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Educating the lawyers

Reader Leighton Symonds was perplexed.

“In reviewing documentation on a William Marbury (1524-1581), Anne Hutchinson’s paternal grandfather, he was said to have been admitted to the ‘Middle Temple’ in 1551,” he wrote. “The definition of Middle Temple as contained in Wikipedia does not fully clarify the term for me. Is it simply an English legal society?”

Um… no.

First off, we need to remember what Middle Temple is. It’s one of four Inns of Court. With Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, and Inner Temple, Middle Temple is an Inn of Court: “the four private unincorporated societies in London that function as a law school and have the exclusive privilege of calling candidates to the English bar.”1

Then a little bit of history.

There isn’t any one event back in English history to which all of the inns of court can be traced. By the end of the 13th century in England, there were laws in existence regulating the kind of qualifications a lawyer should have, and by 1292 the laws began to differentiate between apprentices (law students), lawyers, and barristers (those allowed to argue in court).2

So… who was going to train the men who practiced in this field? And, particularly, who was going to select those from the ranks of the lawyers who could argue in the courts?

That fell to the Inns of Court:

Originally there were at least twenty inns associated with lawyers. Gradually these became places of legal education and there emerged the four principal Inns of Court (ie Inns of the men of Court) that we know today. …


The term “barrister” was originally a purely internal or domestic rank – a graduate of the Inn who had successfully negotiated the elaborate legal exercises set in Hall, which was laid out for moots like a court, with a bar. Although there were various attempts to regulate those who appeared in court, any requirement that they be barristers of an Inn of Court emerged at first only as a matter of practice – a case in 1590 finally confirmed it as a matter of law. And once that happened the process of excluding mere attorneys from membership of the Inns of Court was accelerated.


The recognition of barristers’ exclusive right of audience was no doubt due in part to the thoroughness of the original medieval system of legal education provided by the Inns – at least seven years between admission as a student and call to the bar. …3

All of the inns were in operation by the mid-1300s (middle of the 14th century)4 and their records date back to the 14th (Lincoln’s), 15th (Middle and Inner Temples) or 16th centuries (Gray’s, although many records were lost in a disastrous library fire in 1684).5

So… what we’re really talking about here by the time of Anne Hutchinson’s paternal grandfather is being a law student there at Middle Temple, training for up to seven years, and then being called to the bar — admitted as a lawyer who could argue before the courts of the day — as a barrister.

This time period, in the late 16th century, was the heyday of legal education at the Inns. It broke down completely during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, and didn’t get back on track until the 19th century when bar exams and other controls were implemented.6

But, even today, a barrister in England is “an individual who has been called to the Bar by an Inn of Court.”7

And if this is something that interests you — and how could it not be??? — take a gander at the archives of these inns.

The records held are generally not court records or records of specific court cases, but are records of the people who passed through the doors of the Inns themselves. So from a genealogical perspective, they’re terrific for this group.

Gray’s Inn notes, for example, that it has pension books, original admission registers, and records of marriages since its chapel was a popular venue in the early years. It adds that its archivists are “happy to provide information in response to historical and genealogical enquiries about the Inn and its members,”8 and provides a Contact the Archivist form.

At Inner Temple, the records start in 1505 and relate to “the admission, education and call to the bar of members; the management of the inn by the Treasurer and council of benchers, known as the inn’s Parliament, with its committees and sub-committees; the day to day administration of the inn and its property by the Sub-Treasurer and his staff; and the conduct of events taking place within the inn.” And there are manuscripts dating from the 15th century.9

At Middle Temple, records and archives date back to 1501 and “(p)opular material for research such as the Admission registers and Minutes of Parliament have been made available online.”10

And at Lincoln’s Inn, you can find the oldest records of any of the Inns, dating back to 1422,11 and — best of all — a website feature called Archive of the Month.

English legal society? Yes. But so much more.


Image: “Middle Temple Hall,” Wanner-Laufer via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5.

  1. Collins English Dictionary, ( : accessed 14 May 2017), “Inns of Court.”
  2. See “The Lay Profession,” About Us, The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  3. History of the Inn: Origins,” The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  4. See “Inns of Court: British Legal Association,” Encyclopaedia Britannica ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  5. For Lincoln’s Inn, see “The Inn’s Archives,” The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn ( For Middle Temple, see “The Inn’s Records,” The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple ( For Inner Temple, see “The Archives,” The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple ( For Gray’s Inn, see “Archives,” History, The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn ( All websites were accessed 14 May 2017.
  6. See “Inns of Court: British Legal Association,” Encyclopaedia Britannica ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  7. §207, Legal Services Act 2007, L. 2007 c.29, UK Legislation ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  8. Archives,” History, The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn (
  9. The Archives,” The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  10. Library & Archive,” The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
  11. “The Inn’s Archives,” The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn ( : accessed 14 May 2017).
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