John Cowell, Master of Trinity Hall and his seditious dictionary


Title page of The Interpreter


The Old Library at Trinity Hall is home to many law texts including an unprepossessing book written by John Cowell. It is known as The Interpreter (1607); or to give it its pithy title, The interpreter: Or Booke containing the signification of words : Wherein is set foorth the true meaning of all, or the most part of such words and termes, as are mentioned in the lawe vvriters, or statutes of this victorious and renowned kingdome, requiring any exposition or interpretation. A worke not onely profitable, but necessary for such as desire throughly to be instructed in the knowledge of our lawes, statutes, or other antiquities (Yes I’ll stick to The Interpreter). It was one of the first English law dictionaries, so while you may think this would be an safely dull publication, it was to cause a scandal which would lead to the book’s suppression and public burning, and almost earnt the author the death penalty.

John Cowell was born in Landkey, Devon in 1552. He was educated at Eton on a scholarship, before going up to King’s College, Cambridge in 1570, aged 18. He was a Fellow of King’s from 1573 until 1595, and was appointed to the Regius Professorship of Civil Law in 1594. Two years later he became Master of Trinity Hall – a post he was to hold until his death in 1611. He was also vice-chancellor of Cambridge University between 1603 and 1604. The pinnacle of his career came in 1608 when the Archbishop of Canterbury Richard Bancroft, who was his friend and mentor, made him his vicar-general. This important position meant that he was judge of the ecclesiastic court.

Cowell’s dedication to Bancroft

Now on to the main story. The Interpreter was published in 1607 by university printer, John Legate (he rented a shop at the west end of Great St Mary’s Church), and it was dedicated to Bancroft.

As it says in Cowell’s preface, the book was intended as an academic work for the ‘advancement of knowledge’, and was unlikely to have been written with any political motivation. In fact, any controversy appeared to go unnoticed for more than two years.

Cowell’s definition of ‘prerogative’

The thing that landed Cowell in hot water was a handful of definitions contained in his dictionary, in particular ‘King’, ‘Parliament,’ ‘Prerogative’, ‘Recoveries’, and ‘Subsidies’.

So why were these so controversial? Cowell’s definitions appeared to support the idea of an absolute monarchy, which was above the law. This was controversial in a difficult political climate where the Crown and Parliament were vying for power. When the parliament met on 24 February 1609 James I’s attention was drawn towards The Interpreter. Sir Edwin Sandys described the book as “very ill-advised and indiscreet, tending to the disreputaton of the House, and the power of the common laws”. A committee was then formed later that month to consider the book and report to the House of Lords.

The Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke was one of a group of lawyers on this committee who attacked Cowell’s book. Coke perhaps felt some hostility or jealousy towards Cowell and disparagingly referred to him in letters as ‘Cow-heel’. The background to his antagonism was complex, but was rooted in Cowell’s criticism of Thomas Littleton’s scholarship, whom Coke greatly admired and had based his own work. It was also a battle between the common law courts and civil law courts, with Coke and Cowell on opposing sides.

The Interpreter was investigated and it looked for a time that Cowell would be executed. The indictment read:

Dr. Cowell, Professor of the Civil Law at Cambridge, writ a book called The Interpreter, rashly, dangerously and perniciously asserting certain heads to the overthrow and destruction of Parliaments, and the fundamental laws and government of the Kingdom.

There was much discussion of the book and of Cowell’s punishment in the Commons and Lords. While they debated the matter, James I asked Cowell to explain himself.   The King then stepped in to denounce the book with a Royal proclamation. This in effect, took the matter out of the hands of parliament.

The proclamation order read:

When Men goe out of their Element, and meddle with Things above their Capacitie, themselves shall not onely goe astray and stumble in Darknesse, but will mislead also divers others with themselves into many Mistakings and Errours.. the Proofe whereof wee have lately had by a Booke written by Docteur Cowell.. by medling in Matters above his reach, he hath fallen in many Things to mistake and deceive himselfe.. in some Poynts very derogatory to the supreme Power of this Crowne; In other Cases mistaking the true State of the Parliament of this Kingdome.

