Age of Lawyers exhibition material

This article offers a comprehensive and descriptive list of each piece included in Age of Lawyers, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

This exhibition was arranged into four sections: Legal Lives; The Great Courts; Law and Communities; and The King and the Law.


On June 12, 1630, a group of 17 ships neared the coast of New England, with the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and about a thousand settlers on board. Ten of them had formal legal training at the Inns of Court, including Governor John Winthrop. The colonists would frame their own government and laws, echoing similar efforts already underway in the Virginia colony. They also, however, ordered law books from home.

As the presence of those lawyer-colonists suggests, law was an ever-present aspect of British life in the early 1600s. Starting in the mid-1500s, the number of legal actions and trained lawyers in England soared as government and commerce modernized. In Age of Lawyers, manuscripts, prints, and rare books offer a glimpse of this burgeoning legal culture, from the lavish meals served to traveling judges to milestone legal texts and the great courts in Westminster Hall.

After James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603, disputes over royal power played out in political skirmishes and in the courts. These conflicts further burnished the role of Magna Carta, which marks its 800th anniversary this year, as a symbol of the rule of law. The events and cases of this time would also influence America's founders a century and a half later, adding to the enduring Anglo-American tradition in law.

Legal Lives (Section 1)

Learning the Law

Many law students became lawyers and judges. Others, however, were young gentlemen with no plan of practicing law. They sought legal knowledge instead for social polish, advancement, and the practical skills needed to serve at court or manage an estate. Both the future lawyers and their fellow students were confronted by a challenging, technical field. Typically, a student started out at about 18 at one of the residential Inns of Chancery, where he learned basic property law and how to draft writs and pleadings. After three years or so, at about 21, those who aspired to higher professional status—and could afford it—joined one of the four Inns of Court, graduating after several years when senior lawyers "called them to the bar."

Items Included
  • Wenceslaus Hollar. The Prospect of London and Westminster taken from Lambeth. Call number: MAP L85c no.2 copy 2.

The Inns of Court (Case 1.1)

Both lawyers and law students lived, studied, and worked at the Inns of Chancery and Inns of Court. With so many relatively young students in residence, the inns buzzed at times with song, dance, masques, pageants, rich dinners, and Christmas festivities. A century earlier, in 1470, Sir John Fortescue called them as much an "academy of manners" as a law school. Senior lawyers, who governed their own inns, saw themselves as part of the community. When the courts were not in session, for example, they gave lectures, called readings.

Items Included

Life at the "Third University" (Case 1.2)

Law students often studied for a year or two at one of England's only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, before they started their legal education. By Shakespeare's day, the Inns of Court and Chancery were sometimes called the "third university"—a term meant as an admiring metaphor, rather than literally. Students at the inns, as in any era, had to find their footing. The letters shown here discuss trouble finding a place to stay and the timeless need for more money from home.

Items Included

Reading, Notes, and Study (Case 1.3)

Learning the common law was, in large part, an oral tradition. Students attended the central Westminster courts and took notes—in "law French"—on how the cases were argued and the court's reasoning. At the inns, readings or lectures were heard in person, and legal debates called moots were organized over hypothetical cases. But students also spent time with Year Books, unofficial records of past cases organized by the years of a monarch's reign. Other books, too, were considered worthy of study; in keeping with the legal culture of the time, some were printed and others were only in manuscript. Students kept "commonplace books" of key points or lines of argument as well.

