Revelry in the Inns of Court

Revelry has played a large role in the entertainment activities of the Inns since medieval times, writes Anthony Arlidge QC.

The Inns of Court have a long tradition of entertainment. Revelry has played a large part in their activities since medieval times. The word “revel” in fact derives from the latin rebellare – to rebel. In the Middle Ages, it was common at Christmas time for the natural order to be upset – the lowest governed the highest. Thus within the church boy bishops were appointed. Christmas revelry also included gender swapping. The world was literally turned upside down.

Each of the Inns appointed a Prince of Misrule. In Inner Temple he was the Prince of the Sophie, the Sophie being the Shah of Persia. In Middle he was the Prince D’Amour, in Lincoln’s the Prince of the Grange and in Gray’s the Prince of Purpoole. The Christmas period commenced on the eve of All Saints (at the beginning of November) and finished at Candlemas on 2 February. The partying meanwhile was extravagant and wild. Modern students with their clubbing have nothing on their predecessors. In 1598, John Davies of Middle, annoyed that he had not been created Prince D’Amour went into Hall on a dining night and struck the winner with a club. He was disbarred, but managed to reinstate himself a few years later, by which time he had become a well-known poet. The Prince himself was suspended for violent behaviour in breaking into chambers.

Revels were of different kinds. For the Benchers there were solemn revels, which consisted of singing psalms and stately dancing. For the students the post revels included wilder dances such as the galliard. This involved the man placing the woman on his hip and swivelling her round on it. Very sexy. In Henry IV Part II Shakespeare described the ancient memories of misdeed in the Inns of Court by Justice Shallow:

“Shallow: I dare say my cousin William is become a good scholar. He is at Oxford still, is he not?
Silence: Indeed, sir, to my cost.
Shallow: A’must then to the Inns of Court shortly. I was once of Clement’s Inn, where I think they will talk of Mad Shallow yet.
Silence: You were called ‘lusty Shallow’ then, cousin.
Shallow: By the mass I was called anything; and would have done anything indeed too and roundly too. There was I and little John Doit of Staffordshire and Black John Barnes and Francis Pickbone and Will Squele a Cotswold man; you had not four such swinge bucklers in the Inns of Court again; and again I say to you we knew where the bon robas were and had the best of them at commandment.”

Masques

There were also masques, which were a respectable and fashionable entertainment. There is a record of Queen Elizabeth I attending a revel at Gray’s Inn in 1565 and again in 1595 when the students performed the masque of Proteus. The following night she returned and presented the Prince of Purpoole with a jewel of diamonds and rubies and promised he would be remembered with a better reward later. This was no idle promise. The Queen had an eye for a well turned leg and picked out Christopher Hatton in the Inner Temple for his dancing ability. He eventually became her Lord Chancellor.

A route to advancement

In fact the Inns of Court were very much seen as a method of advancement. Members of the royal court joined the Inns and their patronage could be the cause of significant advancement. The Earl of Leicester became the Prince of the Sophie in 1561 when the entertainments were particularly extravagant. There is reasonable evidence that Sir Walter Raleigh attended a revel in Middle Temple in 1598.

I found a script for these particular revels which were re-staged in 1998. In 1614 the students of Lincoln’s and Middle took a masque to the royal court to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine. In 1616 Ben Jonson published his Every Man Out of his Humour. Fungoso is a student in the Inns of Court. He writes to his father seeking a better allowance: “we use to have revels; which is indeed dancing: and makes an excellent show, in truth especially if we gentlemen are well attired, which our seniors note and think better of our fathers the better we are maintained.”

Membership of an Inn of Court was a key to becoming a gentleman – witness the “esquire” on our wig boxes, even in the case of those who are not gentlemen – and possibly a route into the royal court.

A declining tradition

The Inns were in fact the cradle of English drama – the first English language play on an English subject was Gorboduc, performed by the members of the Inner Temple. When Shakespeare’s cousin was a final year student in Middle Temple, the Queen’s Men performed Twelfth Night in Hall in 1602. As the 17th Century progressed, the tradition of revelry gradually declined. In 1638 Master Brerewood lamented the decline in the students’ dancing ability. He commented: “Theise measures were wont to be truly danced, it being accounted a shame for an Inns of Court man not to have learned to dance, especially the measures, but nowe their dancing is tourned to bare walking.” So the Inns descended into a dull conformity.

Revel revival

Fifty years ago, however, Master Hubert Monroe, revived the revels in Middle Temple. His lead proved inspirational. Once again the students and the young Bar were given an opportunity to let off steam at the expense of their betters. Personally I regret that the modern revels so closely resemble their earlier counterparts, with too many jokes about sex and elderly Benchers. Each generation produces its own stars. Every time I watch them, I wonder if it will ever be the same when they go. Each time the baton is taken up with new talented performers. The greatest change is that nowadays there are female performers. This has been a great improvement, particularly as they are better singers. Our current director is Rebecca Richardson.

For the 2009 Revels there will be a sketch in which I am applying to sit in the new Supreme Court at Westminster. I can’t think why anyone would find that funny.

Anthony Arlidge QC is a barrister at 18 Red Lion Court and a Bencher of the Middle Temple

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