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This passage from an author who delighted to magnify the advantages of generous descent, has contributed to the very general and erroneous impression that until comparatively recent times the members of the English bar were necessarily drawn from the highest ranks of society; and several excellent writers on the antiquities of the law have laid aside their customary caution and strengthened Ferne's words with inaccurate comment.
Thus Pearce says of the author of the Glory of Generositie'-“He was one of tbe advocates for excluding from the Inns of Court all who were not gentleman by blood, according to the ancient rule mentioned by Fortescue, which seems to have been disregarded iu Elizabeth's time.” Fortescue nowhere mentions any such rule, but attributes the aristocratic character of the law-colleges to the high cost of membership. Far from implying that men of mean extraction were excluded by an express prohibition, his words justify the inference that no such rule existed in his time.
Though Inns-of-Court men were for many generations gentlemen by birth almost without a single exception, it yet remains to be proved that plebeian birth at any period disqualified persons for admission to the lawcolleges. If such a restriction ever existed it had disappeared before the close of the fifteenth century-a period not favorable to the views of those who were most anxious to remove the barriers placed by feudal society between the gentle and the vulgar. Sir John More (the father of the famous Şir Thomas) was a Judge in the King's Bench, although his parentage was obscure; and it is worthy of notice that he was a successful lawyer of Fortescue's period. Lord Chancellor Audley was not entitled to bear arms by birth, but was merely the son of a prosperous yeoman. The lowliness of his extraction cannot have been any serious impedi
ment to him, for before the end of his thirty-sixth year he was a sergeant. In the following century the inns received a steadily increasing number of students, who either lacked generous lineage or were the offspring of shameful love. For instance, Chief Justice Wray's birth was scandalous; and if Lord Ellesmere in his youth reflected with pride on the dignity of his father, Sir Richard Egerton, he had reason to blush for his mother. Ferne's lament over the loss of heraldric virtue and splendor, which the inns had sustained in his time, testifies to the presence of a considerable plebeian element amongst the members of the law-university. But that which was marked in the sixteenth was far more apparent in the seventeenth century. Scroggs's enemies were wrong in stigmatizing him as a butcher's son, for the odious chief justice was born and bred a gentleman, and Jeffreys could boast a decent extraction; but there is abundance of evidence that throughout the reigns of the Stuarts the inns swarmed with low-born adventurers. The career of Chief Justice Saunders, who, beginning as a "poor beggar boy," of unknown parentage, raised himself to the Chiefship of the King's Bench, shows how low an origin a judge might have in the seventeenth century. To mention the names of such men as Parker, King, Yorke, Ryder, and the Scotts, without placing beside them the names of such men as Henley, Harcourt, Bathurst, Talbot, Murray, and Erskine, would tend to create an erroneous impression that in the eighteenth century the bar ceased to comprise amongst its industrious members a large aristocratic element.
The number of barristers, however, who in that period brought themselves by talent and honorable perseverance into the foremost rank of the legal profession in spite of humble birth, unquestionably shows that ambitious men from the obscure middle classes were more frequently than in any previous century found pushing their fortunes in Westminster Hall. Lord Macclesfield was the son of an attorney whose parents were of lowly origin, and whose worldly means were even lower than their ancestral condition. Lord Chancellor King's father was a grocer and salter who carried on a retail business at Exeter; and in his youth the Chancellor himself had acted as his father's apprentice-standing behind the counter and wearing the apron and sleeves of a grocer's servitor. Philip Yorke was the son of a country attorney who could boast neither wealth nor gentle descent. Chief Justice Ryder was the son of a mercer wbose shop stood in West Smithfield, and grandson of a dissenting minister, who, though he bore the name, is not known to have inherited the blood of the Yorkshire Ryders. Sir William Blackstone was the fourth son of a silkman and citizen of London. Lords Stowell and Eldon were the children of a provincial tradesman. The learned and good Sir Samuel Romilly's father was Peter Romilly, jeweller, of Frith Street, Soho. Such were the origins of some of the men who won the prizes of the law in comparatively recent times. The present century has produced an even greater number of barristers who have achieved eminence, and are able to say with honest pride that they are the first gentlemen mentioned in their pedigrees; and so thoroughly has the bar become an open profession, accessible to all persons* who have the means of gentlemen, that no barrister at the present time would have the bad taste or foolish hardihood to express openly his regret that the members of a liberal profession should no longer pay a hurtful attention to illiberal distinctions.
