Forde Abbey (which was acquired by Devon lawyer Richard Pollard and may actually have been in Devon in the Middle Ages certainly on the border with Somerset)

Lawyers laid bare

Hostility towards the legal profession for financially profiting from the recession is nothing new according to research at the University of Exeter which explores the rise of lawyers in the medieval and Tudor periods. 

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded research project provides an intimate look behind the façade of the legal profession.  It seeks to provide a broader picture outside of the familiar portrayal of lawyers as figures of fun or revulsion.  Professor Anthony Musson, a legal historian at the University of Exeter, examined the identities and characteristics of individual lawyers and their family’s influence.  This entailed identifying how they managed their estates, where they lived, what their families and households were like, how they conducted themselves, their religious beliefs, philanthropy, and the nature of their marriages and alliances.

Professor Musson said, ‘By scrutinizing generations of lawyers across three centuries the research shows how education and study of the law enabled class barriers to be transcended.  Many lawyers came from humble backgrounds with little or no prospects, some were born illegitimate, but as a result of their legal know-how they were able to achieve high professional and social status.’

He added, ‘Securing advantageous marriages to young heiresses or influential rich widows was common place.  This was beneficial to both parties with the family gaining valuable inside information about the legal process, potentially helping them with land disputes, wills or acquisition of land and for the lawyer to advance his social position and property portfolio.  ’

The research concentrated on lawyers living outside London, focusing on Exeter, York, Bristol, Coventry, Norwich and Colchester.  The flood of property on the market following the Black Death in the 14th Century and dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, such as Forde Abbey in Somerset (acquired by Richard Pollard in 1543), meant there were advantageous opportunities for lawyers to gain considerable wealth and social and political advantage.  John Haydon, for example, built a house at Cadhay, near Exeter, using materials from the former college at Ottery St Mary.  He also bought some of the buildings of Dunkeswell Abbey in Devon and part of the Marquess of Exeter’s forfeited estates.  Ready money enabled Haydon and others like him to act as property agents, buying and selling monastic lands.   Acquisition and accumulation of property enabled them to advance their social status and behave like landed gentlemen.

Greed, materialism and pride are some of the characteristics that people living over 500 years ago attributed to Judges and lawyers. Research indicates that opposition towards lawyers from the wider population sprang from changes in society, as the legal profession profited from litigiousness and an increasing public reliance on legal skills.  

Using taxation information, inquests, wills, property deeds and private correspondence the research identifies how prosperity in the legal world affected lawyers and how they used the law to further their own position.  It also looks at how lawyers managed to benefit financially when others were experiencing economic hardship.  Lawyers tended to have the largest disposable income and their overt displays of wealth generated particular resentment within the community.

If lawyers were traditionally regarded as selfish creatures, the tax they paid on their accumulated lands, for which returns survive, and evidence of charity and philanthropy redress the balance, according to the research. Contrary to opinion, lawyers were not without conscience - they engaged in significant acts of charity.  Lawyers’ wills displayed a concern for the welfare of disadvantaged groups in society above and beyond the conventional and indiscriminate alms dole. Provision for education was especially significant for them, since it was a catalyst for professional success and social mobility.

Genuine philanthropy on the part of lawyers was also found in their attempts to improve the lives of others, particularly the sick and the elderly.  The foundation of hospitals and almshouses, notably Wynards Hospital (founded in Exeter by William Wynard in 1435 and still operational at the end of the 19th century), offered long term benefit to the community in practical alleviation of suffering.

Professor Musson explained ‘The project illustrates how lawyers exploited opportunities and how they collectively offered a convenient scapegoat for ills of the age.  They became the focus for social frustrations and economic jealousies that flourished in times of hardship, especially when it was felt that lawyers were profiting at other’s expense.  It is only on a personal level that they can be judged more appropriately and that it is possible to form a balanced view of the criticisms levelled against lawyers.’

The outcomes of the project are soon to be published in a book, ‘Lawyers Laid Bare: The Private Lives of Medieval and Early Tudor Lawyers’.

Date: 31 August 2010

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