Items Included
  • Francis Bacon 1561-1626. The learned reading of Sir Francis Bacon, one of her Majesties learned counsell at law, upon the Statute of Uses: being his double reading to the Honourable Society of Grayes Inne. Published for the common good. London: 1642. Call number: B301 copy 3 Bd.w. STC 20889.5; Displayed: title page.
  • John Perkins. A profitable booke of Master Iohn Perkins felow of the Inner Temple treating of the lawes of Engla[n]d. London: Richard Tottell, August 31, 1581. Call number: STC 19637 copy 2; Displayed: 121a
  • John Rastell. An exposition of certaine difficult and obscure words, and termes of the lawes of this realme, newly set forth and augmented, both in Frenche and English, for the helpe of such yong students, as are desirous to attaine to the knowledge of the same. London: Richard Tottel, 1592. Call number: STC 20708 copy 2; Displayed: folio 112v-113r.
  • Sir Henry Finch. Nomotechnia, viz. the art of law or a description of the common lawes of England according to the rules of art together with all the cheife and principall statutes comeinge in their places whereby the common law is inlarged abridged or any way altered from the beginneinge of Magna Charta made 9 H. 3 to the end of the fourtyeth yeare of her late maties. most gratious raygne. Manuscript, 1607. Call number: V.a.320, Folio 2; Displayed: folio 2r.

A Multiplicity of Lawyers

In Shakespeare's time, the English legal profession was divided between two broad groups of lawyers, each permitted to perform certain functions. Barristers, who completed their studies in an inn of court, made up the "upper branch," able to argue in court and provide expert opinions. Lawyers in the "lower branch" studied at an inn of chancery, then clerked for a legal practitioner, becoming solicitors or attorneys. Such practitioners were more likely to work directly with clients. A solicitor did not argue in court, but could retain a barrister for the client.

Upper Branch

Serjeant at law. The top legal rank below the attorney general. Only serjeants could address the Court of Common Pleas or become justices of Common Pleas or King's Bench

Bencher. Also called a master of the bench, a senior lawyer who had given one or more readings at his inn. Benchers helped to govern the inns and called students to the bar to graduate.

Barrister. Graduate of an inn of court. A law student graduated on being "called to the bar"—a reference to the wood bar at an inn's moots (debates on hypothetical cases).

Lower Branch

Attorney. A lawyer who worked with clients, advising them on topics such as litigation, estate management, and finances

Solicitor. Similar to an attorney, but for the Court of Chancery. An attorney could also be a solicitor.

Proctor. Similar to an attorney or solicitor, but for the ecclesiastical (church) courts

A Wide Variety of Roles (Case 1.4)

Much as they do today, lawyers in Elizabethan and Jacobean times took on a great variety of work, from helping to settle disputes, to providing guidance to clients, to advocating for them in court. Lawyers helped in property negotiations and did legal research that could verge on antiquarian or historical study. Many also served as judges, justices of the peace, and members of Parliament. The documents in this case provide a small sampling of a working lawyer's diversity of tasks.

Items Included

Literary Lawyers (Case 1.5)

Bright minds interested in words and language offered a fertile ground for poetry and other literature at the Inns of Court. John Donne, for example, a one-time law student, wrote poems about the experience and used legal terms in many of his later works. Players once performed Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors for the holidays at Gray's Inn.

Items Included
  • Gesta Grayorum. London: W. Canning, 1688. Call number: C444 copy 1; Displayed; pages 22-23.
  • John Donne. Poems, by J.D. VVith elegies on the authors death. London: Miles Flesher, 1633. Call number: STC 7045.2 copy 1; Displayed: page 325.
  • Copy of John Donne’s Satyres I and II. Manuscript, 1590s. Call number: X.d.580; Displayed: front cover.
  • William Shakespeare. Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies. London: Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623. Call number: STC 22273 Fo.1 no.47; Displayed; title page for The Comedy of Errors.
  • Justice’s handbook. Manuscript, ca. 1575. Call number: V.a.247; Displayed: 5th and 6th leaves.

The Great Courts (Section 2)

The Westminster Courts

In early modern England, Westminster was the center of the legal world. In 1215 and in its later reissues, Magna Carta decreed that the Court of Common Pleas should be held in a fixed place, rather than following the king in his travels. That "fixed place" was Westminster Hall. Common Pleas was later joined in the hall by the Court of King's Bench, a second common law court that heard pleas to which the king was technically a party—including cases of murder and other major crimes.

