YOU don’t have to be a lawyer to appreciate the Inns of Court, the four ancient societies of English barristers that lie at the center of London. Little known to tourists, the inns offer easy access to the best of England — beautiful vistas, superb architecture, colorful and vibrant traditions, fascinating literary and historical associations and, most remarkably, absolute serenity.
As John Stow wrote of them four centuries ago in his Survey of London, ”There is in and about this city a whole university, as it were, of students, practicers or pleaders, and judges of the laws of this realm.” And so there remains to this day.
The Inns of Court — the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple (whose intertwined buildings are collectively known as the Temple), Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn — occupy a compact district just west of the City (London’s financial district) and extending northward from the Thames to Theobald’s Road. They came into being during the Middle Ages as places to learn the law, as well as to live and worship, much as did the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge around the same time. Like the Oxbridge colleges, each of the inns consists of a succession of quadrangles containing living and working space (today predominantly the latter, since few barristers live there now), a hall for communal dining and teaching, a library and a chapel.
A visit to Legal London can also take in, as did my trip late last winter, Staple Inn and Barnard’s Inn (the two surviving Inns of Chancery), the courts in which lawyers plead their cases, and medieval Westminster Hall. But the Inns of Court are the place to begin. For many centuries they have been central to the training and professional lives of England’s barristers, the bewigged lawyers who present most cases in court and from whose ranks similarly bewigged judges are drawn. (Solicitors, who go wigless, are the lawyers who provide legal advice to clients and serve as intermediaries between client and barrister when cases go to court.)
While the four Inns of Court are similar in their history and fundamentals, they are delightfully different in physical character. The Temple is a maze of lanes, passageways and courtyards, with beautiful lawns sweeping down to the Thames. Lincoln’s Inn is first among equals for beauty, its buildings an eclectic but harmonious collection of periods and styles. Gray’s Inn is remote and almost pastoral, thanks to its spacious gardens.
Weekdays are the only time, and strolling the only way, to visit the inns (always remembering that they are working legal institutions, and that many buildings can be viewed only from the outside).
I set out in the Temple, eager to see its two most famous landmarks, Temple Church and Middle Temple Hall. Temple Church, amazingly peaceful though just a few steps down Inner Temple Lane from noisy Fleet Street, is one of the most interesting medieval churches in Britain. It long predates the establishment of the Temple, having been built in the 12th and 13th centuries by the Knights Templar (the Crusaders with red crosses on their tunics). But since 1608 it has been the shared chapel of the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple.
The extraordinary round nave was inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and consecrated in 1185. Noteworthy are its nine recumbent effigies of knights (not Templars, but their patrons), and its transitional style of architecture — Norman hovering on the verge of Gothic. The church’s other half is the pure Gothic choir, built 50 years after the nave and, according to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, ”one of the most perfectly and classically proportioned buildings of the 13th century in England.”
I encountered a wealth of literary associations while wandering through the Temple. Here Charles Lamb was born, Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson lived, Thackeray studied law but embraced literature, and Oliver Goldsmith died and is buried (near a coffin-shaped gravestone on the north side of Temple Church). In Fountain Court, Tom Pinch furtively met his sister Ruth, at least in the pages of Dickens’s ”Martin Chuzzle wit.” And today John Mortimer, progenitor of Rumpole of the Bailey, has chambers in Dr. Johnson’s Buildings.
My stroll through the Temple ultimately brought me to Middle Temple Hall, one of London’s outstanding Elizabethan structures (literally, as Queen Elizabeth opened it in 1576). Shakespeare’s ”Twelfth Night” had its premiere here in 1601 and was performed before the queen, probably by Shakespeare’s own company.
Middle Temple Hall is a spectacularly beautiful room, its double hammerbeam roof one of the finest of its kind in the country. Equally striking are the magnificent oak screen, the profusion of brilliantly colored heraldic glass, and the collection of royal portraits. The ”cupboard,” a small table in front of the dais, was made from the hatch cover of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind (in which he completed a circumnavigation of the globe in 1580), given by him to the inn after the ship was wrecked in a storm. The hall’s balcony offers a fine exhibition on the Middle Temple’s history and a close-up view of the roof.
From the Temple I walked up Chancery Lane to Lincoln’s Inn, entering through the great Tudor gatehouse. On the far side of Gatehouse Court is the late-15th-century Old Hall, frequented by Sir Thomas More as a student, lector (reader of law) and finally a bencher (senior member). It was open to the public last year as part of the city’s millennium celebrations but has since been closed again.
Next door to the Old Hall is the early 17th-century chapel, probably designed by Inigo Jones. It has indelible associations with the poet John Donne, a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn as a young man in the 1590’s, who became the inn’s preacher following his ordination in late middle age. The chapel’s bell, captured by the Earl of Essex at the siege of Cadiz in 1596, still tolls after the death of a bencher, a custom that inspired Donne’s words: ”Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” At the northern end of Lincoln’s Inn are its gardens, with lovely vistas of this most heavenly of the inns.
