5 Places to Visit If You’re Fascinated by English Law

The oldest written laws still in effect in England date from 1267.

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They are four sections of the Statute of Marlborough, and they prohibit people from seeking revenge for non-payment of debts without the permission of a court, and tenant farmers from ruining their land – although there’s debate about how much use they still are today, their continued survival demonstrates how fascinating and enduring English law can be.
And there’s no better way of exploring that fascinating history than visiting some of the places that shaped English law as we know it today. If you’re a prospective Law student, here are the top 5 places you need to visit, and the influential events that happened there.

1. The Old Bailey, London

The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales is much better known as the Old Bailey. It’s on the site of the former Newgate Prison, a building that stood from 1188 to 1902, when it was finally demolished in order to allow the court to be built in its place. It’s a working court, but it’s open to visitors aged 14 or over on weekdays, and you can go in and watch trials taking place (though, unsurprisingly, you’ll need to go through security first). Its entrance bears the instruction, “Defend the Children of the Poor and Punish the Wrongdoer”, and a 3.7m bronze statue in gold leaf of Lady Justice stands atop the building’s dome.

This working court is open to visitors on weekdays.

In whose footsteps can you follow in visiting the Old Bailey? Dr Crippen, an American homeopath, was found guilty there in 1910 of the murder of his wife. Gruesomely – and sensitive readers may prefer to skip this – fragments of his wife’s skin were handed around the court in a soup-plate for jurors to inspect. The Kray Twins, possibly London’s most famous gangsters, were also tried here in 1969, and sentenced to 30 years each without parole for murder (though robbery, arson, assault and a fair few other crimes could also have been included). Earlier in the same decade they had achieved celebrity status and had socialised with the most famous people in London, such as Frank Sinatra. At the trial, Ronnie Kray told the judge that had he not been in court, he would “probably have been having tea with Judy Garland”.
Beyond murder, the Old Bailey has also seen some memorable trials for treason. One such was of William Joyce, otherwise known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, a Nazi propaganda broadcaster who fled Britain for Germany at the start of the Second World War. From there, he made radio broadcasts calling on the British people to surrender. Given that the broadcasts of the BBC at the same time were heavily censored, many people tuned into Joyce’s broadcasts simply to get information; he had 6 million regular listeners and 18 million occasional listeners in the UK. In 1945, he was captured by British forces and tried for high treason – though there was some difficulty in securing the conviction, as Joyce – actually an American citizen – had lied about his nationality in order to get a British passport and couldn’t be tried for betraying a country that wasn’t his own. But having obtained a British passport meant that he owed allegiance to the king all the same, and so he was sentenced to death, saying, “I am proud to die for my ideals.”

2. Runnymede, Surrey, and Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

If you have only heard of one thing in English law, it’s probably the Magna Carta. It was a charter signed by King John I under pressure from his barons in 1215, in order to limit the control that the king could exercise over them. The judge Lord Denning described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot” – and that’s not an atypical view.

Unassuming Runnymede represents a turning-point in English history.
Unassuming Runnymede represents a turning-point in English history.

On the one hand, the Magna Carta was a creation of its time, designed to protect some very powerful people from the excesses of a marginally more powerful person, while doing nothing to affect the rights of the majority. It didn’t even succeed at that, given that the First Barons’ War (note “First”) broke out just a few months after it was signed.
On the other hand, the national myth of the Magna Carta has proved powerful; even if the Magna Carta is not, in fact, a foundation for the rights of ordinary people against tyranny, the belief that it was, and that this was an essential part of Englishness, it has been a powerful and influential symbol of the rights so many people believe it to uphold.
Either way, the places associated with the Magna Carta are well worth visiting. You might start at Runnymede, the water-meadow in Surrey where the Magna Carta was signed. There is a memorial to commemorate the signing there, funded by the American Bar Association, as well as related art installations. As a bonus, you can also see the Ankerwycke Yew on the opposite bank of the Thames, which is an ancient tree that is between 1,400 and 2,500 years old.

Salisbury Cathedral makes for a great day out.
If you don’t fancy muddy Runnymede, Salisbury Cathedral makes for a great day out.

From Runnymede, you could head south-west for about 65 miles to Salisbury Cathedral. There are four original copies of the Magna Carta still surviving, one in Salisbury, one in Lincoln and two in the British Library – but the one in Salisbury is best preserved. It’s also on display in the fitting surroundings of the 13th century chapter house, which suits the atmosphere of the visit better than the modern displays and dim lighting of the Sir John Ritblat Treasures gallery in the British Library, even if that does allow you to see two copies at once.

3. Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire

The Synod of Whitby was a hugely influential and far-reaching event, yet one that you’ve probably never heard of. This was a council of the Northumbrian Church in 664 AD, where King Oswiu decided that Northumbria would follow the religious practices of Rome – notably in relation to the date of Easter – rather than those of Iona in Ireland, which the kingdom had followed up until that point. This provided increased spiritual cohesion across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and led to the suppression of the Celtic Church by the Church in Rome – an idea that would prove powerful during the Reformation.
Why did it matter in the first place that Rome and Iona kept Easter at different times of year? Because the king’s household was in disagreement: “It is said that the confusion in those days was such that Easter was sometimes kept twice in one year, so that when the King had finished Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday,” wrote Bede on the matter. And that was enough to justify rewrite Christian doctrine in an entire kingdom.

Skeletal Whitby Abbey was disestablished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540.
Skeletal Whitby Abbey was disestablished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540.

This might seem like quite a loose definition of what constitutes law, but it does relate to one of the key areas in which Anglo-Saxon kings had power to regulate the behaviour of their subjects. The first Anglo-Saxon law code was written only around half a century before the Synod of Whitby took place, and its first six pronouncements solely concern the property of the Church. The punishments it gives for stealing from the Church are considerably higher than those given for stealing from the king.
Aside from its historical significance, Whitby Abbey is a remarkable building to visit. The ruins that are there now date from long after the Synod, to around 1250, but they are breathtaking all the same in their location on the windswept headland. And if you happen to be interested in the history of English literature as well as English law, Whitby Abbey was also home to the first named poet to write in English, Caedmon; a cross stands in the abbey grounds in his memory.

4. Lancaster Castle, Lancashire

The witch trials of the Middle Ages and later loom large in popular imagination. There’s a popular belief that thousands or even ten of thousands of British women and some men were tried and executed as witches in a madness of intolerance and religious fervour. But there’s little evidence for executions on this scale – it’s likely that from the 15th century onwards, fewer than a thousand people in total were executed for witchcraft, or to put it another way, less than four per year on average, across the whole country.
This is one of the things that makes the Pendle witch trials, held at Lancaster Castle, so remarkable. In 1612, nine alleged witches from the Lancashire region of Pendle were found guilty and hanged there (the idea that witches were burned at the stake is also not accurate in the majority of cases; hanging was the usual means of execution if a death sentence was imposed). We know about the case in a great deal of detail, owing to the clerk of the court writing up an account of the trials in the form of a book, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

With its imposing main gate, it's not difficult to picture Lancaster Castle history as a prison.
With its imposing main gate, one can well imagine Lancaster Castle austere past.

The full backstory behind their case is fascinating, but too long for this article; in short, two families in the then relatively lawless area of Lancashire were feuding, and this led to a series of allegations of witchcraft between members of the two families. Both had members who made a living through “witchcraft” such as healing. In addition, some were secret Catholics, who broke the law by not attending Church of England services. The king at the time was James I, whose mania about witches was well-known – Shakespeare’s Macbeth cashes in on this contemporary interest – and one of the local judges in Lancaster was eager to seek promotion. This all contributed to the tragic set of circumstances in which nine people were killed, including two widows in their 80s, both of whom were blind.
Aside from visiting the borough of Pendle itself, you can visit Lancaster Castle, where the trials took place. You could even follow the full 51-mile Lancashire Witches Walk, from Pendle Heritage Centre to Lancaster Castle, which was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the trials. The imposing medieval castle is worth a visit in its own right, especially for those interested in penology; it was first used as a prison in 1196 and the most recent prison there closed as recently as 2011.

5. The Inns of Court, London

If you’re thinking of studying law in England, you probably already know that every barrister in England and Wales must register with one of the four Inns of Court: Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn. The precise date of foundation of each of the Inns of Court is unknown, and it’s a matter of tradition that none of the Inns claim to be any older than any of the others in an admirable spirit of friendliness (though Lincoln’s Inn does lay claim to the oldest written records, dating to 1422).

It's easy to see the similarities between Lincoln's Inn and an Oxbridge college.
It’s easy to see the similarities between Lincoln’s Inn and an Oxbridge college.

In many ways the Inns of Court resemble Oxford or Cambridge colleges, which makes sense, as their initial founding probably dates from roughly the same time as one of the periods of expansion of the universities. They have buildings around central courts, which include halls, chapels, libraries and professional accommodation. And like colleges of medieval foundation, they have been expanded and redeveloped over the years, so each has a variety of often quite beautiful architecture, which might date from any one of a number of expansions.
By their very nature, the Inns of Court are related to countless incidents in English legal history. If you want to walk in the footsteps of endless barristers past and present, be aware that you can’t just walk in and wander round; if you’d like to see more than just the outside of the gates, you’ll need to get on a guided tour, where a tour guide will be able to tell you at length about all the riveting details of who and what the Inns have seen over the years.
Image credits: old bailey; gavel; runnymede; salisbury cathedral; whitby abbey; lancaster castle; lincoln’s inn

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