Chancery, a court of civil equity rather than common law, became the third great court inside the same hall, with Exchequer, which dealt with revenues and taxes, in an adjacent building. A fifth court, the Star Chamber, was based in the Parliament building next door. It was intended to provide justice where the common law did not recognize a crime, such as in cases of dueling or seditious libel.

Twice a year, at times when the Westminster courts were not in session, the judges of Common Pleas, King's Bench, and Exchequer traveled to the seats of the English counties to serve as justices of the assizes. Local trials were usually held there, so that jurors and witnesses did not have to travel to Westminster.

Common Law Court

The common law courts applied the rule of law to provide monetary damages or criminal penalties.

Common Pleas. Civil pleas between citizens.

King's Bench. Originally for pleas to which the king was a party; expanded to include many others.

Exchequer. Revenues. Included the Exchequer of Pleas and the Exchequer of Receipts.

Prerogative Court

The prerogative courts derived their authority from the Crown's power to provide justice; they applied broad principles of justice on a case-by-case basis.

Chancery. Discretionary civil justice guided by traditional principles of equity. 

Star Chamber. Discretionary criminal justice for crimes and misdemeanors unknown to the common law.

Pressing a Suit in Common Law (Case 2.1)

Common law is, in effect, the unwritten rules of law developed through the precedents of past cases; ideally, a given type of legal dispute will always be resolved in the same way. The English common law courts were therefore known for very precise procedures. The attorney for an aggrieved party had to choose the correct kind of writ out of many possibilities and have it issued by the clerks of Chancery. The parties then exchanged written pleadings to clarify the issues at hand. Much like today, most civil cases were settled before going to trial. If arguments had to be made, however, a barrister was retained; attorneys could not speak in court.

Items Included
  • William Noy. A treatise of the principall grounds and maximes of the lawes of this kingdome. Very usefull and commodious for all studients, and such others as desire the knowledge, and understanding of the lawes. Written by that most excellent, and learned expositor of the law, W.N. of Lincolns-Inn, Esquire. London: R.H. by permission of the assignes of John Moore, Esquire, 1641. Call number: N1451 Copy 1 Bd.w. STC 6981 Copy 2; Displayed: Folio 1 of text 2.
  • Writ of covenant from the Court of Chancery to the sheriff of Nottinghamshire. Manuscript, April 8, 1555. Call number: Z.c.27 (2). Displayed: 1r.
  • Writ of covenant from the Court of Chancery to the sheriff of Nottinghamshire. Manuscript, March 26, 1578. Call number: Z.c.27 (3). Displayed: 1r.
  • Charge for Goodwife Ivery. Manuscript, 1587. Call number: L.f. 218.
  • Case of Goldsmith v Sir Roger Townshend, 1st bart.. Manuscript, September 1622. Call number: L.d.868; Displayed: leaf 1r.

Traveling to the Assizes (Case 2.2)

Courts of Assize were held twice a year in each county, during times when the Westminster courts were not in session. The judges of Common Pleas, King's Bench, and Exchequer presided over the assizes, which were grouped into regional circuits. Prominent residents often served on the grand juries. The assizes were more than legal events, however; like county fairs, they were much-anticipated occasions. The traveling judges were also seen as personal representatives of the king. County sheriffs made every effort to provide them with grand dinners and fine lodgings.

Items Included

The Court of Chancery (Case 2.3)

A major alternative to the courts of common law was Chancery, also in Westminster Hall. Both the unwritten common law and specific statutes (laws) could produce unfair results when they were applied rigidly; in other disputes, neither statutes nor common law applied. Chancery, headed by the Lord Chancellor, developed to deal with such disputes, based on the maxim that there should be "no wrong without a remedy," which goes back to Roman law. As a court of equity, Chancery reached decisions based on the facts and broad principles of discretionary justice. It held no jury trials; instead, it gathered facts through interrogatories—prepared questions—and local research by commissioners.

