The Life of a Lawyer, Litigant and Mediator in Elizabethan England

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Dom Birch. Dom (they/them) is a doctoral researcher at King’s College London who has just submitted their thesis ‘Parish, Participation and Power: Legal Pluralism in Early Modern England’ for examination.

I was drawn to history-writing because I wanted tell peoples’ stories. My ethical and political commitments, as a social historian, have pushed me to look for and recount the meaningful and inconsequential histories of ordinary early modern people. The somewhat obvious consequence of this commitment has been that the people who populate my work can be frustratingly anonymous.

The records I use—Church Court depositions—are full of gaps and individuals’ rarely turn up repeatedly. The longer depositions, and the fuller characters, stand out in my mind: Agnes Swales, from Osmotherly, who boasted about sleeping with three men in one night and told her neighbour that she hoped her future husband would be a `good doer’ in the bedroom; Joyce Griffiths who suffered from some kind of serious mental illness and was shunned by her neighbours on account of her `madd’ behaviour; and Emmanuel Trotter a vicar from Northumberland whose parishioners attempted to stop him collecting tithes using force, and pitchforks.

The Lawyer’s Office, Pieter de Bloot, 1628. Rijksmuseum, SK-A-660 (Public Domain).

My deponents’ lives can be slippery but it is even harder to know the motivations of the court officials—the notaries and lawyers who shaped the documents I read as a historian. How much of the legalese is theirs? And what did they do when they weren’t listening to other early moderns describing their sex lives and tithe disputes?

The lawyers of the church court were men of some stature, but they too have left little information about themselves. They would have been trained in Canon or Roman law and would, in London, have populated the Doctors Commons and the area around St Paul’s. I have been unable to find specifics about their lives; except for Walter Horsell, a proctor and notary who worked in London in the late sixteenth century.

Horsell’s father was a Merchant Taylor from St Sepulchres who died in 1577. A year later, Horsell appeared in the church courts to testify in a marriage dispute concerning Roger Barrett and Ellen Shawcock. Barret lived in Ivy Lane and was almost certainly a lawyer at the Doctors Commons too. In his deposition Horsell is described as a servant to William Blackwell, then the presiding notary for the London Ecclesiastical Court. This description is slightly misleading, as Horsell is described as a proctor as early as 1575 and it appears he was receiving training from Blackwell before graduating as a notary himself. Horsell married Katherine Irenmonger in 1582, by which time he was living in Islington and described as a `gent’. Horsell seems to have had a classical education, and to have been familiar with the City of London’s elite. Horsell acted as a proxy for Agnes Etheredge, for example, in the execution of her husband’s will in 1581. Agnes’ husband, Thomas, was a citizen and alebrewer from the same parish as Horsell’s father. Although Horsell chose to become an ecclesiastical lawyer, he maintained connections with London’s guildmembers. 

Horsell was busy. His name appears on wills in Croydon, Surrey and Kent. In 1575 he acted as an `honest suter’ in an attempt to get William Basse installed as the parson of Weybridge (Winchester). Horsell recruited another notary, Justinian Johnson, to help him and they expanded their circle of contacts as they petitioned Lord Keeper Bacon for the benefice. Bacon turned them down on the basis that Lord Hayward wanted the parsonage for one of his chaplains. Basse was eventually offered the vicaridge of West Tilbury after much back and forth between Horsell, Johnson, Basse and others. In 1590 Horsell approved a post-mortem release of excommunication for Lewis Williams, a churchwarden from Holy Trinity, Minories who had died excommunicate and could not receive a Christian burial. And in 1576 Horsell seems to have met with David Wood, the rector of West Allington (Lincolnshire) at a house in Ivy Lane to discuss Wood’s resignation as the rector of the same parish.

This is a picture of Horsell’s career that is full of gaps, cobbled together from various documents that include his name. The image of Horsell that can be gleaned from the archives provides a window on his life, and on early modern London’s legal culture. Horsell was clearly busy outside of his work with Blackwell and the church court. Much of Horsell’s work involved the informal processes that preceded his official work—advocating for appointments, negotiating resignations and advising his friends on their marriage prospects. Horsell’s skills as a lawyer seem to have put him in demand as an informal advisor, seeking to smooth the operation of ecclesiastical law in the lives of those he knew.

He also spent time witnessing and proving wills in the city, its suburbs and the surrounding counties. Horsell’s work, and life, were not confined to the city of London, suggesting that the suburbs were integrated into the lives of the city’s working people in a way that may not show up in the administrative distinction between the City of London and everywhere else. Horsell chose to move to Islington before his marriage whilst continuing to work in the city. Finally, Horsell seems to have been a vector of connectivity—making introductions to other lawyers for clients and friends, and generally hustling up work. The breadth of Horsell’s work that I have managed to find in limited sources has told me something, too, about the lawyers of the church court. They were busy soliciting work around the city, helping friends and acquaintances and offering their expertise to others. It is easy when reading the legalese of the church court documents to imagine a greying and exacting lawyer working with exact (and boring) language. Horsell’s career suggests something else: an energetic and motivated worker, seeking to advance his career in and out of the court room.

1 thought on “The Life of a Lawyer, Litigant and Mediator in Elizabethan England

  1. just been working on some books of examinations for the mayors/JP court in Southampton, the quarter sessions records don’t exist so you can’t see what happens to those moved up the chain, but my cross ref with other town records can see if people turn up back in the town, this sits on a database of 20,000 residents 1485-1603 so you can for some find out more about peoples lives. My pet bug bear is the lawyer Sir Richard Lyster and trying to get is DNB entry altered which has his wives all wrong. I have 33 people who identify as being lawyers or attorneys in Southampton

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