Episode 9: The Inns of Court, London

Inns of Court, London

Last Updated on December 15, 2023 by Marian Jones

This post takes you on a wander round the Inns of Court, that most peaceful haven just off some of London’s busiest streets. We explore the courtyards and gardens, talk a little about the ancient buildings where lawyers have been working for centuries and hear how trainee barristers let off steam in medieval times. Find out too what the young Charles Dickens thought about life as a solicitor’s clerk here. The 4 Inns of Court are Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple and we also mention Temple Church and the Royal Courts of Justice.

a little history

As early as the 15th century, would-be lawyers lived and trained here. Many studied for 7 or 8 years, learning from experienced lawyers before being called to the Bar. Their raucous social life included fencing, dancing and jousting and damage often ensued. Lisa Picard, author of Elizabeth’s London, describes the ‘discordant tumult’ of one evening when a theatre troupe visited and quotes a document showing that in 1570 a bill of 10 shillings was paid ‘to the Carpenter, for mending forms and tables in the Hall after the great show, and new-footing most of the trestles.’ Still today there’s a ‘dining in’ tradition and trainees must attend ‘qualifying sessions’ that is formal dinners in their Inn.

lincoln’s inn and gray’s inn

Lincoln’s Inn, the oldest of the Inns of Court, dates back to 1422 and is named after the Earl of Lincoln, adviser to Edward III. It has a 16th century gatehouse and a chapel whose foundation stone was laid by the poet John Donne, with an ‘undercroft’ below it, an open space for students to ‘walk and talk and confer for learning’. Famous past members are Sir Thomas More and at least 16 British Prime Ministers including William Pitt and Margaret Thatcher. Lincon’s Inn is famously the only place in the country where the monarch can be toasted sitting down, a convention dating back to a particularly lively evening hosted by Charles II. Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a public park.

Gray’s Inn is the smallest of the Inns of Court and former members include Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister to Henry VIII. Its idyllic gardens, designed in about 1598, are known as The Walks and are open to the public for certain periods each day. You will see office workers lunching on benches amid the elm, birch and cherry trees. Gray’s Inn is where the first performance of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors took place.

middle temple and temple church

At the centre of Middle Temple is Fountain Court, and Middle Temple Garden is the setting for the scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I, where red and white roses are picked by the Earl of Somerset and the Duke of York at the beginning of the power struggle which would become known as the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Knight was first performed here for the Candlemas Feast of 1602 and on the 400th anniversary of the occasion, a celebratory commemorative performance was given here starring Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne. Yu can book a tour of Middle Temple here.

Middle Temple Hall is a stunning Tudor building dating from 1571, where the enormous table was carved from a tree given as a gift by Queen Elizabeth I. It was cut down in Windsor Great Park and floated downriver to London. A second, smaller table is said to have been carved from wood originally used for Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind.

temple church

Temple Church was consecrated in 1185, an occasion attended by King Henry II and also by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, fitting because it was styled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was here that new entrants to the Knights Templar were initiated. Inside you can see the flags of all the Inns, for example the lamb and flag of Middle Temple and the silver winged Pegasus on a blue background of Inner Temple. You can see the penitential cell where errant knights were imprisoned and sometimes starved to death. More cheerfully, there is a programme of lunchtime concerts.

the royal courts of justice

Today some of the country’s most senior lawyers and barristers have their chambers here in the Inns of Court. There’s more on the podcast about how it all works. Nearby is the Royal Courts of Justice, also known as the Law Courts, the centre for civil cases – criminal cases are tried at the Old Bailey. You can do a guided tour of the Royal Courts of Justice, an amazing gothic building of over 1000 rooms, learn a little about how the system works, perhaps watch part of a case from a viewing gallery and see an exhibition of the wigs and robes worn by the barristers.

what authors have said

A teenage Charles Dickens was a rather unwilling solicitor’s clerk in Gray’s Inn and relieved his boredom by spitting cherry stones out of the window. He later called it ‘one of the most depressing institutions in bricks and mortar known to the children of men’ and was disparaging about the law and lawyers in general. His novel Bleak House describes the long legal wrangles between members of the Jarndyce family, whose inheritance gradually gets eaten up in lawyer’s fees. Dickens made his low opinion of lawyers quite clear, writing that ‘The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.’

There really is nowhere else quite like the Inns of Court, in London or anywhere else. Perhaps the Oxford and Cambridge colleges are the closest thing, even though this area is just off some of London’s busiest streets. The American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, visiting in 1870, left a description in his journal which still rings true today: ‘’In a court opening inwards was a surrounding seclusion of quiet dwelling homes, with beautiful green shrubbery and grass plots in the court …. There was … not a quieter spot in England than this. In all the hundreds of years since London was built, it has not been able to sweep its roaring tide over that little island of quiet.’

Listen to the POdcast

Reading suggestions

Elizabeth’s London by Liza Picard
Bleak House by Charles Dickens

links for this post

Walking Tour of the Inn of Court (London Walking Tours)
Walking Tour of the Inns of Court (London Walks)
Tour of Middle Temple
Temple Church
Concert Programme at Temple Church
The Royal Courts of Justice

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