The Inns Of Court And Inns Of Chancery And Their Records

by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009

The origins of the inns of court remain obscure. However, it is certain that by the mid-fourteenth century lawyers had begun to congregate in the Temple, to the south of Fleet street, in the City of London, occupying buildings erected there by the Knights Templar and subsequently acquired but not used by the Knights Hospitaller.

In due course, two societies of lawyers were formed there, each occupying one of the two halls built by the Templars on the site, and there is evidence that they had adopted the names of the Inner and the Middle Temple by 1388. Meanwhile, two other societies of apprentices at law had been established to the north of Fleet street - Lincoln's Inn to the west of Chancery lane, on land partly owned by the Bishops of Chichester, and Gray's Inn to the north-east, on a site formerly occupied by the Lords Grey of Wilton as their London residence. Although earlier origins have been claimed for the inns of court, Professor Baker links the development of these societies with the settlement of the royal law courts in Westminster in the 1340s and with the formation of a number of similar forms of fellowship at this time, including the Order of the Garter. It was not until nearly a century later (about 1425) that we find them referred to as the 'inns of court' - inns because they provided accommodation for lawyers and law students, and 'of court' because their members appeared in the king's courts. However, it is clear that, once established, they offered not only residential accommodation and hospitality to their members, but also, more importantly, legal training. Indeed, in the early modern period, the inns of court and chancery became collectively known as 'the third university of England'.

The main functions of the medieval inns of court continue to the present day, albeit significantly altered over time, and they have also assumed the role of the now defunct serjeants' inns, which were reserved for the most senior members of the profession (the serjeants at law). The inns of court provide chambers, residential flats, dinners, social events, chapels, libraries and moots, even if they are no longer the sole deliverers of legal education for the bar. It continues to be the inns of court and not the law courts who call suitably qualified practitioners to the Bar, giving them the exclusive right of audience in the superior courts, and, it is the inns who, if necessary, disbar their members for professional misconduct. In recent times, the inns have formed and contributed to a number of joint bodies to promote, educate, regulate and discipline the profession, such as the Council of the Inns of Court, the Bar Council (or General Council of the Bar) and the Council for Legal Education (founded in 1852 and abolished 1997); but, to quote Sir Robert Megarry, 'these are merely modern versions of ancient functions'.

The inns of court have never been incorporated and exist today as associations, regulated by custom and standing order. Their presiding officer, the Treasurer, holds office for a year and governs in association with a council of benchers, in the Inner and Middle Temple known as the parliament of the inn, and in Gray's Inn known as the pension, and with a number of bench committees. The benchers are the highest of the three categories of membership, namely: students (once known as inner barristers), barristers (once known as 'utter' or outer barristers on their call to the bar of the inn) and benchers (now elected to the bench on attaining high judicial office or on the basis of a distinguished professional career). It is one of the most senior benchers who becomes Treasurer of the inn for the year, having served the previous year in a designated office such as Reader (in the Inner Temple) or Master of the Library (in Lincoln's Inn). The inns also choose honorary benchers distinguished in other walks of life and each has a number of royal benchers. Since the sixteenth century, the Treasurer has been assisted by an Under- or Sub-Treasurer, who soon became a permanent and salaried official, and from the earliest days, each inn has employed domestic staff, including at various times a butler, steward, head porter, gardener, boghouse keeper, cook, pannierman and a number of waiters, turnspits and other servants to assist in the kitchen. It is interesting that, in 1565, the Lincoln's Inn benchers felt it necessary to exclude laundresses and other female servants from the inn unless below the age of twelve or over the age of forty, presumably to keep the students' attention focused on the law. In addition, the inns have libraries and chapels, or in the case of the Inner and Middle Temple, equal shares in the Temple church. The inns fiercely maintain their independent status as local authorities and, in the case of the Temple, as a royal peculiar, denying the jurisdiction of both the Bishop and the Lord Mayor of London. In the seventeenth century, when the Lord Mayor of London bore his sword on entering the Inner Temple, a fracas ensued and he was forced to seek refuge in the chambers of Auditor Phillips, where he was further insulted, whilst the status of the Temple church as a royal peculiar was put to the test as recently as 1996.

