The Law Courts and Old Palace Yard

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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'The Law Courts and Old Palace Yard', in Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878) pp. 560-567. British History Online [accessed 25 April 2024]

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"M. I hate this place worse than a man who has inherited a Chancery-suit.

"F.—Why, you need not be afraid of this place; for a man without money needs no more fear a crowd of lawyers than a crowd of pickpockets."—Wycherley.

The Courts of Law first established in Westminster Hall—Ancient Mode of conferring Knighthood on the Judges—Henry III. and Henry de Bath—The Present Law Courts—Curious Custom observed at the Presentation of the Sheriffs in the Court of Exchequer—The Great Tichborne Imposture—The Court of Augmentations—Old Palace Yard—Geoffrey Chaucer—The "Gunpowder Plot"—Execution of Sir Walter Raleigh—Statue of Richard Cœur de Lion.

The seats of justice, or courts of common law and chancery, which both before and after the Norman Conquest followed the sovereign, were in the reign of Henry III. made stationary, and appointed to be held in Westminster Hall. "In the King's Bench, or principal court, anciently called Curia Domini Regis, the king himself usually presided, and in his absence the justiciarius Angliæ, an officer of great trust, styled by our Saxon ancestors Alderman, or totius Angliæ Aldermannus. The judges of the Court usually received the honour of knighthood, which degree was anciently conferred by bathing and other ceremonies; and the materials for their robes, &c., were furnished by the king. Walter de Clopton and Robert de Cherleton, made justices of the King's Bench and Common Pleas by Richard II., about to receive the order of knighthood 'as Bannerets at Wyndsore, on the feast of St. George,' had among other things allowed them, to keep their vigils, six ells of russet cloth long, and for their bath 'two cloths of gold sigaston, and one piece of green silk,' &c." John Whiddon, a justice of this Court, in the reign of Queen Mary, is said to have been the first judge who rode to Westminster Hall on a horse or gelding, before which time the judges rode on mules.

At the upper end of the new Hall stood the statues of the kings of England, from Edward the Confessor to Stephen, and also, on the south-east side, a marble bench, nineteen feet long and three feet broad, upon which the king sat at his coronation feast, and at other times the Lord Chancellor. This was the King's Bench for pleas of the Crown. In the south-west angle sat the Lord Chancellor, the Master of the Rolls, and eleven men learned in the civil law, called Masters of the Chancery. "It derived its name," says Mr. Mackenzie Walcott, "from the bar of open timber-work (cancelli), which separated this court (in the last century completely shutting it out from sight) from the lower part of the Hall." This screen was taken down before the coronation of George IV. Near the King's Bench, in front of the large chamber called the White Hall, was the Court of Wards and Liveries. In this chamber, originally called the Treasury, were kept many valuable state papers. Adjoining the Chancery was the Equity Court of Requests or Conscience, for trying suits made by way of petition to the sovereign; it was sometimes called the Poor Man's Court, "because he could there have right without paying for it." It is difficult to accept this statement literally.

In 1234, Henry III. sat in person in the King's Court, and in 1256 in the Court of Exchequer. Not long after, Henry de Bath, one of the judges, was accused of sedition; but he, "forewarned, forearmed," summoned his friends, and so went attended into the Hall. No sooner had he entered than the king, in a transport of disappointed rage, cried out, "My free pardon to him that strikes dead Henry of Bath!" The more prudent Council, however, we are told, dissuaded the angry monarch from so perilous a venture.

The present law courts are situated on the west side of the Hall, and are all contained in the Italian-fronted building erected from the designs of Sir John Soane. They each have an entrance from the Hall, and also from the street. The various courts, as at present constituted, are the Court of Queen's Bench, the Bail Court, the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of Exchequer, the Rolls Court, the Arches Court, the High Court of Admiralty, the Vice-Chancellor's Court, and the Court of Probate and Divorce.

Of the courts of law adjoining the Hall, the author of "A New Critical Review of the Public Buildings," &c., speaks as presenting a slovenly appearance, and utterly wanting in that pomp and magnificence which is necessary to enforce the respect which should ever attend on the administration of justice. In this observation most competent persons will agree with the writer, and at the same time regret that he did not live to the reign of Victoria to see the new Law Courts rise by St. Clement Danes' Church.