* It is not unusual now-a-days to see on the screened list of students about to be called to the bar the names of gentlemen who have caused themselves to be des. cribed in the quasi-public lists as the sons of tradesmen. Some few years since a gentleman who has already made his name known amongst juniors, was thus 'screened’ in the four halls as the son of a petty tradesman in an obscure quarter of London; and assuming that his conduct was due to self-respect and affectionate regard for his parent, it seemed to most observers that the young lawyer, in thus frankly stating his lowly origin, acted with spirit and dignity. It may be that years hence this highly-accomplished gentleman will, like Lord Tenterden and Lord St. Leonards (both of whom were the sons of honest but humble tradesmen), see his name placed upon the roll of England's hereditary noblesse.
According to Fortescue, the law-students belonging at the same time to the Inns of Court and Chancery numbered at least one thousand eight hundred in the fifteenth century; and it may be fairly inferred from his words that their number considerably exceeded two thousand. To each of the ten Inns of Chancery the author of the 'De Laudibus ' assigns“ an hundred students at the least, and to some of them a much greater number;" and he says that the least populous of the four Inns of Court contained “two hundred students or thereabouts.” At the present time the number of barristers——together with Fellows of the College of Advocates, and certificated special pleaders and conveyancers not at the bar-is shown by the Law List for 1866 to be somewhat more than 4800.* Even when it is borne in mind how much the legal business of the whole nation has necessarily increased with the growth of our commercial prosperity -it being at the same time remembered, upon the other hand, how many times the population of the country has doubled itself since the wars of the Roses -few persons will be of opinion that the legal profession, either by the number of its practitioners or its command of employment, is a more conspicuous and prosperous power at the present time than it was in the fifteenth century.
* Of this number about 2500 reside in or near London and maintain some apparent connexion with the Inns of Court. Of the remainder, some reside in Scotland, some in Ireland, some in the English provinces, some in the colonies; whilst some of them, although their names are still on the Law List, have ceased to regard themselves as members of the legal profession,
Ferne was by no means the only gentleman of Elizabethan London to deplore the rapid increase in the number of lawyers, and to regret the growing liberality which encouraged-or rather the national prosperity which enabled-men of inferior parentage to adopt the law as a profession. In his address on Mr. Clerke’s elevation to the dignity of a sergeant, Lord Chancellor Hatton, echoing the common complaint concerning the degradation of the law through the swarms of plebeian students and practitioners, observed—“Let not the dignitie of the lawe be geven to men unmeete. And I do exhorte you all that are heare present not to call men to the barre or the benches that are so unmeete. I finde that there are now more at the barre in one house than there was in all the Innes of Court when I was a younge man.” Notwithstanding the Chancellor's earnest statement of his personal recollection of the state of things when he was a young man, there is reason to think that he was quite in error in thinking that lawyers had increased so greatly in number. From a MS. in Lord Burleigh's collection, it appears that in 1586 the number of lawstudents, resident during term, was only 1703—a smaller number than that which Fortescue computed the entire population of the London law-students, at a time when civil war had cruelly diminished the number of men likely to join an aristocratic university. Sir Edward Coke estimated the roll of Elizabethan law-students at one thousand, half their number in Fortescue's time. Coke, however, confined his attention in this matter to the Students of Inns of Court, and paid no attention to Inns of Chancery. Either Hatton greatly exaggerated the increase of the legal working profession; or in previous times the proportion of law-students who never became barristers greatly exceeded those who were ultimately called to the bar.