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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 25. Increase of Litigation and its effects on the Legal Profession

Among the professions which had their proper seat in London, none, perhaps, in the Elizabethan age and that which followed, played a more important part in the social system of the country than the profession of the law. There has assuredly been no period of English history in which the relations between law and politics have been more intimate than the age of Bacon and Coke; and the study of the history of even a single inn of court, such as Gray’s inn, would show how far back in the later Tudor period this important connection extends. But, apart from this, though Harrison was of opinion that an excess of lawyers, like one of merchants, was a clog in the commonwealth—“all the money in the land,” he says, “goes to the lawyers”—it was quite inevitable that two characteristics of the age—the frequent change of ownership in landed property and the frequent establishment of new trading concerns—should be accompanied by a large increase of legal practice. This practice was of a kind which did not necessarily bring its reward in a great harvest of fees to the London barrister, for there was much more self-help in that age than has been held admissible in later days either in law or in medicine; and, with regard to the former at all events, every man was expected to know some law, so that many of our dramatists—with Shakespeare at their head—were, more or less, familiar with its terms and processes. It was with landed property that litigation, so far as lawyers were called in, seriously concerned itself; and it was through the management, direct or indirect, of country estates, and through speculation as well as litigation respecting them, that fortunes were made and, as already noticed, county families were founded by Elizabethan lawyers. If we glance at the other end of the professional ladder, it will appear that at no time before or since has a legal training been so clearly recognised as the necessary complement of the school and university education of a man called upon to play a part in public life. The inns of court were one of the great social as well as educational institutions of the Elizabethan and early Stewart period; and within their walls, in their halls and gardens, in their libraries and chambers, was pre-eminently fostered that spirit of devoted loyalty towards the crown, as well as that traditional enthusiasm for literary and other intellectual interests, which in other periods of our national life have been habitually associated with the universities. The occasional “brawls” in the streets by gentlemen of the inns of court, like those of their democratic antipodes, the city ’prentices, were demonstrations of self-reliance as well as of youthful spirits. To the Elizabethan regular drama, whose beginnings the inns of court had nurtured, and to some of whose masterpieces they had extended a cordial welcome, as well as to the lesser growths of the masque and cognate devices, these societies stood in relations of enduring intimacy.