Previously to the year 1859, when it was discontinued, a curious ancient tenure custom had been for centuries performed, on the occasion of the presentation of the sheriffs of London and Middlesex in the Court of Exchequer. After the ceremony of presentation, proclamation was made by the Crier of the Court for the service as follows:—"Oyez! oyez! oyez! Tenants and occupiers of a piece of waste ground called 'The Moors,' in the county of Salop, come forth and do your service, upon pain and peril that shall fall thereon !" The senior alderman below the chair then cut one fagot (small twigs) with a hatchet, and another with a billhook. The Crier then made this proclamation:—"Oyez! oyez! oyez! Tenants and occupiers of a certain tenement called 'The Forge,' in the parish of St. Clement Danes, in the county of Middlesex, come forth and do your service." The alderman then counted certain horseshoes and hobnails, and was questioned by the Queen's Remembrancer thus:—"How many have you?" "Six shoes." Then the alderman counted the nails. "How many have you?" "Sixty-one nails—good number." And so the ceremony ended.

Mr. Nichols, in the Gentleman's Magazine for October, 1804, describes the custom as performed in that year, and adds this explanation:—"The ceremony on this occasion, in the Court of Exchequer, which vulgar error supposed to be an unmeaning farce, is solemn and impressive; nor have the new sheriffs the least connection either with chopping of sticks or counting of hobnails. The tenants of a manor in Shropshire are directed to come forth and do their suit and service; on which the senior alderman below the chair steps forward and chops a single stick, in token of its having been customary for the tenants of that manor to supply their lord with fuel. The owners of a forge in the parish of St. Clement (which formerly belonged to the City, and stood in the high road from the Temple to Westminster, but now no longer exists) are then called forth to do their suit and service; when an officer of the Court, in the presence of the senior alderman, produces six horseshoes and sixty-one hobnails, which he counts over in form before the Cursitor Baron, who on this particular occasion is the immediate representative of the sovereign."

Mr. Sheriff Hoare, in the journal of his shrievalty, 1640–41, in his own autograph writes:—"The senior alderman present cut one twig in two, and bent another, and the officers of the Court counted six horseshoes and hobnails. This formality, it is said, is passed through each year, by way of suit and service for the citizens holding some tenements in St. Clement Danes, as also some other lands; but where they are situated no one knows, nor doth the City receive any rents or profits thereby."

The Court of Exchequer, be it observed, is the legal court of accounts; and, moreover, pursuant to the charter 32 Henry III., the high officers of the City are, on their appointment, to be presented to the sovereign, or, in the absence of majesty, to the sovereign's Justices or Barons of the Royal Exchequer.

In the Court of Common Pleas came on for hearing, on the 11th of May, 1871, the celebrated "Tichborne case"—so called. The lawsuit was technically an action for the purpose of ejecting Colonel Lushington from Tichborne House, Hampshire, which had been let to him, and was instituted by a person named Orton or Castro, who some time previously had arrived in England from Australia, and who represented himself to be Sir Roger Charles Doughty-Tichborne, Bart.; the latter having been lost at sea in the Bella, in 1854. Tichborne House still remained the property of the Tichborne family, and the action at once raised the question whether the "Claimant" was or was not identical with the young man who was so long believed to have perished in the Bella. The case was heard before Lord Chief Justice Bovill; Mr. Serjeant Ballantine and Mr. Giffard were retained as counsel for the "Claimant;" and on the side of the defendant was Sir John Coleridge, then SolicitorGeneral, supported by Mr. Hawkins. Owing to frequent adjournments, it was not until the 6th of March, 1872, that the trial was concluded, the proceedings having extended to 103 days. The "Claimant's" advisers, to avoid an inevitable verdict for their opponents, elected to be nonsuited, and thus the case came to a somewhat abrupt termination. This, however, was not to be the last the public were to hear of it, for the Lord Chief Justice at once committed the "Claimant" to Newgate on a charge of wilful and corrupt perjury and forgery.

