There are few major events or famous people of UK history that have not impacted on the four Inns of Court. Even before the establishment of the Inns, the land on which they now stand was a hotbed of intrigue, politics and economic rivalry, being as it was the principal home of the Knights Templar.
Today the Inns (meaning townhouse to house students) are a much smaller concept than they were in the Middle Ages and right up until the 19th century. Then there were two dozen or so separate Inns, which formed work quarters for clerks of the Lord Chancellor's office, where writs were issued. They subsequently evolved into accommodation and training facilities for barristers.
Eventually barristers bypassed them for the existing four, much larger, Inns. But their names – Furnival, Staple and Barnard, for instance – survive to this day, as do the names of individual chambers. Meanwhile, the remaining four Inns, steeped in tradition, continue to thrive and retain considerable power.
General functions of the Inns
Traditionally, this was the Inn's central role. For centuries the four Inns and the Inns of Chancery provided a third university to Oxford and Cambridge. While law was the ruling subject, students – mainly comprising the sons of gentry – were also taught ethics, politics and the foundations of jurisprudence.
Today's formal dinners, revels, mootings and contests evolved out of the formal training of this period, which also included listening to court sessions at Westminster. The main learning terms were Lent and summer, while at Christmas the Inns largely gave themselves up to festivities, overseen by a Prince of Misrule.
Many students had no intention of becoming barristers but joined the Inns either as training for other professions or to enjoy the Inns' packed social life. During the 18th century, the education provided by the Inns greatly declined – lectures and moots hardly took place – but it underwent a revival in the 19th century. This culminated in 1852 in the establishment of the Inns' Council of Legal Education. This oversaw the new Inns of Court School of Law, established in 1850, creating the requirement of formal qualifications in order to become a barrister. Bar exams became compulsory in 1872.
In 2001 the School of Law transferred to City University and was renamed the Institute of Law, and the Inns' control over the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) consequently ended. The Inns' council dissolved soon after. However, since then the Inns have launched continuing professional education programmes and advocacy courses.
Dinners have been retitled qualifying sessions. All the Inns continue having such sessions, a tradition which began during the Middle Ages, when the moots and contests associated with dinners were central to a trainee barrister's education. Today, instead of attending dinners, barristers have the option of taking part in residential weekend courses or organised visits to the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.
Disobedient students are easily punished – the Inns simply do not call them to the Bar. Qualified barristers accused of misconduct are put before a disciplinary tribunal comprised of the Inn's treasurer or the head of the Inn.
Inn members receive access to the following facilities available in all the Inns: library, formal dinners, barrister accommodation, chapel and concerts.
Ancient history – the Knights of the Temple
Very early records show that the King's justices used buildings in Temple as court venues. Most of the lawyers who appeared before them by the time of the Norman Conquest were priests practising common law as well as canon law. As students, they were affiliated to particular churches in the City and learnt the lessons of their trade by witnessing the court sessions in Temple.
The area gained in importance due to the emergence of the Knights Templar during the 12th century. Their full title, the Knights of the Military Order of the Temple of Solomon, stemmed from their role as protectors of pilgrim travellers to the Holy Land, and consequently used Jerusalem as their base. As the order flourished it set up centres throughout Europe, and in England its principal home was a temple in Holborn on the site of what is now Southampton House.
As its numbers swelled, the order moved to a much larger site situated in the main between Fleet Street and the Thames, but which also included Lincoln's Inn. Chancery Lane, then called New Street, was an important road, as it linked Holborn with the Knights' new home.
The first lawyers to use Temple as a home, as well as a place to study within throwing distance of the courts, did so during the 13th century because of the growth of the area as a busy financial centre. The increasingly wealthy Knights were allowed to deposit their treasures, mostly gleaned from their overseas adventures, in safe houses around Temple.
By this time the legal profession had moved on apace. The priests' dominance of the profession had been whittled away, first by a rule of 1207 forbidding them to practise in the secular courts, and then by another of 1252 barring them from teaching common law.
Furthermore, the latter half of the 13th century saw the introduction of reforms that form the basis of the rules and practices governing the profession today. First, the ASpeculum Juris of 1275 set out the qualifications required to become a barrister. Already by this time, the profession had split in two – attorneys, or solicitors, on the one hand and countors on the other, who were subsequently retitled barristers. Five years later the Liber Custumarum laid down the standards and rules for barristers, and in 1292 King Edward I passed a well-known ordinance which, by charging judges to choose the “best lawyers from the counties”, effectively placed solicitors and barristers under the control of judges. This hastened the demise of the clergy-lawyer profession and spawned the creation of professional barristers.