People were prohibited from buying or reading The Interpreter and Cowell’s book is said to have been publicly burnt by the hangman on 26 March 1610. It was one of only around fifteen books that were consigned to the flames during the whole of the 59 year reign of James I.

Cowell was imprisoned for a while, but the case against him was soon dropped. James I apparently let it be known that Cowell was not to be prosecuted or harmed. He resigned his professorship on 25 May 1610 and died on 11 October 1611. He was buried in Trinity Hall Chapel and left bequests in his Will to Trinity Hall, King’s College, and to Cambridge University. These included his books and manuscripts which are held in the Old Library (possibly even his own copy of The Interpreter!).


Plaque commemorating Cowell in Trinity Hall Chapel

This was not the end of the story for Cowell’s dictionary. Many copies have survived and it was reissued in unexpurgated form 27 years later, in 1658. Fresh editions were also published in the 17th century.

Further reading

Boucher, Harold, King James’s suppression of The Interpreter and denouncement of Dr. Cowell (Harold I. Boucher, 1998).

Chrimes, S. B., ‘The Constitutional Ideas of Dr. John Cowell.’ The English Historical Review, vol. 64, no. 253, (1949): 461–487. JSTOR ,

Hessayon, A., ‘Incendiary texts: book burning in England, c.1640 – c.1660′, Cromohs, 12 (2007): 1-25.

Levack, Brian P., ‘Cowell, John (1554–1611), civil lawyer.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (2004). Oxford University Press. Accessed 16 May 2018 at:

Simon, J., ‘Dr. Cowell’. The Cambridge Law Journal, vol. 26, no. 2 (1968): 260-272. doi:

Wright, Nancy E., ‘John Cowell and the Interpreter: Law, Authority, and Attribution in Seventeenth-Century England,’ Australian Journal of Legal History vol. 1, no. 1 (1995): 11-36.

Shelf Lives: Patience Rewarded

Some thirty nine years after his first candidacy, Sir William Wynne (1729-1815), was finally elected unanimously as Master of Trinity Hall in 1803. At the age of thirty-five Wynne had contested the election of 1764 with Sir James Marriott, also a fellow of the College and civil lawyer. Crawley tells us that the outcome was close and Marriott was elected by a slim margin (5 votes versus 3), with both men voting for themselves!

Trinity Hall’s “Back Court” showing the Master’s Lodge on the right and the Old Library on the left.

After a patient wait, Sir William Wynne, now aged seventy-three, finally succeeded Marriott in 1803. The Mastership of Trinity Hall was a prize worth waiting for and once he was installed as Master the floodgates of his generosity opened. He spent £1,500 on improvements to the Master’s Lodge and also turned his attention to improving the College Library.

Wynne’s catalogue housed in the Archives

His donations are recorded in the “Catalogue of books presented to the Library by the Right Hon: Sir Wm. Wynne, Master” (THAR/7/1/2/1). The new Master gave us an amazing 252 volumes in the space of just nine years, starting in 1804 (with the gift of 101 volumes) and ending in 1813, just two years before his death. Surprisingly there are very few dusty volumes on the law! Instead Wynne broadened the Library’s scope from that of an academic library specialising in the law to a gentleman’s ‘country house’ library.


There are books on English literature (Chaucer, Dryden and Milton), history, travel (Barrow’s Travels in Africa, Coxe’s Travels in Russia), the classics (Virgil, Thucydides), European literature (Racine in French and Boccaccio in Italian), oriental languages (Carlyle’s Specimens of Arabian poetry and Parkhurst’s Hebrew Lexicon), and above all the sciences: a magnificent 18 volume set of the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London was donated to the Library over several years.