Items Included

Star Chamber and Exchequer (Case 2.4)

The Star Chamber is surely the best known of the Westminster courts today. Although it handled many uncontroversial cases, it is most associated now with those that asserted, and abused, royal power.  In hearing Star Chamber cases, the Lord Chancellor was assisted by privy councillors, the chief justice of King's Bench, and other judges, as needed. Contrary to a common misconception, the Star Chamber was not a secret court. Students and others attended and took notes.

This display case also encompasses the fifth of the great Westminster courts, the Exchequer, which was focused on revenues and taxes.

Items Included

Law and Communities (Section 3)

An Intricate Web

At first glance, the early modern court system—shown here in a simplified form—may seem like an overgrown, outdated tangle. Among other elements, it included the five courts at Westminster; the Admiralty for maritime matters; church courts for wills, probate, and sexual offences; town and city regulations and customs; and the manorial courts, each with a tradition of its own. Many cases could logically be heard in multiple courts, giving lawyers an incentive to try them all at once.

For people of the time, however, the courts also connected the countryside and the capital through a regular flow of cases, communications, and individuals—including the judges who divided their time between the central courts and the county assizes. Smaller matters, meanwhile, were handled locally, without a need for the Crown to be involved.

Local Government (Case 3.1)

Cities, towns, and manors were highly self-sufficient in Shakespeare's time. His own father was an alderman and then a bailiff—equivalent to mayor—in Stratford. Some towns and cities relied on charters that established their rights. Others without a charter held their ancient rights by custom. Each had its own officials and copious regulations. The lord of a manor maintained regular court sessions—often important for land transactions and similar matters—and kept up the court records as well.

Items Included
  • Court rolls for courts general and courts leet of the manor of Lopham, Norfolk Manuscript, 1511-1631. X.d.57 (5-6); Displayed: rolled up.
  • Court paper of the Manorial Court for the court leet and court baron of the manor of Henley-in Arden, Warwickshire. Manuscript, October 23, 1616. Call number: V.b.86; Displayed: leaf 1v-1r.
  • By-laws of Warwick. Manuscript, 1571-1664. Call number: Z.d.10; Displayed: front cover.

Local Liberties and Customs (Case 3.2)

Local customs played a recognized part in England's legal system. Courts looked for evidence of how things were traditionally done in particular towns or manors and tenants sought confirmation of old customs to avoid losing their rights. Although most of Magna Carta is now outdated, one of its few remaining valid clauses addresses the same topic: "The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water," it says, as will "all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports."

Items Included

The Law and Everyday Life (Case 3.3)

Items Included
  • Abraham Bosse. Étude de procureur [The prosecuter’s study]. Engraving. Paris: [not before 1633]. Call number: ART 230-993 (size M).
  • Marriage settlement of Simon Cale with John Fowler of Worcester, clothier, John Stayte of Alderton, Gloucestershire, husbandman, and Michael Smarte of Stratford, husbandman, trustees. Manuscript, January 7, 1613. Call number: Z.c.36(115); Displayed: closed
  • Bond from Sir Roger Townshend (1543?-1590) to John Spencer, May 20, 1590. Call number: L.d.858; Displayed: leaf 1r.
  • Will of William Meyrick, parson of St. Michael's, 1611 April. Copy, after 1611. Call number: L.f.398: Displayed: folio 1r.
  • List of bonds at Sir Roger Townshend's (1543?-1590) death. Ca. 1591. Call number: L.d.856. Displayed: leaf 1r.
  • Moses Pitt. The cry of the oppressed. London: 1691. Call number: 157- 697q: Displayed: plate facing page 62. Keeping the Peace William Lambarde. Eirenarcha: or of the office of the Justices of peace, in two bookes: gathered 1579 […]. London: 1582. Call number: STC 15164; Displayed: page 11.

Keeping the Peace (Case 3.4)

Justices of the peace were prominent citizens appointed by the king or queen, often from the local gentry—although sometimes barristers were chosen for their legal knowledge. They had to be wealthy because they served without pay. A justice of the peace presided over the aptly named quarter sessions, held four times a year, to consider misdemeanors and other small offenses. He also had other responsibilites, from licensing local alehouses to preemptively locking up ("binding over") local troublemakers.