This Inn's least-known object of historical importance is probably both its most prized possession and most-used ceremonial object. It is a table in the Inn's hall, before which newly-called barristers stand to enter their names in the record book. It happens to have been made from the forehatch of Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind, the ship he sailed the globe in from 1577 to 1560.
During the 16th century its hall was not just the centre of its life, but was also a regular haunt for the great and good of the period. Plays, pageants and poetry reading were commonplace, and regular guests included Drake himself, Sir Martin Frobisher, the Elizabethan explorer who discovered the route through the North West passage to the Orient, and Sir Walter Raleigh, the favourite of Elizabeth I and a great sailor.
During the 16th century, the Inn continued the medieval tradition of being permitted to act in a disorderly manner up to Candelmas, presided over by a 'Prince of Misrule', otherwise known as the Prince of Love. The period also saw the writing and performing of poetry become a prerequisite for entry to the Inn. It was clearly central to the life of a barrister (the poems written for the Inn's revels of 1594-95 were reprinted in 1660) and the traditions of such readings continue today in December as part of the Inn's revels.
The first written reference to the Inn was in 1404, when it was referred to in the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. Records show that in 1501 it had 11 benchers, 40 barristers and 139 “other gentlemen”.
Historically, most of the four Inns drew their members from particular regions of England, and the bulk of Middle Temple originated from the West Country; although during the 17th and 18th centuries many of its students came from the US colonies and the West Indies.
Five of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Middle Templars. A number of Indians joined during the 1800s and associations with the subcontinent continue to this day.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Inn has also had strong contacts with government and administrative law.
Written references show that the Inner Temple was first distinguished from neighbouring Middle Temple in 1338. A little over 40 years later the Inn suffered its greatest turmoil – only repeated once since it was bombed in World War II – when Wat Tyler's rebels destroyed its hall and killed several of its lawyers during the Peasants' Revolt.
The acts of destruction were inspired by their hatred of Robert de Hales, the Master of the Hospital of St John, the lawyers' landlord. According to one chronicler, the rebels also broke open chests in the Inn's church and “chambers of the apprenticii [lawyers]” and “tore up whatever books they found… and fed them to the fire”.
The great hall was rebuilt and there ensued a period of relative stability, the Inn recruiting most of its members from the North, the Midlands and London. Upheaval returned to the Inn during the Civil War, when news of the Parliamentary victory at Edgehill put barristers to flight, and the Inn all but closed for four years.
However, the barristers' return at the start of the Restoration was heralded in style with a visit by the new king, Charles II, and the Duke of York (who was subsequently crowned James II and appointed the first Royal Bencher), who attended a lecture feast. One of the Inn's members around this time, Judge Jeffries, was infamous both for his extremely bloody assizes as well as his drunkenness. According to legend, he was ultimately beheaded.
Lectures – or 'readings' as they were traditionally called – are a strong part of the Inn's current life. Today lecturers are elected, which enables them to erect their coat of arms in the Inn's hall.
Most of the buildings today are either the result of an almost complete rebuilding of the Inn between 1830 and 1900, or repair work on buildings demolished by Luftwaffe bombings in World War II.
Thanks to the association of this Inn with chancery law, and the fact that the High Court only became a permanent home for chancery cases after the Judicature Acts of 1873-75, for a long time Lincoln's Inn provided the venue for such cases to be battled out.
Its old hall, described by some as London's finest building, was used regularly as a court for several hundred years, and a courtroom was provided to successive vice-chancellors (the heads of the chancery division) on a site of what is now a war memorial. When two vice-chancellors were appointed in 1841, the Inn provided them with a building adjacent to the old hall to house sessions. Not surprisingly, about half of the Lord Chancellors since 1800 have been members of Lincoln's Inn.
Much of the turmoil that affected the two Inns in the Temple appear to have passed Lincoln's Inn by. It has retained a lot of its antique traditions. One is that toasting at a formal dinner can take place sitting down – a privilege the Inn can thank Charles II for when, during a visit in 1660, he noticed the difficulty in finding a bencher able to carry out the task while standing up.