So what of the man who gave so generously to the Library? William Wynne came from a well-to-do Welsh family. His father, John Wynne (1677-1743) was a clergyman and Principal of Jesus College Oxford from 1812 until his marriage in 1820. In 1715 he was appointed Bishop of St. Asaph where he spent money freely on repairs to the cathedral and palace. As we have seen above, William was to follow his father’s example in becoming a Head of House (Cambridge instead of Oxford) and in spending on improvements (but this time to his College).

Bishop John Wynne was subsequently translated to Bath and Wells in 1727 and William was born a couple of years later. William did not go into the church, instead he followed his elder brother John (1724-1801) into the law and the Middle Temple. He came up to Trinity Hall in 1746, graduated in law in 1751 (LL.D. 1757) and was a Fellow of the College from 1755 onwards.

Poem in translation from ‘Specimens of Arabian Poetry’ given to the Library by Wynne

He practiced in the field of ecclesiastical law as a pleader in the Court of Arches (1757-1788) dealing chiefly with cases relating to marriage and probate. His career prospered steadily until it took off dramatically in 1788! In that year he was knighted, he became Dean of the Court of Arches (1788-1809) and a judge in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Prerogative Court (1788-1809).  He continued to move upwards becoming a member of the Privy Council in 1789 and one of the Lords of the Treasury in 1790.

Captain Cook’s last voyage: the map of Hawaii from Cook’s posthumous “A voyage to the Pacific Ocean” (London, 1784)

As Dean of the Court of Arches his name turns up constantly in the wills of the time. Perhaps the most interesting is that of a former member of Captain Cook’s crew, Alexander Mouat, which was proved before Sir William Wynne in London in 1794. Mouat was on Cooks’ last voyage, entering the crew of the Discovery as a midshipman at the age of 15. However, his will (in which he left everything to his wife Jane) was not written until 1790, by which time he had reached the rank of Lieutenant. The occasion of his will was probably his imminent departure on HMS Marlborough. Unfortunately, Mouat died just three years later on 11 October 1793.

Trinity Hall (in 1799) as it would have looked in 1803 when Wynne became Master.

Wynne was a gentleman, a wealthy lawyer and a pillar of society. His successful public career indicates a man with excellent social skills who was not afraid of hard work. An interesting glimpse is offered by the silhouette of Wynne in the National Portrait Gallery which depicts a portly gentleman of rather modest and solid demeanour. The inscription below the silhouette reveals: “There is no Portrait taken of him, he always resisting all application to sit to an Artist. Mr. Bockton the Proctor took this resemblance of him as he sat giving Judgement.” This is a man who lacked vanity, preferring instead to devote his precious time to his work!

Snapshot of Trinity Hall in 1812 during Wynne’s time as Master. College was not populous!

Sir William Wynne became Master of Trinity Hall in the autumn of his life. He passed away in 1815 at the age of eighty-six and is buried at Northop (Flints.) where his father, Bishop John, had purchased the Soughton estate (now a luxury hotel!) in 1732. Wynne’s was a life in which his devotion to his College remained constant. As Master, his generosity enriched the holdings of College Library with a lasting legacy of fine publications from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It could be argued that Wynne had the patience and Trinity Hall reaped the rewards!


Trinity Hall : the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1975 / by Charles Crawley.

Captain Cook Society

National Portrait Gallery

Welsh Biography Online

The mystery of the late learned judge

I’ve recently been cataloguing a great big pile of law treatises, all published between about the 1730s and 1760s. There’s nothing immediately remarkable about them, except their authorship. They’re all attributed, quite curiously, to a “late learned judge”. When I read this, obviously, I instantly believed that I’d stumbled across a bit of a mystery. The books look innocent enough, I thought, but the concealment of their authorship means that they MUST contain sordid, inflammatory and maybe even conspiratorial eighteenth century legal secrets. Maybe this “late learned judge” was the Belle du Jour of his day. So I decided to do a bit of sleuthing, a la Miss Marple, and–it didn’t take long–the real identity of the “late learned judge” is about as well kept a secret as the identity of the Stig. Some say his name was Sir Jeffrey Gilbert, and that he was a judge, baron, legal writer and international man of mystery. (All right, I’ve made the last bit up).

