THE SERJEANTS AND SERJEANTS’ INNS

Like so much of the history of the Lawyers and their Inns, the origin of
the Serjeants and the steps by which they obtained a monopoly of
pleading are buried in obscurity. It is, at any rate, certain that the
Serjeants-at-Law, or _Servientes ad legem_, early acquired the exclusive
right of audience in the Court of Common Pleas, wherein were determined
all matters between subject and subject, where the King was not a party.

The Serjeants-at-Law had secured a monopoly of pleading; but, as
business increased in the Courts, they found themselves unable to deal
with it. In 1292, therefore, they were empowered, by an ordinance of
Edward I., to select from the students and apprentices of the Common Law
some of those best qualified to transact affairs in the King’s Courts
(_cf._ p. 6). It is not clear who these students and apprentices were,
but they were destined in the course of time to supersede the body of
Counsel whom they were called in to aid.

‘Apprentice’ is a term that smacks of the Guild, and though in the
fifteenth century it came to be applied to the Serjeants themselves, it
must originally have denoted the students who sat at the feet of some
recognized teacher of the Law. But, in truth, we have not enough
evidence to enable us to trace the developments of the relationship
between the Serjeants, the Students, and the Inns. The fact that the
Serjeants, or Doctors of Law, upon attaining that degree, entirely
severed their connection with their Inns, and that it was the Masters,
and not they, who formed the governing bodies of the Inns, may be
significant of some early difference or antagonism between the original
Serjeants-and Apprentices-at-Law.

The custom of tolling a newly-elected Serjeant out of Lincoln’s Inn by
ringing the chapel bell–‘a half-humorous, half-serious reminder that
hence-forward he was dead to the Society’–may be considered to support
this view.[79]

The obscurity of this question is enhanced, not only by the lack of
documentary evidence, but also by the fact that the technical terms of
the profession had no stationary significance. _Apprenticii ad legem_
was a fluid phrase; it came to be applied to the genuine junior
apprentices of the law in the Inns of Chancery, to the senior students
who instructed them, as well as to those who had completed the eight
years’ curriculum of the University, and, having passed their
examinations, were admitted to practise as advocates in Court, to the
very Serjeants and Judges themselves.

We have seen how the topography of the Inns of Court–and of London
itself–is bound up with the history of the Crusades and the Order of
Templars who sprang from them. It is supposed that the Order of
Serjeants, these Professors of the Common Law, who acquired the
exclusive privilege of practising in the Court of Common Pleas, imitated
the second degree of the Old Templars, and derived their name from the
‘free serving brethren’ of the Order of the Temple. The word Serjeant is
said to translate the Latin _Servientes_, and the King’s
Servants-at-Law, _Servientes domini Regis ad legem_, were, it is
suggested, the lineal descendants of the _fratres servientes_, the
servant brethren, of the Knights Templars. The peculiar dress of the
‘Order of the Coif’ is advanced as an argument in support of this
fascinating pedigree. The Serjeants-at-Law marked their rank, it is
suggested, by wearing red caps, under which, as in the East, a linen
cap, or coif, was worn. Did the Templars bring this habit from the East,
and were their first ‘servants’ Mohammedan prisoners? At any rate, the
coif proper was a kind of white hood made of lawn (later of silk), which
completely covered the head like a wig, and whilst the later black patch
represented the cornered cap worn over it, the true vestigial
representative of the coif is to be found in the white border of the
lawyer’s wig.[80] A connection may be traced between the white linen
thrown over the head of a Serjeant on his creation and the white mantle
in which the novice was clothed when, in the Chapel of St. Anne, he was
initiated into the Order of the Knights Templars, and declared a free,
equal, elected and admitted brother.

In this connection it is at least noteworthy that the Serjeants had a
cult for St. Thomas of Acre (Thomas à Becket), and that in the Chapel of
their patron Saint, adjoining the Old Hall of the Temple, they used to
pray before going to St. Paul’s to select their pillars. The Knights of
St. Thomas in Palestine were placed at Acre under the Templars in the
Holy Land, and a Chapel dedicated to St. Thomas of Acre was built for
them. Can it be that the Serjeants trace from the subservient Order of
the Knights of St. Thomas?

