The medieval junior

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Spare a thought for your medieval equivalent: Edward Walker describes a rambunctious day-in-the-life of a 15th century junior


Our 15th century barrister is an apprentice-at-law, an advocate junior to the medieval equivalent of a QC, the serjeant-at-law. There are approximately 1,000 apprentices across the four Inns, and as few as eight to ten serjeants. Apprentices may also be Readers or Benchers of their Inn.

He lives in chambers at the Temple during legal term, while his wife lives in the country at their manor. Women aren’t permitted in chambers although it’s common enough for members to sneak a lady friend into their room and pay a fine if caught. In fact, the records of the Inns register countless fines paid out for infractions; fornicating, blaspheming, gambling, stabbing one another with daggers. Despite the rambunctious nature of the medieval Bar, the Inns are characterised by great camaraderie.

Chambers is two rooms shared with a fellow Reader and a pupil; enough space for writing desks, a couple of chairs, straw mattresses, a small fireplace and storage space for documents.

His day begins well before dawn. The central law courts at Westminster Hall sit between 8am and 11am, Monday to Saturday, during the term. Parties are not assigned a time; every case is a ‘floater’.

Our barrister loads up his pupil with papers, quills and ink. They walk down to Temple wharf and engage a boat to take them up-river to the Palace of Westminster. A short journey by boat is far preferable to walking or riding through filthy, overcrowded Strand.

The law courts of Westminster Hall

Landing at the Palace of Westminster, our barrister would encounter a rambling precinct of buildings, more resembling a giant Inns of Court or Oxbridge college than the neo-Gothic behemoth standing there today.

Westminster Hall was the home of the courts of King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Chancery. The courts were situated inside the hall on raised wooden platforms. Westminster Hall was a very busy place during the legal term. Litigants, attorneys and barristers would congregate around the bars of the courts waiting for their case to be called. Law students would sit inside the bar of the court to watch proceedings and take notes. People would be calling out, jostling for space and conducting legal business while hearings took place.

The king’s jewels: defending the pawnbroker

Our barrister arrives in time for his case, a matter of high legal importance to be heard in the Exchequer Chamber. He is representing Mr Eyre, a pawnbroker of the City of London, the defendant in a case before the Court of Exchequer that was removed to the Exchequer Chamber.

An ‘information’ was laid before the Court of Exchequer by the Keeper of the King’s Jewels alleging that certain royal jewels previously in the Keeper’s custody came into the possession of Mr Eyre, by means unknown. Process issued against Mr Eyre, requiring him to justify his possession of the jewels or otherwise return them to the king.

In response, Mr Eyre pleads that it is a custom of the City of London that if an obligor puts goods in pledge for a duty, the obligee may keep them until the duty is satisfied. Eyre pleads a man pledged them to him as security for a loan of £60 and added that the loan remained unpaid. He does not explicitly traverse the king’s pleading that they are his property but notes they are not marked with any print or arms of the king and contends the king should be put to strict proof of ownership.

A King’s Serjeant (a medieval Treasury devil), Choke, now rises to reply. He argues that the matter pleaded as custom does not lie in custom as it does not have good commencement (continuous existence since ‘time immemorial’) and it is contrary to reason and common law. He says that if it were so, ‘I can put all the goods of my master Fortescue CJKB (Chief Justice King’s Bench) in pledge, even though I do not have them in legal possession. It is not reasonable that one will put the goods of another in pledge.’

Choke says that if there were a custom that one can devise land held in fee tail, or land held for life or a term of years, it would be void because it would prejudice those in the reversion or holding in fee simple and thus would be contrary to common law. Likewise, the custom here is in prejudice of him who owns the goods and so it should be likewise void.

In the alternative, Choke argues that even if there were such a custom that had good commencement and was held to lie in cases between subjects, the king would not be bound by it.

Our barrister responds that a devise justified by custom can have good commencement, be consistent with reason, be contrary to common law and yet valid. For example, in some regions custom holds widows to have as estate for life the principal mansion house of the husband, and this custom is as well pleaded against the king as against a stranger.

The justices adjourn for deliberations. Prysot CJCP (Chief Justice Common Pleas) later returns with the judgment: ‘A thing cannot lie in custom unless the same thing be reasonable, and if it is reasonable, notwithstanding it be contrary to common law, yet it can lie well enough in custom. The custom pleaded is not reasonable’. The matter is remitted back to the Court of Exchequer, and Mr Eyre will have to return the jewels or face outlawry.

Building a practice (or touting for business)

Our barrister’s work day is not over. If he is to secure work, he must actively seek it out. He leaves Westminster and goes to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The parvis of St Paul’s is where barristers tout for business. The churchyard of the cathedral, also known as St Paul’s Cross, is a very busy place, the scene of religious debates, public executions and other legal business.

"The records of the Inns register countless fines paid out for infractions; fornicating, blaspheming, gambling, stabbing one another with daggers"

At the Cross, our barrister sees the attorney of the Worshipful Company of Mercers. The Mercers have regularly instructed him on livery company business. The attorney informs him that the widow of the former Master of the company has taken possession of one of the Company’s wharves at Queenhithe. The widow is claiming that fee simple title to the wharf was sold to the master and devised to feoffees who hold it to her use. The widow’s servants have forcibly repulsed all attempts to take back possession.

Our barrister determines that the first step is to secure copies of the conveyances recording the sale, if extant. If not, a writ of novel disseisin can simply be issued in Common Pleas against the widow and the feoffees-to-use. He sends his pupil to the Rolls House on Chancery Lane to find the Feet of Fine registering the ownership of the wharf.

Ending a day pleading causes at the Bar and soliciting business in the city, our barrister can return to the Temple for dinner (lunch) and an afternoon of mooting, legal readings, dancing and mirth.

Legal education, Malmsey wine and venison pasties

At 2pm, a cannon shot is discharged to signal the time for dinner. The members return to Inner Temple Hall, with Benchers, serjeants and any distinguished visitors sitting at high table. Our barrister finds himself sitting with Serjeant Choke, whom he appeared opposite in Exchequer Chamber.

Malmsey wine and venison pasties are served to benchers and apprentices while students sing, dance and perform plays to entertain them. Attendance is compulsory. The Butler will search the Inn to ensure students are not eating in chambers, although a student who reaches the buttery cannot be forcibly retrieved it has been adjudged sanctuary since time immemorial.

The Benchers now pose a legal question, whether the king can by letters-patent grant wardship of the heir of a tenant-in-chief before the tenant dies. The students divide into teams to moot the question. Benchers interject awkward and difficult questions, and choose a winner.

After cheese is served, students are excused from entertaining and mooting duties and may eat with their friends. Our barrister can repair to the library to research the legal status of self-dealing transactions by livery company officers. He may seek advice from other barristers in the library, or advise his pupil how to find relevant documents at the Rolls House.

His day ends with the Vespers service in the Temple Church and a modest supper in the hall with his comrades, and then returns to chambers for some light reading by candle-light, and bed.

Contributor Edward Walker is a mature student at BPP Law School and will be commencing his LLM at Cambridge University this September

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Edward Walker

Edward Walker is a mature student at BPP Law School and will be commencing his LLM at Cambridge University this September