After a few weeks' delay the "Claimant" was released from Newgate on bail, in the sum of £10,000, the sureties being Lord Rivers, Mr. Guildford Onslow, M.P., Mr. Whalley, M.P., and Mr. Attwood, a medical man residing at Bayswater. From this time till the commencement of the criminal trial—a period of thirteen months—a systematic agitation on the "Claimant's" behalf was kept up throughout the country, and public appeals were made for subscriptions to defray the expenses of his defence. The great trial itself commenced in the Court of Queen's Bench, at Westminster, on the 23rd of April, 1873, the proceedings being conducted under what is called a "trial at bar," and by that means was invested with some show of pomp and ceremony, and a dignity which it could not rightly claim, for it is only a trial of that nature before three judges that can be continued without regard to the ordinary periods of sessions or legal terms. The trial was presided over by Sir Alexander Cockburn, Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench, Mr. Justice Mellor, and Mr. Justice Lush. On the side of the Crown were Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Serjeant Parry; on that of the defendant, Dr. Kenealy and Mr. MacMahon, M.P. The defendant was indicted under the name of "Arthur Orton, alias Thomas Castro;" and the trial ended on the 28th of February, 1874—a period of 188 days having been occupied in the proceedings. Throughout this extraordinary trial—so great had become the public excitement and curiosity in connection with the case—the arrival and departure of the "Claimant" in the carriage provided for him by his supporters were witnessed by thousands of persons, shouting lustily for "Sir Roger," while the object of their attentions, bowing to right and left, gracefully acknowledged these tokens of popularity. The number of witnesses examined amounted to 212, and the trial ended with a verdict of "Guilty," and a sentence of fourteen years' penal servitude. The foreman of the jury publicly declared that there was no doubt in the mind of any of the jurymen that the man who had for eight years assumed the name and title of the gentleman in whose unhappy fate the majority of the family had long believed was an impostor, who had added slander of the wickedest kind to his many other crimes. But not only were they satisfied of this; they were equally agreed that he was Arthur Orton, the son of a butcher at Wapping! And so ended another chapter in the history of great popular delusions. There are, however, still, it is to be feared, especially among the uneducated classes, those who believe Arthur Orton to be a Tichborne, just as there are those who believe in Johanna Southcote.

The Court of Augmentations was formerly held in a portion of the Old Palace, on or near the site of the present Law Courts. It was founded by Henry VIII., for the purpose of surveying and governing all the forfeited ecclesiastical property secularised to the use of the king. Queen Mary dissolved this court, by letters patent, in 1554. All the deeds and resignations of abbeys, priories, and lands, and their valuations, were kept here. The judicial proceedings of the Courts of Augmentation and Surveys-General, which lasted for a short period after their creation by Henry VIII., and those of the Parliamentary Survey made under the Commonwealth, were also preserved here. These records were exposed to great danger at the burning of the Houses of Parliament.

At the southern end of Westminster Hall, and occupying the space between the Houses of Parliament and the Abbey, is Old Palace Yard. It was anciently bounded on the north by the south gate in St. Margaret's Lane; on the west by the Abbey; on the east by some of the inferior offices of the Palace, with a little court, in which, in 1732, was the king's fishmonger's house; and on the south by a gateway at the north end of the present Abingdon Street, then called Lindsay Lane. At the southwest end of this lane was Lindsay House, afterwards the residence of the Earl of Abingdon (from whom the present street received its name), and in 1708 the residence of Dormer, Earl of Carnarvon.

In the year 1399, Geoffrey Chaucer, "the first illuminer of the English language," entered into an agreement for the lease of a house adjoining the "White Rose" Tavern, which abutted on the old Lady Chapel of the Abbey. Chaucer held the office of Clerk of the King's Works, and was robbed (more than once) by Richard Brerelay and others, probably as he was going to or returning from Eltham. Brerelay, though he escaped punishment on this occasion, was afterwards tried for another highway robbery, pleaded "Not guilty," and "declared that he was ready to defend himself by his body against the approver (Clerk)," as Mr. W. Selby tells us in the Introduction to his "Life Records of Chaucer," thus demanding "the wager of battle." A duel was accordingly fought between Brerelay and Clerk (the said "approver") at Tothill on the 21st of April, 1391; the result being that the "approver" was vanquished, and forthwith received judgment to be hanged.

It is probable that it was in his house at Westminster that Chaucer ended his days. We have already spoken of his burial and of his tomb in the Abbey. His house, the tavern, and St. Mary's Chapel were demolished in 1502, to give place to the gorgeous mausoleum of Henry VII.