The Inns of Chancery

The inns of chancery also appear to date from the mid-fourteenth century. In 1344, the property on the north side of Fleet Street which was to form Clifford's Inn was let to law students by Isabel, the widow of Robert de Clifford. Sir John Fortescue, in about 1470, mentions ten of these lesser inns in his De Laudibus Legum Angliae, but by 1540 there were only nine - Barnard's, Clifford's, Clement's, Furnival's, Lyon's, New, Staple, Strand and Thavie's (or Davy's) Inns. This number was further reduced by the loss of Strand Inn in 1549, which was demolished to enable the Lord Protector to build Somerset House on the site. So what were these lesser inns or inns of chancery? Their origins seem to lie in the premises occupied by Chancery clerks, where law students gathered to gain instruction in the forms of the writs used in the common law courts. As they developed into societies, they came to provide many of the facilities offered by the inns of court, including accommodation, readings, moots and bolts. They adopted the role of preparatory schools for barristers, who were subsequently admitted and called to the bar by the inns of court, whilst also offering accommodation to attorneys and solicitors who fulfilled a different function in the law courts. Attorneys and solicitors acted on behalf of clients, collected evidence and prepared documents for use in court, but were not entitled to plead or serve as advocates - a role jealously guarded by the serjeants and barristers at law.

In the sixteenth century, the division between the two branches of the legal profession was reinforced and the inns of chancery became peopled mainly by attorneys and solicitors, who were now, in theory at least, excluded from the inns of court. It was at this time, also, that each inn of chancery became attached to a particular inn of court as a dependent satellite: for example, Clifford's, Clement's and Lyon's Inns became formally linked to the Inner Temple. Although the inns of court elected readers to lecture at the inns of chancery and monitored the activities of the subservient inns, they were permitted to maintain their own rules and customs, including their special festive days. However, they never achieved the monopoly of licensing practitioners enjoyed by the inns of court, despite attempts by the law courts to impose one in the seventeenth century, and did not resume their educational role after the cessation of teaching in all the inns in 1642. Nor did they have chapels, significant legal libraries or endowments. The formation of the Society of Gentlemen Practisers in 1739 and of the Law Society in 1825 largely eclipsed them as professional associations and by the nineteenth century they had become little more than dining clubs. Seen by many as moribund and anachronistic institutions, peopled by eccentrics (including the notorious 'hermit of Clifford's Inn' immortalised by Charles Lamb) their abolition and subsequent demolition became a question of time. Thavie's Inn, attached to Lincoln's Inn, was the first to go, in 1769, whilst Clifford's Inn, the final inn of chancery, was sold in 1903.

The Records of the Inns of Court

The archives of the inns of court, maintained by the archivists and librarians of the individual inns, consist principally of the minutes of each inn's council of benchers and its committees, membership records, the administrative records of the inn's officers and employees, and chapel or church records. As voluntary, self-regulating associations, they have no charters or letters patent of incorporation. However, they do hold muniments of title including: a charter of Henry III for part of the site later occupied by Lincoln's Inn (1228); the grant by James I of the Temple church and precincts to the Inner and Middle Temple; and the 1732 deed of partition formalising the division of the Temple site between them. In contrast to the City livery companies, the inns of court did not acquire substantial estates outside London, nor administer almshouses and schools on behalf of benefactors, but they did acquire trust and scholarship funds, for which there are deeds, accounts and other administrative papers.

The longest surviving and most informative of the record series are the council minutes. Those for Lincoln's Inn, known as the Black Books, run in a continuous series from 1422 to the present and have been calendared until 1914, with a new volume forthcoming. The other inns have parallel series, known as acts of parliament in the Inner and Middle Temple and pension books in Gray's Inn, which date from the sixteenth century. These have been calendared up to the eighteenth century. Between them, these minutes provide a fascinating insight into the lives of the inns over the centuries and their reactions to the political and religious upheavals of the past. The papers set before council, including petitions and annotated agenda, in Lincoln's Inn known as the bluejackets because of the colour of their wrapping, flesh out the sometimes bare bones of the formal record. Between parliaments, the Inner Temple held less formal meetings of the bench table, at which orders could be passed, the series of bench table orders commencing in 1668. The bench table assumed a greater significance in the running of the inn than the more occasional meetings of parliament and it is this series which takes over from the acts of parliament as the main formal record. The Inner Temple seems to be unique in this development. From the nineteenth century a number of bench committees have been appointed to assist in managing the inn and supervising aspects of its work, most notably the inn's finances, garden, library and the wine cellar, and their minutes and papers have made their way into the inns' archives. These committees have been supplemented in the twentieth century by a number of others, including, in the Inner Temple, the archives committee and the car parking committee. Issues affecting all the inns spawned a number of joint committees and working parties, such as the code of conduct working party and the bar practising library committee, and prompted the investment of resources into other related bodies, such as the Council for Legal Education. Copy minutes and papers for these bodies are held by most of the inns of court.