As a mark of the equality among benchers, and apparently the pre-eminence of port as the Inn's drink of choice, the head of the Inn responds to a request by a junior bencher by “ringing the bell”; at which point the butler appears and the treasurer asks what the junior wants, who will always answer simply: “Port.” Another example of its egalitarianism is that, at certain dinners, the benchers sit among the students, whereas in the other Inns they are always separated. Furthermore, the Inn provides some of its finest accommodation to winners of the Lincoln's Inn scholarship.
The great metaphysical poet Dr John Donne, who was a member of the Inn and its chaplain, may also have introduced a tradition that survives today – that of tolling the Inn's chapel bell between 12.30pm and 1pm to mark the death of a bencher.
Surely the most popular Inn between the 15th to 18th centuries, when its revels were so popular that noblemen would send their sons there to live it up for several years without having any expectation of them becoming barristers.
The splendour of the revels was probably greatly assisted by its array of rich patrons – some of whom were members of the Inn – including Queen Elizabeth I, her minister Lord Burleigh, the man who led the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Lord Howard of Effingham and Sir Francis Walshingham, who founded the Queen's secret service.
Originally the site of a cattle market and a lake, the first record of the Inn appears in 1388. Gray's was the only Inn to make taking the Church of England's Sacrament a condition of call, a tradition which lasted until the 1840s. Also, today Gray's is the only Inn to have toastings and challenges at some of its formal dinners.
The Inn suffered considerably during World War II when its Holker library, one of London's finest and containing 30,000 books, was completely destroyed. However, its hall, where famously Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, both honorary members of Gray's, met for the first time in 1918 at its high table, survived virtually intact.
Guest night at Gray's Inn is a much-anticipated event in the lives of trainee barristers. Besides being an opportunity to drink the Bar's finest port, don gowns and generally act with flamboyance, they also get to show off their skills as advocates.
Gray's, one of the most traditional Inns, retains its ancient custom of challenges on such nights, during which students and their guests test their ability to think and talk on their feet – while slightly befuddled through alcohol.
Opera plays in the guests, interspersed with random tales about the Roman Empire, told by the attendant. At my table a trainee barrister and her mother were already seated. Fortunately, the trainee had taken her place at the head of the table – thereby claiming all responsibility for initiating toasts.
Not that she would have had any trouble in understanding the Inn's particular rules of toasting. A thick, white book placed on every table explaining attendees' code of conduct devotes a whole section to toasting. The toasting rules were also rammed home by a ruddy-faced, ex-regimental sergeant major lookalike wearing a highly decorative gown, who assisted in the ushering in of the benchers and their guests.
After the toastings and grace had been said, the first course was served and efforts were made to absorb the white book, full of gems on such matters as who should make the request for the gathering to start smoking and the order in which one should introduce oneself to one's neighbour. Four courses later, the benchers having cleared out, the smoking having begun (the student who made the request to the Senior Master having done so with insufficient volume and so had to repeat herself more loudly on pain of having to sing), the gathering moved to the start of the 'challenges'.
The rules, as explained by the Senior Master, were simple: anyone harbouring a complaint against the conduct of someone on their table during dinner should stand and make it known. The complainant should also state the required compensation. The respondent in turn would stand, state their defence, and issue a counterclaim and damages.
One student had injured the feelings of the Senior Master by not only bringing three members of his family along, but also attending without wearing a tie. His lengthy riposte, which contained an explanation of his need to ventilate his chest because of the hall's heat, insufficiently impressed the Master. He paid damages, which comprised singing a Beatles hit.
Another guest was accused of both talking too much over dinner and having a lack of modesty as he insisted on using spatterings of German and Japanese. His defence – that the German guest opposite him was shy and needed to be drawn out – was given short shrift, and he also sang a Beatles song.
Two students were found to be members of another Inn, so therefore had committed a grave offence by attending the dinner. Their claim that Gray's reputation as the finest venue for a formal dinner came to nothing, and they issued a Beatles duet. After which an older student, disgruntled at the lack of quality singers and the obsession with the Beatles, sang a Simon and Garfunkel favourite. Not to be outdone, the Senior Master's guest, a shrill senior barrister, stood up and, swaying under the influence of white wine and port, sang an old revel song written centuries before by a member of Gray's Inn.
Fortunately, I resisted the urge to summon up all my verbosity and ramble on at length on a subject I may or may not have any particular knowledge of and took this as my cue to leave.