In a house which stood between the churchyard and the Old Palace, lived in his later years "rare Ben Jonson," and here he died; so that two of the greatest of England's poets breathed their last almost upon the same spot.

In the south-east corner of Old Palace Yard was a house which was at one time occupied as the Ordnance Office, and afterwards served as the entrance to the House of Lords. This house was hired by Percy, a gentleman-pensioner of the Court, and through it the conspirators in the "Gunpowder Plot" carried their barrels into a vault which formed part of the kitchens of the Old Palace.

This is perhaps a proper place for putting on record a correct account of the famous "Gunpowder Plot," which for nearly three centuries has made the name of Guido or Guy Fawkes a "household word" through the length and breadth of England: we will therefore condense it from the authentic pages of Dodd's "Church History," an acknowledged authority with the Roman Catholic body. It appears that, on the accession of James I., rightly or wrongly, the hopes of the Roman Catholics in England were raised by Cecil's assurance that the persecutions with which Elizabeth had visited them as rebels and traitors would be discontinued. In this hope, however, they were disappointed, and the discontent of some members of their body soon found means to express itself. "It broke out," says Dodd, "in the Gunpowder Plot, the contrivance of half-a-dozen persons of desperate fortunes, who by that means have brought an odium upon the body of Catholics, who have ever since laboured under the weight of that calumny, though nowise concerned. Now," he continues, "for the particulars of this horrid design, as I find them recorded by our historians. They tell us Mr. Catesby was the first contriver of the plot for blowing up the Parliament House, which, for a considerable time, he kept for himself, till he could meet with associates as desperate as himself to engage in it. At length he found those that were fit for his purpose—viz., Thomas Percy, Guy Faux, Thomas Winter, Robert Keyes, and Thomas Bates. To these he communicated his design, who approved of it, and, as it is said, mutually joined in an oath of secrecy. Now the manner of carrying on the contrivance was this: Percy being well acquainted at Court, where he enjoyed a place, and upon this account was less suspected, hired lodgings near the Parliament House, whereby the conspirators had the convenience of digging for a subterraneous passage. They laboured at this work for some months till, meeting with a very thick wall, which had a deep foundation, the work became tedious, and obliged them to desist. Meanwhile, Mr. Percy informed himself of a cellar directly under the Parliament House, which he immediately hired, as he gave out, in order to fill it with fuel for a winter's provision. The care thereof was committed to Guy Faux, who took the name of John Johnston, and passed for Mr. Percy's servant. Hitherto the contrivance was kept a secret among the persons above mentioned. Yet they had scattered a report privately, among several Catholics, that something was in agitation in their favour; and people of that communion began to entertain thoughts that in a little time they should be made easy, though they neither knew when, nor by what means, it was to be effected. It appeared, indeed, afterwards, that some few were let further into the secret (though never acquainted with the blackest part of the design), and had received private orders from Percy to be up in arms the 6th of November, 1605, which was the day after the plot was discovered. The only persons to whom these orders were directed were, Sir Everard Digby, Mr. Francis Tresham, Mr. John Grant, Mr. Ambrose Rookwood, Mr. Robert Winter, two Mr. Knights—John and Christopher. About ten days before the Parliament was to meet, which was on the 5th of November, a letter from an unknown hand was delivered to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, admonishing him to be absent in Parliament on the day of their first meeting, for that a sudden judgment would fall upon the nation by an invisible hand, or to that purpose. The confusedness of style, with the ambiguity of expressions, both startled and puzzled his lordship; wherefore, having made Secretary Cecil acquainted with it, and the letter being canvassed several days before the king and council, they at length found out the sense and true meaning of it—viz., that the suddenness of the stratagem spoke gunpowder, and by the nation must be understood the Parliament. Upon this surmise Sir Thomas Knevet, by order of council, was deputed to make strict search in all the places and apartments near the Parliament House, which he did the day before the House was to meet, when he happened to spy out a person standing at a cellar door, ready booted and spurred, who, upon examination, confessed he had a design to set fire to a train of gunpowder which was to blow up the Parliament House; in confirmation whereof, upon a further scrutiny, thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found in the cellar, concealed under billets and other fuel."