Gilbert was born in 1674 in Kent to a reasonably well-connected if not renowned family. The Gilberts weren’t exactly the types to get invited to a barbeque at Nell Gwyn’s house, but the young Jeffrey would’ve hobnobbed with some famous names at the time, big w(h)igs like Matthew Hale and Phillips Gybbon. Gilbert was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1692 and called to the Bar in 1698. From all accounts, he wasn’t much of a mover and shaker in the legal world. But his appointment to puisne judge of the Irish king’s bench in 1715, and shortly after to baron of the Irish exchequer, would change all that. An immediate success and a “darling of the Irish nation” (so says Wikipedia, don’t take it literally), Gilbert’s favour was short-lived. And the simple reason for this was that, in 1716, Gilbert took over a case, Annesley vs Sherlock. (NB: don’t get too excited. It isn’t that Sherlock. More’s the pity).

It had been a simple enough case at first, a dispute over land ownership which began in 1709. The first judgment went the way of Maurice Annersley, but after a successful appeal to the Irish exchequer, Mrs Hester Sherlock emerged triumphant. And then it got really interesting. Annesley, presumably a bit miffed, appealed to the British House of Lords who–keep up, now–overturned the overturning. What had been a simple judicial decision turned into a battle between the British and Irish peers over which of them was the final court of appeal in Ireland, and sitting right at the centre of that decision was our late learned judge. What ensued were tensions, hurt feelings, arguments, attempted arrests, actual arrests and, for Gilbert, presumably, one heck of a migraine, and it all culminated in the 1719 Declaratory Act. Passed by British Lords, it declared, ultimately, that the British Parliament had full legislative power over Ireland, and that the Irish House of Lords had no appellate jurisdiction, weakening Irish courts and securing Ireland’s dependency. Gilbert’s role in all this seems to be a bit accidental, and he was used as a scapegoat, but he ultimately sided with the British, and was swiftly relegated from the nation’s sweetheart to Mr Infamous as fast as you could say “he knows which side his bread is buttered on”. It’s little wonder, then, that he hotfooted it back over to England as fast as he could.

You might think that this explains Gilbert’s reticence about publishing his treatises on law–his reputation, and all that accidental controversy presumably followed him around for the rest of his career. But this can’t be the full story. For one thing, his treatises were written and edited from about 1700 and, despite nearing completion, abandoned in 1710, years before he went to Ireland. And for another, they were apparently so good that they might even have improved his reputation.  Had it been completed and published in its original format, Macnair says, it would have rivalled Blackstone‘s Commentaries in “present[ing] English law from a rigorously whig standpoint strongly influenced by John Locke”.  Gilbert “innovat[ed] both in the politics of his account of the common law, and in his use of civil materials” (Macnair, again). Gilbert probably returned to the work, in fits and spurts, to add bits and to change bits, but he never planned for it to be published. In fact, its publication was the last thing he wanted. Literally. In his will, he left all of his unpublished manuscripts and treatises to Charles Clarke, Esq. (no, probably not that one), “under special trust that none should be printed”.

You can’t always get what you want (cf. Mick Jagger)

I’m glad to say that Gilbert’s wishes were heartily and conclusively ignored (well done Mr Clarke), and what’s more, quite speedily after Gilbert’s death in 1726. The treatises–on evidence (1756), devises and revocations (1739), executions (1763), rents (1758), uses and trusts (1734) and distresses and replevins (1755)–are fragments of this planned larger work on English law. Our copies have definitely been used, even if we can’t tell by whom. Whoever decided on the moniker “late learned judge” wasn’t being generous.