There is some trace of an ecclesiastical origin, not only in their
‘long, priest-like robes,’ which Fortescue describes, ‘with a cape,
furred with white lamb about their shoulders, and thereupon a hood with
two labels,’ but also in their performance of a rite, which none but
priests might offer, in a solemn ceremony that lasted down to the
Reformation. When feasts were held in the Temple Hall, the Serjeants, in
the middle of the feast, went to the Chapel of St. Thomas of Acre in
Cheapside, built by Thomas à Becket’s sister after his canonization, and
there offered; and then to St. Paul’s, where they offered at St.
Erkenwald’s shrine; then into the body of the Church. Here they were
appointed to their pillars by the Steward of the feast, to which they
then returned.

The theory has, indeed, been advanced that the coif was a device for
covering the tonsure of ecclesiastical pleaders after clerics had been
forbidden to practise in the secular Courts. But this explanation seems
too ingenious.

The ceremony of choosing a pillar at St. Paul’s, referred to above,
points to the ancient practice of the Lawyers taking each his station at
one of the pillars in the Cathedral, and there waiting for clients. ‘The
legal sage stood, it is said, with pen in hand, and dexterously noted
down the particulars of every man’s case on his knee.’[81]

It long remained the custom of the Law-Courts to adjourn at noon. Then
the Serjeants would repair to the ‘Parvis,’ or porch, of St. Paul’s to
meet their clients in consultation. And this practice is alluded to by
Chaucer:

‘A serjeant of the law ware and wise,
That often had y been at the “Parvise,”
There was also, full rich of excellence.
Discreet he was, and of great reverence;
He seemed such, his words were so wise.
Justice he was full often in assize,
By patent and by pleine commissioun.’
_‘Prologue,’ Canterbury Tales._

Whatever the exact history of their lineage, the trained lawyers who
were summoned to attend and advise the King in Council did, undoubtedly,
become a recognized Order, styled _Servientes Regis ad Legem_–King’s
Serjeants-at-Law. From their ranks the Judges were always supposed to be
chosen. The old formula at Westminster, when a new Serjeant approached
the Judges, was, ‘I think I see a brother.’ Down to the time of the
abolition of the Order, a lawyer, when nominated a Judge, first had to
get himself admitted a Serjeant, and to enter the Order of the Coif.
This was always an expensive step.

Fortescue enlarges upon the cost which attended the ceremonies, when one
of the persons ‘pitched upon by the Lord Chief Justice with the advice
and consent of all the Judges’ was summoned in virtue of the King’s Writ
to take upon him the state and degree of a Serjeant-at-Law.

His own bill for the gold rings he was obliged to present–_fidei
symbolo_–on such an occasion to the Princes, Dukes, Archbishops and
Judges who were present at the ‘sumptuous feast, like that at a
Coronation, lasting seven days, which the new-created Serjeants were
called upon to give,’ amounted to £50. There is record of a Serjeants’
Feast held in the Inner Temple, 1555, which cost over £660. These feasts
were held at first at Ely Place, Lambeth Palace, or St. John’s Priory at
Clerkenwell. Afterwards they took place in the Hall of the Inn of which
the new Serjeant had been a Student. The whole House contributed to the
expense of this degree. The elaborate ceremonies which attended the
creation of a new Serjeant-at-Law are given at length by Dugdale
(chapter xli. _et seq._). It would be out of place to recount them here.

It has been humorously, though not quite accurately, observed that the
Bar ‘went into mourning for Queen Anne, and has remained in mourning
ever since.’ The sombre robes now worn by the English Bar may well be
thought to symbolize the dignity of the law and the gravity of the
profession, as the ‘spotless ermine’ typifies the integrity and
independence of the Judges. But, as was the case with the hoods and
gowns of other degrees in other Universities, or the black _felze_ of a
gondola at Venice, brilliancy and splendour of colour was the original
note, and dulness was the result of restriction. The robes which the
Serjeants wore varied from time to time, and with different occasions.

In the seventeenth century Dugdale observes that their robes still in
some degree resembled ‘those of the Justices of either Bench, and were
of murrey, black furred with white, and scarlet. But the robe which they
usually wear at their Creation only is of murrey and mouse-colour,’ with
a suitable hood and the coif.

