The four Inns of Court are legal societies which have the sole right in England and Wales to admit law students as barristers, meaning they can prosecute and defend cases in court.
Inn was originally applied to the societies because they provided full board and lodgings for their students. They were even believed to have acted as taverns – watering the thirst of lawyers from across the road at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Originally there were as many as ten separate Inns, but only four remain to this day. They are all housed around the eastern end of the City.
All four work independently from each other – and independently from the Government – whose only role is to regulate their basic training practices.
Lincoln’s Inn is the oldest of the four Inns of Court, and dates from 1422. It was either named after the Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, or possibly after Thomas de Lyncoln, the King’s Sergeant at Holborn.
It moved to its present location in Chancery Lane sometime before 1522, and has remained their ever since. Famous students include Oliver Cromwell and Thomas More.
Its most famous building is the 15th-century Old Hall, which was the setting for the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce court case in Charles Dicken’s Bleak House. Other buildings include the 17th-century chapel and houses in New Square – still lit by gas lamps.
The chapel is most famous for being the meeting place of Parliament, during the time of Richard Cromwell. They met far away from Westminster to decide the fate of the King, and eventually restored the monarchy under Charles II.
The Tudor-looking Great Hall, with its great brick and black frame, is actually a 19th-century addition built in the time of Victoria.
Be sure to walk through the archway in the northwest corner to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, an old haunt for duellists, but now popular with lunchtime office workers and visitors to Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Middle Temple is the second oldest of the Inns and dates from 1501, whilst the Inner Temple dates from a little later – 1505.
Both took over their present location after the Knights Templar were ousted from positions of power. James I formalised the move in 1608, granting them the land in return for the upkeep of Temple Church.
But it wasn’t until 1732 that they decided to split the ground in half. The Middle Temple now resides in the western half of the land, and the Inner Temple in the east.
Middle Temple boasts an interesting exhibit in the Hall – an old table called the ‘Cupboard’. Newly qualified lawyers are required to sign their names upon this table, believed to be made out of wood from Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde – the ship in which he sailed around the world.
The Hall itself was for a long time used as a theatre, and there are records which show Queen Elizabeth once attended the premiere of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night there.
The gardens outside the Hall also feature in two more of Shakespeare’s plays – Henry IV and Richard III. It was here that Shakespeare kicked off the War of the Roses, with Somerset picking out the red rose for Lancaster, and Warwick the white rose of York.
Gray’s Inn is the youngest of the four Inns of Court, dating from 1569. It was named after the London home of Sir Reginald le Grey, whose land it still occupies.
Most of the buildings were badly damaged during the Blitz, but the important ones were lovingly restored after the war. One of which is the gatehouse that enters into High Holborn. Beyond this is an impressive garden, laid out by Francis Bacon in 1606, who later became Lord Chancellor under Queen Elizabeth.
Gray’s Inn also has its own Shakespeare connection, as his patron – the Earl of Southampton – was once a prominent member. The premiere of The Comedy of Errors duly received its curtain call in the great hall.