Civility and the Inns of Court

The Bencher—May/June 2019

For the last two years, the American Inns of Court designated October as Civility Month. As part of the focus on civility, we hosted a panel on the Traditions of Civility on October 20, 2018. Panel member, The Right Honourable Lord Justice Nicholas Patten, addressed the evolution of civility within the English Inns of Court. We have excerpted some of his thoughts below on how civility became a cornerstone of the English Inns of Court.

How did civility become a cornerstone of the English Inns of Court?

There is a widely held belief that for much of their history, education at the Inns of Court extended beyond legal training to embrace much wider accomplishments. As a result, many members of the aristocracy attended the Inns to acquire polish and refinement. The first mention of this educational role for the Inns is in Fortescue’s “De laudibus legum Angliae” (written between 1468 and1471 and circulated in manuscript before appearing in print in 1543). Fortescue referred to both the Inns of Court and the Inns of Chancery providing, in addition to their legal education, “a kind of academy of all the manners that nobles learn,” i.e., training in singing, dancing, and “all games proper for nobles.” Fortescue claimed that most nobles devoted their vacations to studying the law, Scripture, and the chronicles. “This is indeed a cultivation of virtues and a banishment of all vice,” Fortescue said.

This description would be a perfect quote to demonstrate the centrality of “civility” in the education provided by the Inns, were it not questioned by later historians.

W.C. Richardson, for instance, pointed out that descriptions of the Inn’s education programmes, such as the report by Nicholas Bacon, Thomas Denton, and Robert Carey on the status of legal education in England (c. 1540), make no reference to this.

What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the Inns fostered activities beyond the legal curriculum, and these can be characterised as teaching “civility.”  The place of drama at the Inns in the early modern period is well-known thanks to the first performance of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in the Hall of Middle Temple in London, England. All the Inns, however, produced plays, masques, and revels in the 16th century and early 17th century.

Theatre in this period was more than just a civilised pastime. Contemporary theatre had a strong moral and didactic framework, upholding the existing social order and civic virtues. Even in the most gruesome Jacobean tragedy, vice is not allowed to go unpunished. The masques of the early 17th century followed strict conventions where chaos and the overturning of the natural order in the anti-masque would be resolved with the restoration of the natural order of things in the main masque. Even the licensed misrule of the revels ultimately strengthened the existing social order.

Teaching/enforcing ‘civility’ indirectly

Daily life in the Inns of Court was (and still is) regulated by many rules and customs, which can be characterised as promoting civility. These include:

  • the requirements for keeping dining terms and the act of communal dining,
  • insistence on respect for the hierarchy of the Inn,
  • the corporate life of the Inns as an alternative to the temptations of London nightlife,
  • decorum in dress, and
  • the provision of libraries covering a broad range of subjects, particularly the classics.

The civilising effects of communal dining

Living and dining together was seen as an essential element of mediaeval universities. The same was true of the Inns of Court, where most of the legal instruction took place in Hall after meals. All the Inns attached great importance to dining communally, and this is reflected in the punishments levied on members who failed to attend.

The benefits of communal dining were summarised by the Benchers of Middle Temple in 1640 who viewed the “holding together in commons the company of this Fellowship in their public hall, as a thing wherein principally consisted the common honour, and the peculiar good of every particular member, and without which a company so voluntarily gathered together to live under government could hardly be termed a Society.”


As with many organisations, each Inn of Court has always had its own settled hierarchy, which helps underpin respect for senior members and, by extension, for the institution itself.

For instance, at a Council in Lincoln’s Inn on Ascension Day in 1520, following an adjudication over the respective seniority of four barristers, “it is ordained the every gentleman of this company give to other due reverence according to their ancienties and use due order and silence in their communications and arguments within this house,” according to “Black Books,” Volume 1.

Seniority among Benchers is determined by the date on which each individual was made Bencher. Seniority among barristers is determined by date of call.

The Inn’s 1949 dining regulations demonstrate how apparently straightforward rules like this have still produced enough social conundrums for the lawyers to really get their teeth into:

  • Rule II (a). Barristers admitted ad eundem shall have precedence according to the date of their admission to the Inn.
  • Rule II (b). Four Barristers may dine together in a Mess so long as that Mess are content to take precedence according to the seniority of the junior of the said four Barristers.
  • Rule VIII. No Barrister is to leave the Hall until the Benchers have withdrawn unless by permission of the Treasurer or Acting Treasurer.

