27th November 1812. Serjeants-at-Law.
It was after being appointed Lord Chancellor in Gladstone’s Government that Roundell Palmer who was born Today in 1812, oversaw the passage of the Judicature Act 1873 which was to completely reorganise the administration of Justice.(1)
One effect of the legislation was the ending of the exclusive jurisdiction of the ancient Serjeants-at-Law.(2)
Chaucer in Middle English made reference in his Canterbury Tales to, ‘a serjeant-at-law, ware and wiser, that often hadde ben at the parvis’, which was a room over the south door at St Paul’s Cathedral, where clients could get counsel.
To create a Serjeant the King would issue a writ to take the degree of Serjeant who would then be expected take up an estate and give 10 lbs of gold to be made into rings for peers and aristocracy. Then a seven days’ feast was given, reduced in 1550 to one day as the cost had become burdensome.
Not surprising as one feast in 1555 required 25 deer, 44 swans, 36 heron, 132 rabbits, 132 woodcocks, 540 lark, 276 jellies and eked out with sturgeon, pheasant, turkey, crane, brawn, quince pie, march-pane, custards and 176 gallons of claret.
Initially the Serjeant-at-Law was the senior order of barrister of the English Bar (Servientes ad Legem) and features in writs going back to the 1300.s, successors of the champions of Trial by Battle, all conducted in a mixture of bastard French and Latin.
These along with the judges in their scarlet robes trimmed with white budge or lambskin were now to constitute a new aristocracy of wealth and influence.(3)
Langland described the Serjeant-at-Law, ‘with his pocket for covert payment hovering like hawks at the bar’ and wearing the ‘white silken hood and parti-coloured gowns of blue, green and brown’, the only lawyers allowed to plead at the Court of Common Pleas.
The King’s/Queen’s Serjeant, adviser to the Monarch and somewhat akin to the modern Attorney-General, wore a black coif with a narrow strip of white, unlike the Serjeants, all-white coif, which wasn’t to be covered, so when wigs came in a small white cloth was added to the top.
Lawyers are never popular including Serjeants for as Samuel Pepys records regarding the Coronation of Charles II when Serjeant Glynne a Welsh lawyer had his horse fall on him and, ‘like to kill him, which people do please themselves to see how just God is to punish the rogue’.
However with the creation of Queen’s Council during the Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s reign a steady decline in the influence and exclusivity of the Serjeants was seen down to the 19thc legislation.
The site of Serjeants’ Inn (1415-1910) which was more like a private club than an Inn of Court is marked by a blue-glazed plaque in Chancery Lane, London.
(1a) The Act came into force in 1875.
(1b) Palmer was to join the Peelites Conservatives who eventually helped to create the Liberals in 1859, eventually became Viscount Wolmer and 1st Earl Shelborne.
(2) In the Middle Ages Serjeants practised at the parvis where the Ecclesiastical Courts at Doctors’ Commons later was held.
The last Serjeant was Lord Lindley with no more created after his death in 1921 when the order ceased.
(3) Only a Serjeant of the Common Law Courts could become a judge until the 19thc.
openplaque.com.org/Pic of Plaque.
Pickwick Papers. Charles Dickens.