Arrangements were made about 1635 between the Judges and Serjeants, in
accordance with which gowns of black cloth were to be worn for
term-time; violet cloth for Court or holidays; scarlet in procession to
St. Paul’s, or when dining in state at the Guildhall or attending the
Sovereign’s presence at the House of Lords, and black silk for trials at
_Nisi Prius_. But the fashions and colours were always changing. The
violet gown, which superseded the mustard and murrey worn in Court
during term-time, gave occasion for Jekyll’s witty rhyme, when a dull
Serjeant was wearying the Court with a prosy argument:

‘The Serjeants are a grateful race;
Their dress and language show it;
Their purple robes from Tyre we trace;
Their arguments go to it.’

It was the militant Chief Justice Willes who, ten years after the ’45,
first endeavoured to secure the abolition of the exclusive right of the
Serjeants to practise in the Court of Common Pleas. But their hour had
not yet come. In 1834 a mandate was obtained from William IV. abolishing
the privilege of the Serjeants, but this was set aside by the Privy
Council as being defective in form. At length doom fell upon the old
Order of the Coif, in the shape of an Act of Parliament, 1846, which
threw open the Common Pleas to all counsel indiscriminately. The last
Queen’s Serjeants to be appointed were Serjeants Byles, Channel, Shee,
and Wrangham, in 1857. By the Judicature Act of 1873, which consolidated
the three Courts of Law at Westminster (_See_ Chapter I.) into the High
Court of Justice, the Judges were no longer required to receive the coif
on their nomination to the bench. The knell of the Serjeants’ doom had
now rung. Five years later their Inn in Chancery Lane and the
Brotherhood were dissolved.

When the mere pillars of St. Paul’s had ceased to be regarded as
satisfactory ‘chambers,’ the Serjeants, like the law-apprentices, took
possession of Inns for the purposes of practice and residence. These
Inns remained independent bodies, and never became, like the Inns of
Chancery, subject to the Inns of Court.

Scrope’s Inn, adjoining the Palace of the Bishops of Ely, and opposite
the Church of St. Andrew in Holborn, was the first abode of the
Serjeants. Its site was long marked by Scrope’s Court in Holborn. It
took its name from the Le Scropes, who rose to eminence under Edward I.
Two brothers, Sir Henry and Sir Geoffrey, both became Chief Justice of
King’s Bench, in 1317 and 1324 respectively. Richard Le Scrope, son of
the former, was created Baron Scrope of Bolton, and was twice Chancellor
of England. He died in 1403, whilst in residence at his Inn. Scrope’s
Inn would thus naturally be a centre round which the trained professors
of the law would congregate, as round Lincoln’s Inn and Grey’s Inn, to
help in the transaction of the business of the Justice of King’s Bench.
It then became an Inn for Judges and Serjeants-at-Law, and so continued
until, in 1498, it was abandoned. For the lawyers were concentrating
upon the southern end of Chancellor’s Lane and Fleet Street. The
Serjeants took up their residence in Serjeants’ Inn (Fleet Street) at
least as early as the reign of Henry VI., and probably much earlier
(Dugdale). This Inn is connected with the Inner Temple by a passage past
the little garden once in the possession of Sir Edward Coke, and
afterwards known as the ‘Benchers’ Garden.’ But the principal entrance
is from Fleet Street, through a pair of handsome iron gates, in which
are wrought the arms of the Inn, a dove and a serpent.

The Gate House forms the offices of the Norwich Union Fire and Life
Assurance Society. The whole Inn was burnt down in the Great Fire, and
was afterwards rebuilt (1670) by means of voluntary subscriptions on
the part of the Serjeants. But upon the expiration of the lease then
granted to them, the Serjeants abandoned their Inn, with its fine
chapel, hall, and houses that surrounded the Court, and united with
their brethren in Chancery Lane. The Inn was afterwards pulled down and
rebuilt from the designs of Adam, the architect of the Adelphi, for
private houses and Assurance offices. The ‘elegant building,’ as Herbert
calls it, in the classical style, which was erected on the site of the
old Hall, formed at first the offices of the Amicable Assurance Company,
and is now occupied by the Church of England Sunday School Institute.
The quiet quadrangle is surrounded by pleasing eighteenth-century
houses, with decorated porches and fine iron-work. Some of them have
extinguishers for the links in front of their porches. Loftie noted the
initials “S. I.” and the date 1669 upon one survivor of the Serjeants’
rebuilding.