In High Holborn, just north of Lincoln’s Inn, I stumbled upon some wonderful relics of old Legal London: the two surviving Inns of Chancery. There were once as many as 10 such inns, each a preparatory school for one of the Inns of Court. Only Staple Inn and Barnard’s Inn remain, and even these are now used for nonlegal purposes.
The quaint half-timbered facade of Staple Inn juts into High Holborn at its intersection with Gray’s Inn Road. It is a priceless reminder of Elizabethan England, and the main courtyard remains ”a little island of quiet” amid London’s ”roaring tide,” just as Nathaniel Hawthorne described it 150 years ago. Samuel Johnson occupied shabby rooms overlooking the court in 1759-60, where he wrote ”Rasselas” in seven consecutive evenings in order to pay for his mother’s funeral, before moving to Gray’s Inn and then the Temple.
A half-block east on Holborn and down a long passageway is Barnard’s Inn, the first London home of Pip in Dickens’s ”Great Expectations.” The hall was superbly restored in the 1930’s, and its picturesque features include a stunning row of 500-year-old leaded glass windows and a weathered shingle roof topped by the original octagonal lantern. This tiny jewel-like building is a unique, thoroughly unspoiled vestige of medieval London, the sense of time travel it conveys enhanced by its singularly isolated location.
GRAY’S INN, just across High Holborn from Staple Inn, is the most bucolic of the Inns of Court. Entering by the passageway off High Holborn, one comes to South Square. There, at No. 1, were the chambers in which 15-year-old Charles Dickens toiled unhappily as a solicitor’s clerk in 1827.
Opposite is Gray’s Inn Hall, a charming 16th-century brick building with stone trim, in which Shakespeare’s ”Comedy of Errors” had its premiere in 1594. It is widely believed that the hall’s ornate screen was made from the wood of a Spanish galleon captured during the Armada’s ill-fated assault on England in 1588, and given to Gray’s Inn by Queen Elizabeth I.
A statue of Sir Francis Bacon, philosopher, statesman and essayist, and the most famous member of Gray’s Inn, fittingly dominates the lawn in South Square. As treasurer of the inn in the early 1600’s he was instrumental in planning its famous gardens, known as The Walks and for centuries a resort of fashionable Londoners.
”God Almightie first Planted a Garden, and indeed it is the Purest of Humane Pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which buildings and palaces are but gross handy-works,” Bacon wrote in his essay ”Of Gardens.” Samuel Pepys was characteristically more earthly in approach, going to church on a Sunday and then, he confided to his Diary in 1661, ”into Gray’s Inne walks, where I saw many beauties.”
Having toured the barristers’ precincts, I resolved to see these advocates perform their feats of eloquence in the wigs, white ties and black robes that have been their court dress since the late 17th century.
There are three places to do this: the Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey) near St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Courts of Justice (or Law Courts) in the Strand, and the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (called the Law Lords), which meets in a sumptuous crimson and gold Gothic Revival Committee Room in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
I was enthralled for hours by the drama of a criminal trial at the Old Bailey. The defendant, charged with fixing horse races, sat hunched over, clutching his head in his hands. The prosecuting barrister, a soft-spoken man with a disarming Irish accent, was a master of his craft, precise and methodical, never a false step or a misplaced word. But the witness that afternoon was equally superb: a retired constable, turned racing insider, turned informant, himself charged with race-fixing.
The civil trials conducted in the Law Courts, usually without juries, tend to be less riveting. I spent most of my time there admiring the architecture of the Law Courts, in my view one of London’s greatest buildings. G. E. Street’s design, opened by Queen Victoria in 1882, is, in the words of the architect Hugh Casson, ”the last great monument of the Gothic Revival.”
THERE are two keys to enjoying this building. First, look at the exterior in the morning light, when the Portland stone facades glow radiantly. Second, think of Street’s Law Courts not as a single building — its immense size and constricted setting make it impossible to grasp that way in any event — but as a far greater sum of parts, both exterior elevations and interior spaces. Finest among the latter is the Great Hall, rivaling in size and majesty many of the greatest British cathedrals.
I ended my tour of Legal London at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, which were once also the home of the English courts. The only judicial body sitting there today is the Law Lords, the highest court of appeal in England and thus the court most like the United States Supreme Court. The Law Lords’ hearings are surprisingly intimate and collegial and, like the best arguments in our Supreme Court, they are highly intelligent dialogues on fine points of law between the arguing barrister and the Lords of Appeal.
Also within the Houses of Parliament complex is Westminster Hall, which housed the English courts for 600 years and is one of the great surviving secular buildings of medieval Europe. The historical and architectural importance of Westminster Hall were graphically demonstrated during the Blitz in 1941, when limited firefighting resources were used to save it rather than the adjacent House of Commons chamber, which burned to the ground.
King William II built Westminster Hall in the 1090’s, but it owes its current form to King Richard II, who rebuilt it starting in 1394. The most spectacular feature is the wooden hammerbeam roof, the ends of the hammerbeams graced by luxuriant angels.
Even today Westminster Hall is by far the largest room in the Houses of Parliament. And the roof still astonishes by its height, volume and sheer magnificence, being, as the medievalist John Harvey puts it, ”quite without a rival in any part of the world, not only for the ingenuity of its construction, but on account of the perfection and delicacy of its details.”
