this is true for my period, but in all later periods lawyers have inner and outer chambers, rather than one large room. They would only get windows on one side of each room, but they would have a place other than their bedchamber to meet clients.

Furnishings at colleges were sparse and coarse. Young men and boys lived in them for few years and moved on. But men might inhabit their chambers at an Inn of Court for the better part of their lives. Gray’s Inn was Francis Bacon’s chief residence from 1579-1606, when he married Alice Barnham. After he was drummed out of the Lord Chancellor’s office in 1621, even though he still owned Gorhambury, he spent much of his time at Gray’s until he died in 1626.

His father built that house at Gray’s opposite the gatehouse, caty-corner from the hall. The library was kept there, on the first floor, I think. I find tidbits about the place, but no solid description. Careless of the people of the past, not to record these minutiae for us! In 1591, Francis added two stories and presumably improved the rest, in preparation for his brother Anthony’s arrival. Anthony suffered from fragile health all his life, so he did not climb stairs. He lived on the ground floor for less than a year before taking a house in Bishopsgate. I’ll bet Anthony found Gray’s Inn too austere and too nosey for his tastes.

I can’t imagine Francis living in a sparse environment, so I’ve given him every luxury: woven mats on the floor, painted oak paneling, silk cushions, Venetian glass. He has a servant, Pinnock, because he must. Francis Bacon neither fetched nor carried; neither did he stoke a fire. Pinnock sleeps on a narrow bed in the front chamber which also serves as a sort of sofa. Francis’s brothers could in principle bunk in with him at any time, since they were members and since everyone below the status of bencher was required to share rooms. Space was at a premium at the Inns of Court in Elizabeth’s time, and James’s.

Here’s the note I have about housing at Gray’s Inn in 1574:

12 Benchers                                        124 chambers

30 utter barristers                             Of the 220 members, 204 had chambers

178 other gentlemen                          16 had none

Spillover lodged in rooms around town or at local inns like my Antelope Inn on Holborn Road.

Tom and his chums lived in a building called the Upper Gallery, one of the oldest buildings at Gray’s, which faced the hall and the chapel. It was already deteriorating by my time; in 1673 it was pronounced “so very ruinous that it was scarce capable of being repaired.” I put them on the top floor (third from the ground), because more stairs usually meant fewer shillings a month.

Great_Bed_of_Ware_smTheir environment was far more utilitarian than Prince Francis’s. Three young gentlemen in a pair of rooms? I imagine a chaotic mess, with parts of garments, broadside ballads, hats, musical instruments, bows & arrows, old quills, wads of used paper, sheaves of new paper, and books smuggled out of the library covering three desks, three large trunks, and one big bed. Perhaps not as big as the Great Bed of Ware (built 1580, 10×11 feet) but big enough for three grown men. Ben slept in the middle, hoping to warm his chronically cold feet.

In reality, both Tom and Stephen would have had personal servants to clean up after them and run their errands, boys who slept on trundle beds or in the topmost attic room with other personal servants. Gentlemen did not do housework of any kind.


Trundle bed at Mary Arden’s Farm

But the Law of Conservation of Characters demands that one not clutter up one’s stories with persons unnecessary to the plot, so my busy lads are doomed to hunt for their own sleeves and stockings in the maelstrom of their rooms. Water is fetched and chamberpots are emptied behind the scenes. They went to a barber to be shaved every few days. There were rules about that, too: you could be fined 10 shillings for wearing a beard of more than 3 weeks’ length!

Cooking was probably forbidden in chambers. Nobody respects that rule today, we can’t imagine they did back then, although they were more likely to buy street food and bring it home. Apple cores and greasy wrappings were probably pitched out the window or tossed into the fire. Breakfast — bread and beer — was consumed in chambers. (Small beer, of course, or small quantities; people did not go reeling around drunk. That’s a Renfaire myth.)

Complaints were made about men pissing out of windows, so that was a hazard. One hopes they directed their output to the back, rather than into the central yards. The land beyond Gray’s was farmland, rolling hills with cows and rabbits. A view, a breeze, a relatively private aspect. Otherwise, they surely used chamber pots, which were probably emptied once or twice a day by the servants, your own or the Inn’s. Chamber pots were emptied into privies, of which there must have been a few somewhere, though no antiquarian has seen fit to mention them. Privies were cleaned by waste management service providers, who sold the material on to fertilizer companies. Everything was used in those thrifty days.

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