The Inn, which the Serjeants joined when they left Fleet Street, had
been occupied by their brethren since the end of the fourteenth century.
But, though leased to their representatives by the Bishops of Ely, who
held the freehold, or their lessees, it was not called Serjeants’ Inn
until 1484. Prior to that date it was known as Faryngdon’s Inn in
Chancellor’s Lane. Here all the Judges, as having been Serjeants-at-Law
before their elevation to the Bench, had chambers assigned to them.

A plain, unpleasing, stuccoed, Early Victorian building now faces
Chancery Lane, and drops as a screen of ugliness across the old brick
buildings within. This we owe to Sir Robert Smirke, who rebuilt the Inn
(1837-1838), with the exception of the old Hall, which was ‘approached
by a handsome flight of stone steps and balustrade.’ So Herbert, who
says that in his day (1804) all the buildings were modern. He describes
the Inn as then consisting of two small Courts, the principal entrance
from Chancery Lane fronting the Hall, and the second Court communicating
with Clifford’s Inn by a small passage. As there is an exit from
Clifford’s Inn to Fetter Lane, it is thus possible to pass from Chancery
Lane to Fetter[82] Lane without going into Fleet Street. When, in 1877,
the Brotherhood of Serjeants dissolved, they sold the Inn for some
£60,000 to Serjeant Cox, and divided the proceeds, but gave the
twenty-six valuable portraits of their predecessors, that had adorned
the walls of the Hall, to the National Portrait Gallery. The tiny Hall,
the single, narrow Court of plain stuccoed houses, and some trees and
turf behind some railings, remain to remind us of the Serjeants’ Inn and
the Serjeants’ Garden, where Lord Keeper Guildford would take his ease,
and where the great roll of English Judges have had chambers. But the
beautiful old stained glass windows of the Hall and Chapel, which bore
the arms of the various members, together with the heraldic device of
the Order–an ibis _proper_ on a shield _or_–were removed by the
purchaser to his residence of Millhill, where he built a chamber, the
facsimile of the Hall, for their reception.

Such is the story of the Inns of Court, which have gone on from strength
to strength, and of the Inns of Chancery and the Serjeants’ Inns, which
have almost vanished, together with the Societies which made them
famous, from off the changing face of London. It is a story which,
though briefly told, and told by a layman who makes no claim to
originality of material, can hardly fail to be of interest to those who
are alive to the charm of the old things of the Capital.

It brings before us, not only the vision of the great Justiciars who
transacted the business of the King’s Courts, of the great Lawyers who
built up the mighty fabric of English Law, and the great Judges who
defended the rights and liberties and progress of the people, but also
many of the greatest names in literature and architecture. The precincts
of the Temple remind us of the Order of the Red-Cross Knights, and near
at hand are the vacated Inns of that other Order which has been likewise
dissolved. For we see no more, save in the light of imagination, either
the mail-clad figures of the Templars in their white cloaks stamped with
the red cross, or the Serjeants in their white lawn coifs and
parti-coloured gowns, wending their way from the Temple Hall to the
shrine of St. Thomas.

The silver tongue of Harcourt is mute as the impassioned eloquence of
Burke and Sheridan, yet these buildings seem to echo with their voices,
with the sonorous declamation of Dr. Johnson, or the witty stammer of
Charles Lamb. There, in Gray’s Inn, we still seem to see the figure of
Francis Bacon, pacing the walks with Raleigh, talking of trees and
politics and high adventure; from the Gateway of Lincoln’s Inn, and past
the red bricks laid by Ben Jonson, when Wolsey was Cardinal, the form
of Sir Thomas More emerges; and across the way the thin, alert figure of
Sir Edward Coke steps briskly from his tiny garden into Old Serjeants’
Inn.

Here Dickens talks with Thackeray, and Blackstone scowls at Goldsmith;
there, in the Middle Temple Hall, Queen Elizabeth leads the dance with
Sir Christopher Hatton, and the rafters ring with the music of
Shakespeare’s voice and Shakespeare’s poetry. And the buildings
themselves are the works of a noble army of English Architects,
admirable creations and memorials of the genius of Sir Christopher Wren,
Inigo Jones, Adam, Hardwick, Street, and of the unknown builders of
Norman, Gothic, and Elizabethan things. These facts once known, not all
the dirt and fog of London air, not all the noise and distraction of
City business and legal affairs, can ever again wholly obscure the
charm, the romance, the historical and literary associations, which
haunt these homes of so many great English Lawyers, Writers, and
Administrators.

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