The accounts and receipt books of the Treasurers and their officials, dating from the seventeenth century in the case of the Inner and Middle Temple, supplement the minutes and papers, giving details of the running and daily activities of the inns of court. They reveal the foods and beverages consumed at dinners, the amounts expended in building works within the inn, the salaries paid to employees and the contributions made towards the nursing and maintenance of 'dropt' children or foundlings left on the doorstep by mothers appealing to the inn's charity. Many of these children , who adopted the surname of the inn at which they had been deposited, were apprenticed out to learn a trade, but others died despite medical treatment and were buried at the inns' expense. There can be frustrating gaps or omissions in the accounts, however. A researcher investigating the seventeenth century gauged brickwork in the Inner Temple, for example, was disappointed to learn that there a few details in the accounts about the rebuilding of parts of the inn destroyed by the Great Fire of London or by a subsequent disastrous fire in 1677. This is because the seventeenth century reconstruction was delegated to the proprietors of the burnt chambers, who themselves commissioned and financed the rebuilding of the premises which they had formerly occupied, in return for reduced rents and other perquisites. This was also true at Gray's Inn, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth century leased out land on which members built blocks of chambers at their own expense.

From at least the sixteenth century, the inns maintained chambers admissions and reference books, which still survive for some of the inns; and from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, separate rent accounts were kept, recording the name of the chief tenant of each set of chambers or residential flat and the amount of rent paid on an annual or quarterly basis. Since the major part of the inn's income comes from such rent, it is not surprising to find that the chief financial officer in the Inner Temple is known as the Collector. The inns also employ Surveyors, to take responsibility for the fabric and maintenance of the buildings which make up the inns, and they maintain chambers leases, files, plans and drawings, which make their way eventually into the archives. Of particular interest are the files, plans and photographs of the reconstruction of the inns after the Second World War; with Inner Temple and Gray's Inn being the most severely damaged by the German air raids. The Inner Temple fell out with its principal architect, Sir Hubert Worthington, and many of his designs were altered by his successors, Sutcliffe and Maufe. The inn was nearly drawn into litigation against Worthington, seeking compensation for the delays and inconveniences suffered during the rebuilding works, opting in the end for an out of court settlement. Other legal disputes feature in the archives of all the inns, such as rights to light and rights to use of name. As might be expected from societies of lawyers, generally the inns of court managed to hold their own against their neighbours, preferring to settle out of court whenever possible. There are also administrative records generated by the Treasurer's Office of each inn and the departments that grew from it, such as the Catering and Education and Training Departments, which relate to the internal management of the inns and their relations with each other and with the outside world. These have grown enormously in bulk over the past decade, with all the issues which have come to concern the inns, such as law reforms, the appointment of solicitors as judges and the selection and training of candidates for the bar. These records must be appraised and selected wisely if we are not to be inundated by the photocopies and faxes of the late twentieth century or to lose vital information from unregulated data-bases.

Membership records are undoubtedly the most frequently referred to of the inns' archives; the printed and indexed admissions registers of three of the inns (Lincoln's Inn, Middle Temple and Gray's Inn) facilitating searches for individual members. The Inner Temple is less well served for published registers; but does have typescript indexes to admissions from 1505 to 1929 in the archives. Many researchers are disappointed by the limited biographical detail available for past members, but the admissions registers do generally provide full name and an address (frequently an Oxbridge college or inn of chancery), and from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, the name, address and status of the candidate's father. From the nineteenth century, the age on admission is usually given, although not dates of birth. Admissions papers, replaced in the twentieth century by student admission files, which generally include completed admissions forms, references, and related correspondence and papers, may add further information. Commons bonds, rolls and ledgers, buttery books and other records of fees due from members, such as absent commons, preachers fees and library fund contributions, may note changes of address and other details. Before 1872, there was no compulsory bar examination and, before 1958, no formal pupillage system. Call to the bar came to those qualified by taking the required number of dinners and participating in exercises or 'reading in chambers', who were able to find two practising barristers of five years' standing to propose them. For those called to the bar, there should be call papers and bar bonds as well as the formal notification of their call to the bar; and, in the Inner Temple, the bar books were updated with details of calls to the bench, appointment to high judicial office and, where known, date and place of death.