Items Included
  • William Lambarde. An ephemeris of the certifiable causes of the commission of the peace from June 1580 till September 1588. Manuscript, 1588. Call number: X.d.249; Displayed: leaf 1v- leaf 2r.
  • Michael Dalton. The countrey iustice : conteyning the practise of the iustices of the peace out of their sessions […]. London: 1618. Call number: STC 6205 copy 2; Displayed: pages 25-25.
  • Letter from Sir John Popham to Robert Redmayne. Copy, June 20, 1599. Call number: L.d.477; Displayed: leaf 1r.
  • A manuell, or A justice of peace his vade-mecum. [Cambridge]: Roger Daniel, 1614. Call number: V.a.395 item 3. Displayed: pages 60-61.

Crime and Punishment

Misdemeanors, failures to obey town regulations, and similar offenses were typically punished by fines in early modern England, though some fines could be high. For felonies, the punishments were often physical and public, like whipping at the cart's tail, branding, or hanging. At a time of increasing mobility, wandering strangers were seen as a threat, and vagrancy was a whipping offense. To avoid that charge, acting companies like Shakespeare's required a noble or royal sponsor.

Items Included
  • Copy of speeches made by Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509-1579) before Parliament, the Star Chamber and elsewhere, 1559-ca.1580. Manuscript, ca. 1600. Call number: V.a.143. Displayed: page 66-67.
  • A true relation of a most desperate murder, committed vpon the body of Sir Iohn Tindall Knight, one of the maisters of the Chancery; who with a pistoll charged with 3. bullets, was slaine going into his chamber within Lincolnes-Inne, the 12. day of Nouember, by one Iohn Barterham Gent: Which Barterham afterwards hanged himselfe in the Kinges-Bench in Southwarke, on Sunday being the 17. day following. 1616. London: Edwward All-de, 1617. Call number: STC 24435; Displayed: b2r.
  • A true relation of a barbarous and most cruell murther, [com]mitted by one Enoch ap Euan, who cut off his owne naturall mothers head, and his brothers. The cause wherefore he did this most execrable act: ... with his condemnation and execution. VVith certaine pregnant inducements, both diuine and morall, ... .London: Nicholas Okes, 1633. Call number: STC 10582; Displayed: title page.
  • Ferdinando Pulton. De pace Regis et regni. London: Printed for the Companie of Stationers, 1609. Call number: STC 20495 Copy 1; Displayed: folio 223-224. William Staunford. Les plees del coron. London: Richard Tottel 1567. Call number: STC 23221; Displayed: title page.

The King and the Law (Section 4)

  • Attributed to Hogenberg. [Coronation of James I, King of Great Britain]. Etching. Ca. 1603. Call number: ART 235- 612 (size S)

Royal Power and the Rule of Law

In 1603, when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Ireland, the world of English law and politics changed forever. The English generally welcomed their new king. But James brought with him exalted ideas of royal power and a cherished dream of uniting England and Scotland in one realm—seen by both nations as a threat to their own laws and liberties.

Two notable lawyers were among those caught up in the events that followed. Sir Edward Coke (pronounced Cook) was James's first attorney general; Sir Francis Bacon, knighted by James in 1603, eventually became Lord Chancellor. Coke and Bacon were already rivals; at one point, Coke had married a young widow whom Bacon was courting. Still, each found success at first through service to James.

Then their paths diverged. As chief justice of Common Pleas and then King's Bench, Coke's loyalty to the common law put him at odds with the king. The brilliant Bacon, meanwhile, aligned himself with James, a well-educated ruler and prolific author. The disputes in which all three engaged left behind events and legal texts that shaped—among other things—the development of American law and government.

