The Inns of Court

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

The Inns of Court, so named because they are where law students trained, and indeed still train, to become barristers,  are Gray’s Inn,  Lincoln’s Inn, and Inner and  Middle Temple.  Temple was founded in the early fourteenth century, immediately after an individual’s right to legal representation at trial was enshrined in law in the late thirteenth; Gray’s inn in the late fourteenth; and Lincoln’s Inn, in its present location, in the fifteenth. The Inns of Chancery, where,  until the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, novices trained preparatory to being “called to the bar” in the Inns of Court, were,  in the case of Gray’s Inn, Barnard’s Inn and Staple Inn; in the case of Lincoln’s Inn, Furnival’s Inn and Thavies Inn; in the case of Inner Temple, Clement’s Inn, Clifford’s Inn and Lyon’s Inn; and in the case of Middle Temple, New Inn and Strand Inn. 

John Fortescue wrote of the Inns in 1470, “In England, laws are learned in three languages, namely English, French and Latin [and] not in universities, but in a certain public academy situated near the King’s courts [in Westminster].  That academy is not situated in the city, where the tumult could disturb the student’s quiet, but in a suburb.  There are in this academy ten lesser Inns of Chancery to each of [which] at least a hundred belong.  These students are for the most part young men learning the elements of the law, who, becoming proficient as they mature, are absorbed into the greater Inns of Court, of which there are four in number, and to the least of which belong 200 students or more. … . [I]n these greater inns there can no student be maintained for less expenses by the year than 20 marks.  And if he have a servant to wait upon him, as most of them have, then so much the greater will his charges be.  Now by reason of these charges the children only of noble men do study the laws … .  For the poor and common sort of the people are not able to bear so great charges … and merchant men can seldom find in their hearts to hinder their merchandise with so great yearly expenses.  And thus it falleth out that there is scant any man found within the … laws, except he be a gentleman born … . Wherefore they more than any other kind of men have a special regard to their nobility and to the preservation of their honour and fame.  And to speak uprightly there is in these greater  inns, yea and in the lesser too, beside the study of the laws, as it were an university or school of all commendable qualities requisite for noble men.  There they learn to sing, and to exercise themselves in all kinds of harmony.  There also they practise dancing, and other noble men’s pastimes, as they do which are brought up in the king’s house”.

Gray’s Inn in the sixteenth century (“Agas” map)

Gray’s Inn, situated on Gray’s Inn Road, north of Holborn, takes its name from the Gray family, whose former manor house  here became the site of an Inn of Court in the late fourteenth century (the house is no longer here).   The Hall was built in  1560, and survived the Great Fire of 1666, only to be destroyed during the Blitz in 1941, alongside the Library, built in 1555 (and the Chapel, rebuilt in 1689). 

Gray’s Inn

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), of whom there is a statue here, was, among other things, a “Master of the Bench” here, that is, a member of the governing body.  He also played a leading role in the creation of the colonies in the Americas, the egalitarian vision for which he set out in his “New Atlantis”. 

Incidentally, London’s Inns of Court played a formative, though little-known, role in the founding of the United States of America.   William Taft (1857-1930), the sometime Chief Justice and President of the United States, noted that “many of the law officers of the Colonies … , appointed by the Crown before the Revolution, were members of … [the Inns of Court]”, and that the Inns were thus instrumental in “instilling in the communities of the Colonies the principles of Common Law”.  Others have even suggested that the principles of secession also came from the Inns.

Barnard’s Inn Hall exterior
Barnard’s Inn Hall interior

The surviving Barnard’s Inn Hall, now the site of the relocated Gresham College,  dates to the late fourteenth- or early fifteenth- century. 

Staple Inn Hall was built by Vincent Enghame and another between 1545-89, destroyed by a Flying Bomb in 1944, and rebuilt in 1955 (the original  one was built, on the same site, at least as long ago  as 1333). 

Staple Inn Buildings

The surviving half-timbered Staple Inn Buildings on High Holborn were also built in 1589.   

Lincoln’s Inn in the sixteenth century (“Agas” map)

Lincoln’s Inn, situated on Chancery Lane, between Holborn to the north and Fleet Street to the south, takes its name either from the Lincoln family, or from the Earl of Lincoln,  whose former land here  became the site of an  Inn of Court in the fifteenth century (the Inn of Court had previously been  located in Thavies Inn and Furnival’s Inn  in the fourteenth century). 

Lincoln’s Inn “Old Hall”

The surviving “Old Hall” dates to 1489-92 (although it also incorporates parts of the former  Bishop of Chichester’s house, dating to the early thirteenth century); the “Old Buildings” to 1524-1613 (the  Gate-House to 1517-21); and the Chapel to 1619-23. 

Temple in the sixteenth century (“Agas” map)

Temple, situated between Fleet Street to the north and the Thames to the south, takes its name from the Knights Templar of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who relocated themselves here in the twelfth century (having previously been located in Holborn), and whose former land here became the site of the  Inns of Court of Inner and Middle Temple after the order was suppressed in the early fourteenth. 

Inner Temple Gate-House

The surviving Inner Temple Gate-House, a timber-framed town-house, including a room known  as “Prince Henry’s Room”, after Henry, the son of James I, is  Jacobean, and dates to 1610-11.

Middle Temple Hall front elevation
Middle Temple Hall rear elevation
Middle Temple Hall interior

The surviving Middle Temple Hall is Elizabethan, and dates to 1571.  Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” premiered here in 1602.  It was performed here again exactly 400 years later in 2002, with an all-male cast, authentic  hand-made costumes and period music and instruments.

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