Members who subsequently attained prominence, for example as King's or Queen's Counsel, might be called to the bench and reappear in the inns records on bench committees and eventually as Treasurer; whilst those who achieved notoriety, might be recorded as the candidates for disciplinary tribunals or as members disbarred from the inn. Mahatma Ghandi, for example, was disbarred by the Inner Temple in 1922, but was posthumously reinstated. Famous members inevitably left their mark, not so much in the records associated with their membership, which follow common form, as in the memorials and tributes paid to them by the inn with which they were associated, for example naming a building or a scholarship in their honour. There are also memorabilia for a number of events held in the inn involving members of the inn and visiting dignitaries, including menus, photographs, service sheets etc. and in Lincoln's Inn a Golden Book was kept from 1679, to be signed on such occasions by visiting royalty and other distinguished guests. Where they survive, the accounts of revels and dramatic performances held in the inns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been seized on with delight by the historians of early English drama. Those baptised, married or buried in the Temple church or Lincoln's and Gray's Inn chapels are recorded in the church/chapel registers from the seventeenth century onwards, and the inns maintain records in their capacity as local authorities such as electoral registers and overseers of the poor papers.

As is the case with most small and long-lived institutions, a number of miscellaneous pictures, photographs, manuscripts and artefacts have made their way into the archives (for example a dress sword in the Middle Temple; old readers' shields and an examination desk in the Inner Temple; and a top-hat in Lincoln's Inn) and in some cases the inns have received gifts and deposits of non-official papers, although these are not particularly encouraged. To complicate matters, the inns' libraries have acquired their own collections of manuscripts, some of which supplement the inns' archive and some which have no direct connection. Those in the Inner Temple library have been calendared by Conway Davies. Moreover, some archival material originally from the inns of court has strayed elsewhere, mainly in family and estate collections. Their location can be discovered in most cases through the National Register of Archives, unless they have migrated overseas. Nor should references to the inns in the records of central government and of the central law courts be overlooked.

The Records of the Inns of Chancery

The records of the lesser inns or inns of chancery are, as one would expect, similar but on a smaller scale. The abolition and subsequent demolition of the inns, led to a loss of some or all of their archives. Little survives from Furnival's and Thavie's Inn, the inns of chancery attached to Lincoln's Inn, whilst only a few documents were thought to survive from the three inns associated with the Inner Temple. However, in April this year a cache of administrative papers from Clifford's Inn came to light and was donated to the Inner Temple archives. A similar discovery in a solicitor's office a few years ago resulted in the acquisition by the Middle Temple archives of a substantial archive from New Inn, the Middle Temple's only post-sixteenth century inn of chancery, through the services of the British Records Association. The records of Barnard's Inn were presented in two separate deposits to Gray's Inn Library in the 1920s and 1930s, and the admissions registers have recently been edited, with an excellent introduction, by Christopher Brooks for the Selden Society. The admissions and chambers admissions records for Staple Inn are divided between the libraries of Gray's Inn and the Law Society.

Where records do exist, they may include the minutes of the governing bodies, accounts of their presiding officers (principal or treasurer), chamber admissions, rent accounts and leases, muniments of title, plans, copy tax assessments, moot books, administrative papers and records of admissions, including admissions books.

Information in the Records

All those wishing to act as barristers in England and Wales (and until 1885 in Ireland) had first to join one of the four inns of court in London and should be recorded in the relevant admissions register. At various times, individual inns seemed to attract recruits from certain parts of the country, the Inner Temple being notable for its Devonshire students in the early modern period, for example. Families were often linked to a particular inn over several generations, either out of a sense of loyalty or simply utilising connections already established there. Students from the British colonies and, subsequently, the British Commonwealth also came to London to train as lawyers, whether to return to practice law in their own countries or to seek their fortunes here. Indeed, significant contingents of Commonwealth students, mainly from India and Africa, still join the inns of court.

To complete their training, barristers have, in more recent times, to serve a pupillage in an established set of chambers and then become accepted by that or another set of chambers, in London or in the provinces, in order to practice. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it seems that barristers finding employment in chambers in another inn were required to join the new inn - at this period there are a fair number of transfers (or admissions ad eundem as they are known). Now there is no such requirement and barristers may occupy chambers and use the luncheon facilities and libraries of other inns without restriction. Unless rising to become the head of chambers, responsible for settling the rent, the names of barristers occupying individual chambers are not recorded in the inns' records, although they may be discernible elsewhere (for example from the published Law List). As mentioned above, a barrister achieving prominence, might reappear in the inns' records as a bencher, and eventually as Treasurer. However, before 1875, those becoming serjeants-at-law (and subsequently judges) would have left the inns of court on their elevation to the Order of the Coif and joined Serjeants' Inn in Chancery Lane or Fleet Street. Until the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, no women were admitted to any of the inns of court and even after 1922, when Ivy Williams, the first female barrister, was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple, women remain in a minority. It is gratifying that the Inner Temple has had a woman as Treasurer this past year, but this is exceptional.