There’s still a mystery here, even if it isn’t about the identity of this “late learned judge”. It’s about why he didn’t want them ever ever EVER to be published. And there’s a case for Miss Marple if ever I heard of one. Perhaps he was just a bit shy, or a bit modest. But here’s my twopenneth: I think he thought the treatises were just too serious and sensible to fit in with his reputation as a bit of a rogue and a scoundrel. I’m sure eighteenth century judges cared about their street cred too, y’know.


Flaherty, M. S. (1987). The Empire strikes back: Annesley v. Sherlock and the triumph of Imperial Parliamentary supremacy. Columbia Law Review, 87.3, pp. 593-622.

Macnair, M. (2004). Gilbert, Sir Jeffrey. ODNB, accessed here.

Wikipedia entry, here.

Catch 22? No thanks, I’ll pass.

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog lately, so here’s an attempt to rectify that! Unfortunately, for both you and me, what I’ve been working on for the past few months hasn’t exactly been the most stimulating thing in the world.  More paint-drying than paint-balling, if I’m honest.  But as it’s now done, the final challenge is to transform it into something worthy of a blog post.  This might be tough.  Mission Impossible? Perhaps, but hopefully without Tom Cruise. Every cloud … etc.

It’s been almost three months, then, and I’ll admit it, cards on the table, in the confessional, time to come clean: I’ve only catalogued one thing.  In two-and-a-half months.  Sort of.  But, as a disclaimer, it isn’t the case that I’ve just been being slow.  I haven’t been trying to master the art of cataloguing in the style of a tortoise.  Rather, in my defence, m’lord, the item I’ve been cataloguing was a bound-with with 22 (yes, you read that right, TWENTY TWO) individual items contained within the same binding.  I’m led to believe that this was a pretty common practice until the nineteenth century; books weren’t sold as units as they are today, and it was often the responsibility of the purchaser to get things bound.  So presumably binding all these little individual items together would have been more economical than binding them all separately.

Still, though, twenty two.  Did you catch that? Two little ducks. Twenty two.

…my new least favourite number…

In terms of the catalogue process of bound-withs, the rules are pretty simple.  Each individual item has to be catalogued separately (yes, all twenty two of them, and yes, I’ll shut up about that now), and then the bibliographical records of each item are linked together in the same holding and item record.  The way to do this is simultaneously: a) extremely straightforward; b) entirely unfathomable; c) strangely, and instantly, forgettable.  For me, anyway.  And this means that I’ve spent quite a long time in the past few months looking up how to do this, jotting down instructions, losing instructions, cursing lost instructions, looking up how to do this, and so on.  You get the picture.

And then, to continue my list of excuses for being to industriousness what The Wizard of Oz is to gritty realism, or what Catch 22 is to chick-lit, the subject matter of these items was hardly riveting.  In fact, ‘hardly riveting’ is a bit of a stretch.  They’re a series of doctoral dissertations, mostly from Lugduni Batavorum (now commonly known as Leiden) in the Netherlands, mostly on Roman law, and mostly in Latin.  So at the very least they make some sense as a ‘collection’, justifying the way in which they’ve been bound.  Not that I approve of the way they’ve been bound! Twenty two! Seriously. Oops, sorry.


This is one of them…

One thing that struck me was the way in which they’ve been printed: they don’t half put dissertations these days to shame.  I remember submitting mine a couple of years ago (don’t be silly, not a doctoral one), and it was a case of very last-minute rushing to a printing shop, with dissertation lovingly crafted and hurriedly converted to pdf and shoved on a usb stick, one eye on the clock while the shop assistant patiently exhorted the benefits of heat binding over everything else in existence, ever, and then filling out billions of forms, guessing my student number, exasperating the poor (yet brilliant) faculty secretaries, and all the while praying that the massive typo on page 18 would escape the notice of the markers.