Westminster Hall was the scene of the forced abdication of King Edward II in 1327 and the deposition of its great patron, Richard II, in 1399. In addition, it was the site of many celebrated state trials. Here Sir William Wallace, the Scots’ national hero, was tried and condemned to death in 1305, Sir Thomas More in 1535 and King Charles I in 1649.
From 1788 to 1795, Warren Hastings, governor general of British India, underwent a seven-year impeachment trial in Westminster Hall for high crimes and misdemeanors. He was acquitted, but ruined by legal bills.
Visitors may walk through the precincts of the Inns of Court, Staple Inn and Barnard’s Inn, and visit the English courts on weekdays (except holidays) during regular business hours. There are no admission charges.
Temple Church; (44-207) 353 3470, http://www.templechurch.com. Open Sunday 12:45 to 3:45 p.m., Wednesday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (organ recitals at 1:15 p.m.), Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. and 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed during weddings and funerals, and in August and September. On Saturday or Sunday, access is via the Tudor Street entrance, reached from Bouverie Street.
Middle Temple; (44-207) 427 4800, fax (44-207) 427 4801. The hall is open weekdays 10 a.m. to noon and 3 to 4 p.m.; closed for vacations in late April, early June, late December and most of August and September. Gardens, weekdays noon to 3 p.m. in May, June, July and September.
Lincoln’s Inn; (44-207) 405 1393, fax (44-207) 831 1839, on the Web at http://www.lincolnsinn.org.uk. Chapel open weekdays noon to 2:30 p.m. Gardens on weekdays all day.
Staple Inn; High Holborn, (44-207) 632 2165 or 632 2100, fax (44-207) 632 2111, http://www.actuaries.org.uk. The courtyards are open weekdays during business hours. Visits to the hall may be arranged at the office of the Institute of Actuaries in the main court.
Barnard’s Inn; (44-207) 831 0575, fax (44-207) 831 5208, http://www.gresham
.ac.uk. Reached by a passageway just west of 24 Holborn, between Furnival Street and Fetter Lane. Barnard’s Inn is the home of Gresham College, founded by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1597 to give public lectures in astronomy, divinity, geometry and rhetoric. Free lectures on weekday afternoons and evenings are an opportunity to see the beautiful interior of Barnard’s Inn Hall.
Gray’s Inn; (44-207) 458 7800, fax (44-207) 458 7801. Gardens, weekdays noon to 2:30 p.m.; chapel open weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey; (44-207) 248 3277, extension 2444. Criminal trials are 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 4:30 p.m. The courtrooms in the old building are accessible from Newgate Street; the 12 courtrooms in the new wing from Warwick Passage. No cameras, bags, recording devices of any kind or children under 14. Visitors should go to the public galleries.
Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand; (44-207) 947 6000. Open weekdays 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Trials are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. Off the Great Hall are exhibits of old prints of Legal London (to the left of the main entrance) and English legal costumes (first floor at the far end). No cameras; do not enter rooms marked ”Judge’s Chambers.”
Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, New Palace of Westminster (use St. Stephen’s Entrance); (44-207) 219 3111, fax (44-207) 219 2476, http://www.parliament.uk. The Law Lords hear appeals in Committee Room Nos. 1 or 2 of the House of Lords Monday to Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. and announce judgments in the House of Lords Thursdays at 2:30 p.m.
Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster (use St. Stephen’s entrance); (44-207) 219 4272. It can be visited as part of the complete tour of the Houses of Parliament, arranged well in advance through the Parliamentary Education Unit, Norman Shaw Building (North), London SW1A 2TT, Britain. Westminster Hall can also be seen by attending sessions in the House of Commons committee room just off its northwest corner. The meetings schedule of House of Commons committees is at http://www.parliament.uk.
Where to Eat
The gardens of Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn are wonderful places for a picnic. Takeout food is available along Fleet Street if you are headed for Lincoln’s Inn, and High Holborn, Theobald’s Road and Gray’s Inn Road for Gray’s Inn.
Wheeler’s, 125 Chancery Lane, (44-207) 404 6071, open weekdays noon to 3 p.m., has an elegant restaurant upstairs and a less formal brasserie downstairs. The restaurant’s specialty is fish (a three-course à la carte lunch is $50 a person and up); the brasserie serves soups, salads, pasta and traditional English dishes ($15 a person and up).
The Old Bank of England, 194 Fleet Street, (44-207) 430 2255, serves good traditional pub food weekdays from noon to 8 p.m. (lunch $10 and up). The building was built as the Law Courts branch of the Bank of England in 1888 and was recently converted to a large, attractive pub.
The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria Street, (44-207) 236 5474, opposite Blackfriars Station and near the Old Bailey, serves decent pub food and sandwiches weekdays from noon to 2:30 p.m. (lunch $5 and up). The real attraction here is the building, a glorious effusion of droll turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau design outside and particularly inside, where the jovial friars in the friezes seem to run riot, even if you haven’t had a drink.
By RICHARD RUDA
in New York Times