It was not only would be barristers who joined the inns of court. From at least the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, it was common for the sons of the gentry to join an inn of court, or of chancery, to gain a general education and cultivate advantageous connections. The 'third university of England' was seen by many as an appropriate finishing school for gentlemen. Even amongst those who entered with every intention of a career at the bar, there were those who fell by the wayside out of idleness, misfortune or the rival attractions of an alternative path. Several famous novelists had previously embarked upon a legal career, including Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray and Bram Stoker, whilst the diarist, John Evelyn, the economist, Maynard Keynes, the historian, AJP Taylor, the satirist, WS Gilbert, and a number of eminent politicians began their training at the inns of court. Lincoln's Inn, in particular, can boast a large number of prime ministers amongst its members, including the present one, and it is certainly the only inn who can claim a saint - Sir Thomas More.

Many family historians, relying on family traditions, find that their supposed barrister ancestors were in fact attorneys and solicitors, or even barristers' clerks. This information can generally be discovered from the Law List, which, from 1775, lists separately counsel (or barristers); London attorneys (or solicitors) and provincial attorneys (or solicitors). Barristers' clerks are hard to discover, but where solicitors and attorneys are identified, would not the records of the inns of chancery fill in the details?

In such circumstances the records of the inns of chancery are likely to disappoint. As already mentioned, the lesser inns never acquired a professional monopoly and there was no requirement for attorneys or solicitors to join them in order to practice. Moreover, the paucity or absence of admissions records for most of these inns makes a comprehensive search impossible. A more fruitful avenue may be through the Law Society archives or the records of its forerunner, the Society of Gentlemen Practisers, both held by the Law Society Library. An alternative route is via the central court records at the Public Record Office, which produces an information leaflet on sources for attorneys and solicitors.

Returning to the records of the inns of court and chancery, limited biographical information may survive about the staff employed by the inns, including the preacher and librarian, and those in receipt of pensions. Architects, surveyors and other professionals employed by the inns may make their way into the records, including Sir Christopher Wren who was employed to advise on the foundations of King's Bench Walk and the restoration of the Temple church both damaged by fire in the seventeenth century. Non-members can also rent out chambers and flats and hire the hall and other facilities, but there is likely to be little detail about them even if they do appear in the inns' rentals and accounts. The personal, professional and business papers of tenants, whether members of the inn or not, remain their own property and do not form part of the inns' archives.

What other information can be found ? Of enduring interest are the references to gifts made to the inns, including statues, pictures and portraits, and the mention of political events and religious developments at various times in the past. The Lincoln's Inn Black Books describe at some length the ill-fated northern expedition of Sir Robert Bowes in 1542 which resulted in his capture by the Scots, and also the death and funeral of Henry VIII and the coronation of his son. The entry ends 'Vivant Rex et lex'. Visits from royalty were not uncommon and were recorded with due ceremony. However, the record is silent on a number of other not so propitious occasions. There is no evidence that the wars of the roses did commence in the Temple gardens, as claimed by William Shakespeare in Henry VI part I, although, to be fair, no written records have survived for this period. More surprisingly, there seems to be nothing recorded about religious changes immediately following the Reformation and not much on the Civil War, which so badly affected the inns of court and chancery. The Middle Temple minutes of parliament noted that 'by reason of these unnatural civil wars there has been no reading in this or any other Inn of Court for three years so that the number of benchers is grown very small', but failed to mention that, in 1641, five hundred members of all four inns had taken up arms and demonstrated in favour of the king at Whitehall, much to the alarm of the House of Commons. On the subject of allegiance to King or Parliament, it seems that members of the inns were much divided.

Nevertheless, it is fortunate that the inns between them have preserved so much of their past in their archives and manuscript collections, despite the damage suffered in the Second World War. Much of the material remains untapped and could form the basis of further research into legal education and the legal profession. Meanwhile the inns of court, at least for the present, continue their work on behalf of the bar and bench, enabling their members to follow the advice of Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew:

Do as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily,

but eat and drink as friends.

Archives vol.XXIV no. 101 (1999) published for the British Records Association

Researchers wishing to consult the archives should apply in writing to:

Celia Pilkington


Celia Pilkington


Celia Pilkington