Not so much in the Netherlands in the early eighteenth century.  These dissertations have engravings and woodcut vignettes on their title pages, and headpieces, and illustrated initials.  And the engravings weren’t just done by anyone, either, but by Francois van Bleyswyck, that famous and celebrated … well, I hadn’t heard of him, and he’s not on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t mean he’s not famous and celebrated, all right?  Plus the dissertations are written in Latin: ’nuff said.  I’m already impressed.  I could barely write mine in English (that typo on page 18 still haunting me…)


…and this…

The dissertations are mainly connected to the University of Leiden, founded by Prince William (no, not that one, this one) in 1574.  They date from the early eighteenth century, though their dates span about 40 years in total; and no, they’re not bound chronologically.  In fact, I can’t see any method as to the order in which they’ve been bound.  They do reveal a couple of interesting facts about the way dissertations were submitted, though.  For one thing, they all acknowledge the “Rector Magnificus” of the university, on whose authority (presumably) they’re awarded their degrees.  I thought that was a nice practice…not to mention an amazing job title! It’s also good to see that some of the writers of the earlier dissertations eventually became the “Rector Magnificus” themselves and were credited in later ones (or at least, they’ve got the same name); it shows, if nothing else, that their doctorates were valuable!  The information on the title-pages also reveal how widespread the printing trade was in Leiden at the time–remarkably few of them have been printed by the printing houses.


Don’t worry, I won’t use all of them… we’re almost at the end of the post.

As for how Trinity Hall came to be in possession of this interminable fascinating item, well, here’s a story for you! Or not, unfortunately.  The book was given to us by James William Geldart, though I’m not sure which one.  There were two: both lawyers here, father and son.  My money would be on Geldart Senior.  He was vice-Master at Trinity Hall from 1809-1821, as well as Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge from 1814-1847.  His son, also James William, took a law degree here as well, as did his other son, Henry Charles; and not forgetting arguably the most important Geldart, Thomas Charles, the elder James William’s brother (are you keeping up?), who was Master of Trinity Hall, from 1852-1877, and also a lawyer, and also Regius Professor of Civil Law.  Talk about keeping in the family.

So that’s that. Finished. Finito.  Caput.  It’s almost the end of a very short, and really rather boring, era.  Perhaps I’ll “never quite be the same again”, as Joseph Heller(‘s publisher) promised.  If nothing else, then I’m once again terribly pleased that I’m not a student having to read this stuff.  But here’s to the next three months of rare books cataloguing.  There’s hopefully not a single bound-with in sight.

Image credit:

Thanks to: Leo Reynolds on Flikr

William Blackstone: sour and accidentally successful, but definitely not succinct

The start of the new Michaelmas term got in the way of the Old Library cataloguing project, which had to take a bit of a back seat while we welcomed and explained and informed and clarified (we hope!) and inculcated all of our  lovely new undergraduates as to the arcane and mystical truths of the Jerwood Library (including what to do when the self-issue machine breaks down).  Now they’re all settled in and know how to renew their books (again, we hope!), my attention can wander back to a bit of rare books cataloguing.

Yesterday afternoon, I catalogued the four volumes of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  It’s apparently a remarkably influential work, not just in terms of its synthesis of English law, but it’s said to have played a key role in the development of United States jurisprudence.  It was described as ‘the most important legal treatise ever written in the English language’ by Professor Katz, who introduced the 1979 edition–yes, 1979! which is pretty steep praise, not even mentioning the fact that it was still being printed more than 200 years after it was first published.  (Amazon are advertising a Kindle edition of the first volume as well, for the extra keen).  The four volumes cover the rights of persons, of things, and private and public wrongs, so it’s fairly comprehensive.  Wondering a bit more about the author of these famous and esteemed works, I typed his name into Google, and was a bit surprised by what I found.  Not very much, if I’m honest, and little of it positive.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

William Blackstone, 1723-1780

Rumour has it (read: the Internet has it) that William Blackstone was born in Cheapside in July 1723.  Educated at Charterhouse, then Oxford, he entered Middle Temple in 1740, and would later return to Oxford as a Fellow of All Souls in 1744.  Not bad for a 21-year old!  In fact, it seems that Blackstone was no Rumpole of the Bailey, and his lack of success as a barrister led him back to Oxford to pursue an academic career.  A vaguely successful series of lectures in the 1750s earned him the position of Vinerian Professor of English Law at the Other Place.  I say ‘vaguely successful’—in fact, he made a couple of enemies during this time in his life, most notably Jeremy Bentham, who would later utterly and lastingly denounce the Commentaries, which was based on the lectures.