James and Francis Bacon (Case 4.1)

Taken from his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, at the age of one when he became king of Scotland, James had a difficult childhood, although he acquired a deep love of learning. His many years as Scotland's king only confirmed for him that kings must be greater than the law. After James became king of England, Sir Francis Bacon soon gained his favor by taking his part. He eventually rose to become Lord Chancellor. Bacon's enemies (including Sir Edward Coke) assembled evidence of corruption, however, and in 1621, he fell from power.

Items Included
  • The true lawe of free monarchies. Or The reciprock and mutuall dutie betwixt a free king, and his naturall subiects. London: Thomas Creede and J Roberts according to the copie printed at Edenburgh, 1603. Call number: STC 14410 Copy 1; Displayed: first page, signature b.
  • George Buchanan. De jure regni apud Scotos […]. Edinburgh: 1580. Call number: STC 3975. Displayed: title page. James I, King of England. A counterblaste to tobacco. London: R. Barker, 1604. Call number: STC 14363. Displayed: B1r.
  • Francis Bacon. Of the advancement and proficience of learning. Oxford: Leon Lichfield, 1640. Call number: STC 1167.2; Displayed: Pages 438-439.
  • Francis Bacon. The elements of the common lavves of England, branched into a double tract […]. London: 1636. Call number: STC 1135 copy 1. Displayed: title page.

Sir Edward Coke

Sir Edward Coke is a towering figure in English law. In the late 1580s, he became a prominent lawyer in private practice and served as justice of the peace for multiple places and recorder for different towns. He was named Queen Elizabeth's attorney general in 1594, defeating Sir Francis Bacon for the post. After serving as James's first attorney general, Coke became chief justice of Common Pleas for seven years and chief justice of King's Bench for another three. Over time, however, he favored the common law over assertions of royal power, a fact that ended his career. When the New England colonists requested English law books, they included Coke's Reports and his first two Institutes, one on Littleton's Tenures and the other on Magna Carta and other statutes.

Items Included

Sir Edward Coke. Les reports de Edvvard Coke l’attorney generall le roigne […] [Reports. Part 1]. London: Thomæ Wight, 1601. Call number: STC 5493.25; Displayed: title page.

Robert Pricket. The Lord Coke his speech and charge. VVith a discouerie of the abuses and corruption of officers. London: R. Raworth and N. Okes, 1607. Call number: STC 5492.2 copy 1; Displayed: title page.

Autograph letter signed from "Edw: Coke" at "Stoke" [House, Stoke Poges], to his confidential secretary and man of business John Pepys. Manuscript, June 11, 1626. Call number: X.c.176; Displayed: Folio 1r.

Magna charta, made in the ninth year of K. Henry the Third, and confirmed by K. Edward the First, in the twenty-eighth year of his reign. With some short, but necessary observations from the L. Chief Just. Coke’s comments upon it. Faithfully translated for the benefit of those that do not understand the Latine, by Edw. Cooke, of the Middle-Temple, Esq. London: assignes of Richard and Edward Atkins, 1680. Call number: 139- 576q; Displayed: title page.

Known Simply as the Reports (Case 4.3)

The case reports produced by Sir Edward Coke quickly won a supreme accolade. They are known simply as The Reports, even in formal legal citation. From the late 1500s to the late 1800s, reports of English case law—including Coke's—were privately created by lawyers and judges, who took notes on cases and compiled them into collections. These became known as the "nominative" (or "named") reports, most of which were eventually printed, although others survive as manuscripts. Plowden’s Commentaries, by Sir Edmund Plowden, was among the first to be considered authoritative. When the printed nominatives were compiled and reprinted as the English Reports in the early 20th century, there were 265 named series. Only Coke's are cited as The Reports, with no name required.

Items Included
  • LOAN Courtesy of Georgetown Law Library: Coke's Reports (set of 12)

The Great Charter (Wall)

The first version of Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, was granted by King John to his barons on the field of Runnymede on June 15, 1215. It was originally known as the Charter. Among many provisions only relevant to the medieval age, it incorporated timeless language that would come to be regarded as guaranteeing due process, trial by a jury of one's peers, and the rule of law. The 1215 Magna Carta was soon nullified by the pope at John's request, for having been agreed to under duress.

