Maps of London’s Common Law Inns, c. 1300- c. 1500
by Malcolm Richardson, with maps by Gabriele Richardson
The Common Law Legal Inns
Because London was the center of common law training in medieval England, the city was the temporary or permanent home to many lawyers and law students. Their work and training occurred in the “legal inns,” which served all the functions of a law office, school, and boarding house. Instruction at the legal inns focused on common law, as opposed to canon law (ecclesiastical law) or civil law (disputes over injuries such as defamation, negligence, property damage, and breach of contract), which were taught only at the universities. Common law was based not on written laws but on legal precedents, that is, rules made by judges (also called case law). Apprentices in common law were trained by observing and taking notes of the judges’ discussions at the royal courts at Westminster and then staging disputations (moots) and mock trials and attending lectures (readings) when the courts were not in session. Although legal training in the UK now occurs in universities, the Inns of Court continue to serve as the major credentialing agencies for barristers.
This section contains a series of maps illustrating the location of legal inns in London at several points in their history from about 1292 to the end of the fifteenth century. Clustered in London’s Holborn district, Fleet Street, and the Strand, the legal quarter then and now was situated just outside the city walls (Map A). There were two groups of legal inns; (1) the Inns of Court (including Lincoln’s and Gray’s Inns, and the Inner and Middle Temple) and (2) the Inns of Chancery, which through the seventeenth century were preparatory for the senior Inns of Court, although they have now all but disappeared. By 1470, when their existence was first noted by Sir John Fortescue, the Inns of Chancery were each affiliated with one of the senior Inns of Court (Map B). Both types of inns served as legal offices and apprentice centers and sometimes residences. Mainly sixteenth-century evidence shows them as being carefully and hierarchically managed.
The Inns of Chancery and the Royal Chancery
The legal quarter also housed the Chancery, a royal office which authorized and produced by hand voluminous official documents in the king’s name. The Chancery had a well-developed training system in place by 1300, which was later adapted for training in the common law since the royal Chancery clerks had critical overlapping legal interests with lawyers, especially the writ system. During the late fourteenth century, the Chancery clerks were heavily involved in the training of law students in various inns, drawing on the writs and documents used in the Westminster courts.
In 1415, however, the Chancellor forced the Chancery clerks to reside only with other royal clerks. The lawyers, left on their own, regrouped into their own societies and by 1470 Fortescue recognized (but did not name) the surviving ten Inns of Chancery. The maps also illustrate the role of the Chancery clerks in leasing the legal inns in 1350-1415 (Maps C-H).
The present maps are unique in that they show the pre-history of the “lesser inns” at a time before they were recognized as “The Inns of Chancery.” Earlier maps show only the ten Inns of Chancery as they existed from about 1500. In 2017, John H. Baker, the leading authority on English legal history for this period, redefined the term “Inn of Chancery” to include any legal inn preparatory to the Inns of Court, not just the ten recognized after 1470. This new view is reflected in the current maps. The maps present time-lapse snapshots at several key points in their histories, showing legal inns which had disappeared when Fortescue wrote. The base map is excerpted from the map of London in 1520 from The City of London from Prehistoric Times to c. 1520 (see below). The maps do not show Gray’s Inn slightly to the north since its inclusion would increase the scale of the map unnecessarily. The Middle and Inner Temples are also not differentiated and not specially marked beyond the “New Temple” area on the 1989 map.
While there are scores of studies of medieval English legal history and perhaps more on the history of London’s legal quarter, the following are probably the most useful for the subject at hand. Practically all the information above and in the following map introductions comes from these sources, or sources cited within.
Baker, Sir John. The Inns of Chancery, 1340-1640. Selden Society Supplementary Series, no. 19. London: Selden Society, 2017. The introduction is the most thoughtful and thorough contemporary guide.
Baker, John. Men of Court, 1440 to 1550: A Prosopography of the Inns of Court and Chancery and the Courts of Law. London: Selden Society, 2012. A massive, two-volume prosopography of men who studied at the legal inns and who by definition were at least temporary London residents.
Bland, Desmond, A Bibliography of the Inns of Court and Chancery (Selden Society, supp. ser., no 3, London, 1965. Quite dated but still useful for listing much earlier material
Brand, Paul. The Origins of the English Legal Profession. Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1992. Clearly written exposition by one of the major figures in the field.
The City of London from Prehistoric Times to c. 1520, ed. Mary D. Lobel (Oxford University Press, 1989). The Tudor-era map used here was created by Col. Henry Johns. It has since been revised by Caroline Barron, Vanessa Harding, and others and published by the Historic Towns Trust in 2018.
Ives, E. W. The Common Lawyers of Pre-Reformation England. Cambridge Studies in Legal History, ed. D. E. C. Yale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. Uses the career of one successful lawyer to illustrate the legal profession in the second half of the fifteenth century.
Learning the Law: Teaching and the Transmission of Law in England 1150-1900. Eds. Jonathan A. Bush and Alain Wiffels. London: Hambledon Press, 1999. An essay collection.
Tout, Thomas Frederick. “The Household of the Chancery and its Disintegration.” In
Essays in History Presented to Reginald Lane Poole, edited by H.W.C. Davis, 46-85. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927. A seminal article on the role of the Chancery clerks.
Williams, Elijah. Early Holborn and the Legal Quarter of London. 2 vols. London: Maxwell and Sweet, 1927. The most detailed, street-level study of the geography of the area and its occupants, with superb maps, but with errors and false assumptions. Must be used in conjunction with Baker’s Inns of Chancery.