Jeremy Bentham: not a fan

In any case, Blackstone’s position at Oxford meant that he enjoyed some business as a barrister (if little success in this business), as well as positions including MP for Hindon, Principal of New Inn Hall (now St Peter’s College, Oxford), King’s Counsel, a knighthood, and Judge in the Court of the Common Pleas.  This all sounds very impressive, no doubt, and yet in 1782 an unnamed colleague wrote of him that ‘as a pleader, as a senator, and as a judge, Sir William Blackstone was certainly respectable, but not the greatest of his time’, and this lukewarm response to Blackstone seems to be the general consensus.  His biographer, Wilfrid Prest, puts a nice spin on it though: had he been in more demand, he argues, he may never have had the necessary leisure time or motivation to complete his Commentaries. Having said that, Blackstone married only four years before the volumes were printed, and had nine children, so I imagine Mrs Blackstone wishes he’d occasionally been a bit busier.  And it also seems that he wasn’t a hugely charming or inspiring man, described as ‘sour, morose and imperious’ by a solicitor, William Bray.

Title page of Vol. 2

What sets Blackstone apart, then, isn’t so much his tepidly glimmering/ glimmeringly tepid career as a lawyer, or even his proclivity to procreation, but this work I’ve got in front of me now.  Famed for its elegant writing style, its readability, its clarity, its comprehensiveness and Blackstone’s achievement of his goals to synthesise common law and make it succinct (succinct? Succinct? He must be having a laugh, it’s four volumes, for heaven’s sake).

Trinity Hall’s copies are in near pristine condition, with very few markings in the margin, few annotations, and the binding’s still almost perfect.  This strikes me as rather odd.  Other contemporaneous books I’ve looked at were patently well used, annotated, thumbed—and yet Blackstone’s Commentaries aren’t.  And this has led me to ruminate briefly on some of the possible reasons why.  Perhaps our Trinity Hall lawyers of old weren’t too thorough, and just didn’t bother with these volumes; or perhaps they held them in such astonishingly high regard that they didn’t dare read/touch/breathe in the vicinity of them.  I don’t know the books’ provenance, so perhaps they’re fairly recent acquisitions and were kept elsewhere where they were never used.  Perhaps the syllabus back then didn’t cover common law.  Or perhaps, and I’m leaning towards this one, I’ll admit, the Trinity Hall lawyers of the eighteenth century were so positively affronted by the notion that these volumes were perceived to be “succinct” that they refused to go anywhere near them!  Any other suggestions gratefully received!

Not my idea of succinct

Leaving all that aside, Blackstone’s Commentaries has a strong legacy, and I don’t just mean the way that his named is adorned all over plenty of current law textbooks.  Nor do I mean the way in which the Commentaries are mentioned in Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and most impressively of all, an early Perry Mason novel.  Rather it’s the legacy over the pond which is truly striking.  Blackstone wrote his Commentaries shortly before the American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, and its influence in the Declaration is patent—Blackstone is alleged to have coined the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’, for which Will Smith is probably grateful.  Many commentators assert that the groundwork for US jurisprudence lies with this text, and that is genuinely extraordinary, given the analyses of this man and his skills.

The success of the Commentaries has, perhaps fortunately, overshadowed this dour and irritated and bad-tempered chap who, according to James Boswell, ‘always had a bottle of port before him’.  But despite all of his unpleasantness, I quite like him.  Blackstone couldn’t turn his hand to anything.  He didn’t meet with success at every turn.  He failed at many of the things he tried.  He wasn’t one of those annoying people who are just good at stuff.  In many respects, he was postively mediocre.  Yet his legacy—and his name—lives on, which makes me think there’s hope for all of us yet.