After John's death the next year, William Marshall, the regent for his nine-year-old son Henry III, solidified public support by reissuing the Charter in both 1216 and 1217. Henry himself reissued it in 1225, establishing the authoritative version of the text for centuries to come and entitling it Magna Carta for the first time. Henry's son Edward I reissued it as a statute in 1297.

In the 1600s, Sir Edward Coke raised Magna Carta to a new, almost mythical status as a symbol of the common law, praising and discussing it in his Second Institute. In Parliament, Coke continued to use the document in his battles against expanded royal power, proclaiming in 1628 that Magna Carta "will have no sovereign."

Items Included
  • LOAN Courtesy of the Library of Congress: Vellum Photo engraving of 1215 Magna Carta

The Liberties of Magna Carta (Case 4.4)

In the 1500s and 1600s, Magna Carta, now three to four centuries old, was traditionally printed at the start of collections of statutes (laws) as the first English statute; this followed the form of earlier manuscript compilations. Many of the statute books displayed here were well marked up by their readers. Their annotations in both law French and English frequently include the word "liberties" near key clauses in Magna Carta.

Items Included
  • A collection of statutes of the realm. Manuscript, compiled ca. 1325. Call number: V.a.256; Displayed: folio 25v-26r. Magna Charta, cum statutis quæ antiqua vocantur, iam recens excusa, & summa fide emendata, iuxta vetusta exemplaria ad Parliamenti rotulos examinata [...]. London: Richard Tottel, 1556. Call number: STC 9278 Copy 1; Displayed: folio 5.
  • A kalender, or table, comprehending the effect of all the statutes that haue beene made and put in print, beginning with Magna Charta, enacted anno 9. H.3. and proceeding one by one, vntill the end of the session of Parliament holden Anno 3. R. Iacobi. London : Adam Islip, 1606. Call number: STC 9547; Displayed: folio 1.
  • Reflections upon the opinions of some modern divines, concerning the nature of government in general, and that of England in particular. London: 1689. Call number: 133-061q. Displayed: title page.
  • The great charter called in latyn Magna Carta. London: Thomas Petyt, 1542. Call number: STC 9276. Displayed: signature Ar.

Influencing the American Future

The years of James's reign were a heady brew of legal and political disputes—many of which would influence the American framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a century and a half later. The following list includes some, though not all, of these major cases and events.

The Prohibitions del Roy (1607)

When King James intervened in disputes between the common law and ecclesiastical courts, intending to act as a judge himself, Sir Edward Coke told him that "the king in his own person cannot adjudge any case." The dispute became an enduring symbol of the rule of law in resisting the assertion of absolute power.

Calvin's Case, or the Case of the Post-Nati (1608)

This case determined that James's Scottish subjects born after he became king of England could claim the rights of English subjects in England. It also established the rules that governed how the English common law could be incorporated into new dominions like the American colonies and led to the development of the shared rights of British subjects when in each other's dominions. 

Bonham's Case (1610)

This case is best known for Coke's statement as chief justice of Common Pleas that the common law can "adjudge" a parliamentary act. While the idea was not pursued further in England, it is often credited as the origin of the American concept of judicial review, established in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison. 

The Five Knights' Case, or Darnell's Case (1627)

After Charles I, James's son, resorted to forced "loans" for revenue, five knights were imprisoned when they refused to pay the loans or to leave London. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use writs of habeas corpus to free themselves and thus limit the king's power. This denial of habeas corpus was then debated by Coke and others in Parliament, which enacted the short-lived 1628 Petition of Right in an attempt to better secure the rights of English subjects.

Major Cases and Events (Case 4.5)

Like modern landmark legal cases or major events, each of the stories suggested by these materials could easily fill its own display case. Among the extraordinary items here is Sir Edward Coke's personal copy of the legal treatise by Henry de Bracton from which he quoted to King James. The case also includes, among other items, two royal proclamations and printed speeches by Sir Edward Coke's archrivals Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Edgerton, Lord Ellesmere.

