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Legal London: training barristers in the Inns of Court

In 1346 the Knights Hos­pital­l­ers formally leas­ed out In­n­er and Mid­dle Tem­ple Fleet St to practit­ioners who cal­l­ed them­selv­es the Society of the Temple. On a square mile in the City of London, each Inn was very exclusive.

Oxf­ord University had already been founded late in the C12th and Camb­ridge soon after. Yet des­pite the importance of these two medieval seats of learn­ing, no other university was built until the C19th. Thus the Inns of Court in London together acted as the city's de facto un­i­v­­er­s­ity, founded on col­l­egiate standards. Each inn had a mas­ter, tutors, chap­el, lec­tures, exams and ac­ademic regula­t­ions.

Dancing was a desirable culture for upper-class gentlemen and so the revels were held on feast days. The dances were large af­fairs and the feasts were grand: In 1574 there were 769 barristers, staff and students in the Inns.

The average age at admission was 17, half of them having previously attended University. Although some wealthy merchants were able to send their sons to the costly Inns, the majority of students were sons of the landed gent­ry.

Lincoln's Inn

The Utter Barristers were practitioners who used their chambers as law offices, and who taught younger members of the Inns. St­udents also attended courts at Parliament, and part­ic­ipated in moots/mock trials and debates. Ju­dges and senior pract­itioners formed a governing body for each Inn of Court, and were called the ben­chers. Readers lec­­tured during the interv­als between le­g­al terms.

Students began as Inner Barristers. After 7 years, they could be confirmed as an Utter Barrister, qualified member of the Bar. Only then could they be admit­ted to a set of chambers. Senior barr­isters who become King’s or Queen's Counsels “took silk” gowns.

Today the Inns still have the exclusive right to ad­mit barr­is­t­ers to the profession. Even now almost all chambers are still in the Inns of Court. But note that modern students no longer have to sleep in the Inns.

The majority of gentlemen who attended the Inns did not go on in a leg­al career. By the late C16th, only 15% of students purs­ued studies long enough to be admitted to the bar. For the rest, the Inns se­r­­ved as a sort of finishing school, enjoy London’s opport­unit­ies with peers and learn law.

Middle and Inner Temple Inns, geographically and hist­or­­ically so close, are coll­ectively known as The Temple. The red brick gate way, which has been attributed to Wren 1685, leads into Middle Temple Lane. Middle Temple (1560s) survives with one of the best Eliz­a­bethan interiors in London. The hall’s inter­ior is spanned by a double hammer beam roof, officially op­ened by Queen Eliz­abeth I. And she do­n­at­ed a gift of the 30' long high table made from a single oak. Note the spec­t­acular carved oak Armada screen, from the wood of a cap­tured Span­ish gall­eon. The loveliest parts of Middle Temple are the library, dining hall and chapel.

Library in Inner Temple

In Inner Temple, the library is huge. In addition to the Engl­ish legal material, Inner Temple holds a specialist collection of Com­monwealth countries’ legal mat­er­ials. The collection incl­udes British history, Literature, Genealogy and Heraldry. Inner Temple hall is perfect for legal or public banqueting.

Early Elizabethan drama owed much to the per­formance of plays in these halls at festive seasons. The first English tragedy was written by two members of the Inn in 1561, and performed in the Inner Temple Hall. The first regular Engl­ish comedy was first acted in Gray's Inn Hall, 5 years later. Comedy of Errors was per­formed in Gray's Inn Hall in 1594, between dancing and revelry. It was for a Christmas revel at the Middle Temple that Shakesp­eare wrote Twel­fth Night 1601 which the bard himself performed. Shak­es­peare made mention of the Temple in Henry VI, where he says that the white [York] and red ros­es [Lancast­er], used as badges in the War of the Ros­es, were plucked in Middle Temple Gard­ens.

The two Inns share the round Temple Church off Fleet Street. Built to the Templar pat­t­ern in 1160, it copied the Holy Sepulchre Church in Je­r­usalem. It had a round nave, obl­ong choir and piers of black pol­ished mar­b­le, Norman west door, priests' hall and cloister. There are 9 marble Associates monuments, in ful­l knightly gear.

Temple Church

The grandest Inn, Gray's Inn in Holborn High St was foun­d­­ed only 25 years later (1371). Gray’s has a small but lovely hall,  and a hand­some cupola. Gray’s has a lovely C17th gateway and its library has one of the most comp­lete law books coll­ections. Their amazing Span­ish Armada carved screen came from Elizabeth I’s Lord High Admiral!

Although the Law Society is based in Gray's Inn, the costs for running this organisation are provided by all four inns co­l­lect­ively. The Law Society's main respons­ibil­it­ies are: educ­ation of barristers, sch­ol­ar­ships, ch­ambers and publication of professional literature.

The most recent of the Inns, Lincoln's Inn Chancery Lane, was first ment­ioned in 1422 documents and named after the Earl of Lincoln. Note the Tudor gatehouse (1518) and the ch­apel attrib­uted to In­igo Jones. The orig­inal Old Hall was extended twice.

Lin­coln's Inn Fields were laid out in 1618 by Inigo Jones. It was the largest square in London, and the most fash­ion­able. In 1640s it was agreed that smart houses could be built around the square, but that the greenery would never be ruined. It all feels rural!

The neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet St is modern (1874-82) because, till then, Westminster Palace Hall serv­ed as the King's Courts of Law. Thus there had been no need for an extra, purpose-built creation. Enter the huge central hall of the Roy­al Courts, then sit in many of the court rooms to hear civil cases. Criminal cas­es are heard in Old Bailey.

For 1000 years hideous Newgate Prison was the site where pub­lic exe­c­utions were routinely held. First mentioned in King John's reign and then in the reign of Henry III, the King ex­pressly command­ed the sheriffs of London to repair it. When New­gate Prison was demolished, Old Bailey was erected immed­iat­ely, complete with the bronze Goddess of Justice on the dome. Altogether there are 18 courts in the Central Crim­in­al Court com­plex.

Old Bailey

Chancery Lane, between High Holborn and Fleet Streets, was where lawyers bought their books, were outfitted for court and drank wine. The pub opposite the Royal Courts of Justice was once a coffee house for young lawyers.

Then the Public Record Office, the nation's archives of off­ic­ial re­c­ords, once housed in the Tower of Lon­don. It holds import­ant nat­ional material: of­ficial documents, diplomatic corres­p­on­dence and central governmental decisions. The Pub­l­ic Rec­ord Office looks like a Tudor fortress but it is act­ua­l­­ly quite mod­ern (1850s). Only postgrad­uate students and re­sear­ch­ers can get access to this building. But the Public Re­cord Office Mus­eum is open to all.

See Rumpole of the Bailey which was filmed in the Inns.


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