The regulations go further, and it should be no surprise that a community of lawyers specified mechanisms on how to resolve any disputes. Thus, for instance, after the Butler has given “one stroke of the Mallet exactly at the time appointed for dinner … no Barrister who has taken his chair at Table may be displaced by any other Barrister on the ground of precedence or otherwise” (rule III).

In addition, “any question of precedence may be referred to the Under-Treasurer who shall settle the question when required to do so.”

By 1949, some of the regulations sounded antiquated—e.g., “Cloaks, Hats, Spurs, Swords and Daggers and any disorderly conduct are forbidden in Hall” (rule XII)—and many of the more convoluted rules have fallen into abeyance. Nonetheless, the essential rules and customs remain to this day to uphold the civilized nature of dining in Hall.

Communal life removing temptations

The importance of keeping commons was partly to remove members from temptations outside the Inn. This was explicitly stated in the Middle Temple General Orders of 1664. By neglecting commons during vacations “gentlemen of the Inns of Court are often drawn to frequent ordinaries [i.e., taverns], gaming-houses, and other places of disorder whereby the neglect of their studies, if not the corruption of their manners is occasioned.”

Interestingly, the concern with discouraging members of the Inn from nearby temptations lasted until well into the 20th century and also extended to non-members also resident in the Inn. The celebrated artist/calligraphers Edward Johnston and Eric Gill leased a flat in the Inn between 1902 and 1903. Gill later recalled how they were “bound by the rules and regulations of the house. The gates were shut at a certain hour every evening; boundary walls secluded us from the frivolities of the streets. There was a tacit agreement understood and accepted by all tenants of the Inn to conform to a certain unwritten but recognizable rule of dignity and decorum.”

Decorum in dress—sumptuary regulations

As with many organisations, the Inn still demands decorum in dress at its functions. In the past, the Inn has been very detailed in what it prescribes.

The mid-16th century, for instance, saw a prolonged campaign across the Inns of Court against the wearing of beards. In February 1542 Council declared “none of the Fellowes of the said House … shall wear a beard in the said house, and who so doeth shall pay double commons.” Fines were levied on members who ignored this proscription in the following years; indeed one member was reprimanded “for his over much speaking at the Bench in defence of wearing of beards.”

In the following decade, detailed regulations were made concerning costume—incidentally providing an interesting insight into contemporary fashion. In 1557 Lincoln’s Inn forbade all but knights to wear “in their doublets or hose any light colours except scarlet or crimson or wear any velvet cap or any scarf, or wings on their gowns’ sleeves, upon pain to forfeit the first default 3s.4d., the second expulsion without redemption.” Inner Temple meanwhile forbade “white jerkins, buskins or velvet shoes, double cuffs on their shirts, feather or ribbons on their caps.”

Sumptuary regulations—which were very common in the 16th and 17th centuries, are usually attributed to a desire to reinforce social distinctions by restricting opulent attire to the highest social orders. In the case of the Inns, however, an explicit link is made between sobriety in dress and civility.
The judges’ orders issued in 1614 and reissued in 1630 and 1664 all consider the issue of costume (article 12). The 1614 version is most detailed:

“For that an outward decency in habit and apparel is an ornament to all societies and containeth young men within the bounds of civility and order, It is ordered that no gentleman of any House of Court or Chancery shall come into ye several Halls, Chapels and places of public prayer with hats, cloaks, boots, spurs, swords or daggers or shall wear long hair: upon pain to undergo several penalties contained in the orders of the several Houses, which are strictly to be put in execution.”

The provision of libraries covering a broad range of subjects—particularly the classics

Although the records of Lincoln’s Inn include mention of a library in 1475, the libraries of all the Inns of Court are known to have been quite limited in scope initially. Even by 1646, the date of the first catalogue of Lincoln’s Inn, the library only had 292 volumes of printed books. Interestingly, 214 of these titles were on subjects other than law—mainly theology, history, and philosophy. This may of course be attributable to the random nature of bequests to the library, but it does suggest that the Inn placed great importance on the liberal arts.

This was certainly demonstrated in 1676 both by Sir Matthew Hale’s bequest of his manuscript collection and the Inn’s response. Hale’s collection is that of a true Renaissance man, learned in many fields, not just the law. The Inn was also well aware of the importance of this bequest, commissioning a portrait of Hale to hang in the library in recognition of his gift.
In the years that followed, the library continued to collect widely in many disciplines. As with many libraries, it had a strong collection of classical literature. A knowledge of the classics was not just the hallmark of the educated man, but also, of course, the source for many theories about what constitutes civility and civilisations.

© 2019 American Inns of Court. This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.