For extra credit:

Prest, W. (2008). William Blackstone: Law and letters in the eighteenth century. Oxford: OUP.

Prest, W. (2010). Blackstone as a barrister. London: Selden Society.

Pannick, D. ‘William Blackstone: a sour, morose and imperious judge of the common law’. From The Times, October 15, 2008.

Wikipedia on Blackstone and the Commentaries.

The IEP on Jeremy Bentham.

Don’t judge a book by its cover; judge it by the engraving of its author

The cataloguing project is going reasonably smoothly, I’m pleased to say!  I’ve been faced with lots of illegible/very faint scribbles in volumes.  They may be an indication of the book’s provenance, or they may just be some scribbles.  It’s a bit of an irrelevance, really, because I can’t tell what they say anyway.  Not even with a magnifying glass and my specs on.  I wish I could though–it might be a bit scandalous!

But one thing I can state with some certainty is that I don’t envy the early 18th century law scholars at Trinity Hall.  Especially if I had to encounter the countless indexes and lists and dates and facts included in the books I’ve been cataloguing lately.  This morning, then, I was surprised and delighted to open a book which wasn’t just another long series of law digests, a book which not only wasn’t another contender for the insomniac’s Book of the Year award, but was actually really quite interesting.  And not just because of the picture of the chap that wrote it:

Sir Henry Spelman, engraving by R. White.

It’s an impressive beard, you must admit, and I like his hat.

The book in question was The English Works of Sir Henry Spelman. It’s an anthology of Spelman’s works, in two volumes, though bound together in one.  It was only after a good few minutes of hunting for the second volume that I realised this.  Interestingly, most of the works were published posthumously, and these volumes were edited by an unnamed individual (also known as Edmund Gibson).  I wish that knowing this would constitute proof of my missed vocation as a detective, but in fact it was reported by the record on the ESTC at the British Library.  Gibson was also the Bishop of Lincoln at the time when these volumes were published back in 1723.

Spelman seemed like quite an interesting chap.  Again, not just because of the beard.  There’s lots of information about him on the Oxford DNB.  His dates are a bit iffy, but most sources I’ve looked at suggest c. 1564-1641.  He was a Cambridge man, taking his BA from Trinity College at the age of 18, before going to Furnival’s Inn, and then later Lincoln’s Inn, for law.  He didn’t last long though.  Apparently the hard slog required for a career in law wasn’t something that particularly appealed, so he chose a slightly less lucrative path, and undertook to research and study the history and antiquities of the laws of England.  And I can’t say I blame him—to me that sounds far more interesting.  So he was an historian and an antiquarian, and from what I’ve read of his works today, a bit of a theologian as well.

The works included in these volumes, then, aren’t about the laws themselves but are a series of expositions about what underpins the laws, and inevitably that tends to lead Spelman back to the ancient laws (divine, natural and human), to Scripture and to the church fathers (my favourite, St Augustine, is mentioned a good few times, which has endeared Spelman to me even more!)  Even his focus is religious in nature—he seems to be keen on examining the relationship of the law and the church, with the contents of his work revealing emphases on tithes, church property, and the respect due to churches.  Now, I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing revolutionary in what Spelman is saying, but his writing is richly historical and theological in its approach, and impassioned enough to suggest that these are things he genuinely cared about.

I finished cataloguing this book earlier today, and my heart sank a little as I got to the end of checking the MARC21 punctuation.  Not even in the slightest because I enjoy the punctuation, but because I figured that I was heading straight back to the tedium of the dreary old digest.   But no!  Because here is an engraving of the author of the next book I’m going to be cataloguing.  He looks like a fascinating old soul.  Tomorrow might just be looking up.

Sir Matthew Hale, engraving by M. Wright.