  • Sir Edward Coke. The twelfth part of the Reports of Sir Edward Coke. London: Printed by T.R. for Henry Twyford, and Thomas Dring, and are to be sold in Vine-Court Middle Temple, and at the George in Fleetstreet, neer Cliffords-Inne, 1656. Call number: 151- 989f; Displayed: page 64-65.
  • LOAN Courtesy of Georgetown Law Library: Henry Bracton. Henrici de Bracton De legibus & consuetudinibus Angliae libri quinq : in varios tractatus distincti, ad diuersorum et vetustissimorum codicum collationem, ingenti cura, nunc primu typis vulgati : quorum quid cuiq; insit, proxima pagina demonstrabit. London: Apud Richard Tottel, 1569. Call number: KD600 .B73 1569 Folio.
  • Sir Thomas Egerton. The speech of the Lord Chancellor of England, in the Eschequer Chamber, touching the post-nati. London: Adam Islip, 1609. Call number: STC 7540 Copy 2 Bd.w. STC 5492.2 Copy 2; Displayed: B1r.
  • By the King. A proclamation against priuate challenges and combats: vvith articles annexed for the better directions to be vsed therein, and for the more iudiciall proceeding against offenders. London: Robert Barker, 1613 [i.e. 1614]. Call number: STC 8497; Displayed: page 1.
  • Sir Francis Bacon. The charge of Sir Francis Bacon Knight, his Maiesties Attourney generall, touching duells, vpon an information in the Star-chamber against Priest and Wright. With the decree of the Star-chamber in the same cause. London: George Eld, 1614. Call number: STC 1125; Displayed: title page.
  • The habeas corpus, or, The proceedings at the King’s Bench Bar between the King’s Majesty and divers of his subjects imprisoned in Michaelmas term Manuscript, November 1627. Call number: V.b.309; Displayed: title page.

Thomas Jefferson and Sir Edward Coke

Thomas Jefferson's personal library included several English law books, including Blackstone's Commentaries (1765–69). As a young man, Jefferson had studied Coke's classic, and challenging, First Institute, known as Coke on Littleton. In 1826, he wrote to James Madison concerning the qualifications for the University of Virginia's first law professor:

[B]efore the Revolution, Coke Littleton was the universal elementary book of law students, and a sounder Whig never wrote, nor of profounder learning in . . . what were called English liberties. . . . But when his black-letter text, and uncouth. But cunning learning got out of fashion, and the honeyed Mansfieldism of Blackstone became the students' hornbook, from that moment, that profession (the nursery of our Congress) began to slide into toryism."

Despite Jefferson's fondness for Coke—including the volume shown here—Blackstone's far more recent text became the new standard for American law students.

Items Included
  • LOAN Courtesy of the Library of Congress: Edward Coke.The Second Part of the Institute of the Lawes of England […]. London: Thomas Basset, 1681. Thomas Jefferson Library Collection.

The American Story

In this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, numerous books and exhibitions, including this one, have rightly celebrated its confirmation of trial by jury, due process, and the rule of law, many of which were challenged in the tumultuous period of the early 1600s.

Less familiar, perhaps, are the other stories told in this exhibition, including the quiet transmission of English common law to the American legal system, the inherited traditions of local self-government, the rights of colonial British subjects, and the many cases and events in the early 1600s that were well known to the founders of the United States as they framed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a century and a half later.

Diagonally across the street from the Folger Shakespeare Library is the US Supreme Court building, constructed, like the Folger, in the 1930s. Its bronze front doors, which celebrate a rich tradition of lawgivers and lawyers, embody many of these ideas. These scenes include, at bottom right, the signing of the 1215 Magna Carta, and, two panels above it, the confrontation between Sir Edward Coke and King James over the Prohibitions del Roy.