It is added by Winwood, more circumstantially, that "Sir Thomas Knevet, on going thither about midnight, unlooked for, into the vault, found that fellow Johnston newly come out of the vault, and, without asking any more questions, stayed him; and having no sooner removed the wood, he perceived the barrels, and so bound the caitiff fast, who made no difficulty to acknowledge the act, nor to confess clearly that the morrow following it should have been effected."

The rest of the story is well known. The conspirators, finding that their designs were suspected, quitted London, and made their rendezvous at Dunchurch, in Warwickshire; driven thence, they beat a retreat towards Stourbridge, where Catesby, Percy, and two more of their comrades were killed in defending the house where they took shelter; the rest, including Fawkes, were captured, brought to London, tried for treason, and executed in Old Palace Yard. We need scarcely add that the old custom of examining the cellars underneath the House of Lords, about two hours before Her Majesty's arrival to open Parliament, still continues to be observed, or that the custom had its origin in the infamous Gunpowder Plot.

A good story of the Gunpowder Plot is told in the "Railway Anecdote Book," but we cannot undertake to pledge ourselves to its truth. A former Lord Chamberlain was sent to examine the vaults under the Parliament House, and, returning with his report, said that "he had found five-andtwenty barrels of gunpowder; that he had removed ten of them, and hoped the other fifteen would do no harm."

It was in Old Palace Yard that, on a chill October morning in the year 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh was led forth to die by the headsman's axe. On the morning of Raleigh's execution his keeper brought a cup of sack to him, and inquired how he was pleased with it. "As well as he who drank of St. Giles's bowl as he rode to Tyburn," answered the knight, and said, "it was good drink if a man might but tarry by it." "Prithee, never fear, Ceeston," cried he to his old friend Sir Hugh, who was repulsed from the scaffold by the sheriff, "I shall have a place!" A man bald from extreme age pressed forward "to see him," he said, "and pray God for him." Raleigh took a richly embroidered cap from his own head, and placing it on that of the old man, said, "Take this, good friend, to remember me, for you have more need of it than I." "Farewell, my lords," was his cheerful parting to a courtly group who affectionately took their leave of him, "I have a long journey before me, and I must e'en say good-bye." "Now I am going to God," said that heroic spirit, as he trod the scaffold; and, gently touching the axe, added, "This is a sharp medicine, but it will cure all diseases." The very headsman shrank from beheading one so illustrious and brave, until the unquailing soldier addressed him, "What dost thou fear? Strike, man!" In another moment the mighty soul had fled from its mangled tenement. Cayley, after describing Sir Walter's execution, adds, "The head, after being shown on either side of the scaffold, was put into a leather bag, over which Sir Walter's gown was thrown, and the whole conveyed away in a mourning coach by Lady Raleigh. It was preserved by her in a case during the twenty-nine years which she survived her husband, and afterwards with no less piety by their affectionate son Carew, with whom it is supposed to have been buried at West Horsley, in Surrey. The body was interred in the chancel near the altar of St. Margaret's, Westminster."

In the Pepysian Collection at Magdalen College, Cambridge, is a ballad with this title, "Sir Walter Raleigh, his Lamentation, who was Beheaded in the Old Pallace of Westminster, the 29th of October, 1618. To the tune of 'Welladay.'"

In Old Palace Yard, about half way between Westminster Hall and the Peers' Entrance, is the statue of Richard Cœur de Lion, by the late Baron Marochetti, somewhat hastily pronounced by the Edinburgh Review, "the noblest equestrian statue in England." It stands on a pedestal a little over eight feet in height, with bassi-relievi on its panels. The king is seated on the back of a charger; but both the rider and the horse are open to grave criticism. The following critique may be taken, on the whole, as fair and just: "The group is picturesque; but the hind-quarters of the horse, and the fatiguing attitude of the man, are unsuccessful. The king appears to be sitting on his horse quietly, just as a groom does when without a saddle; whereas, since the attitude is supposed to be a momentary one, the figure should, with uplifted arm, have been raised in the stirrups. This would have given life to the figure, and would have connected it better with the horse. No man on a prancing charger would be lifting up his sword in a supposed dignified position with his feet dangling carelessly in the stirrups."