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A Talk Given at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York

November 28, 1978
By Henry N. Ess III

Perhaps somewhere, hidden from our view, is a catalogue of the library of a sixteenth-century English lawyer. All I can report today is that none has so far come to light. Fortunately, the library of Sir Edward Coke has survived almost intact and is still owned by his family. But Coke died well into the seventeenth century and his extensive library certainly did not represent a typical practitioner’s library.

Fortunately, there do survive a great many of the printed books on English law published before 1600. It is with these that I will be mainly concerned. In addition to the printed books there also survives a substantial quantity of legal manuscripts which were widely used by English lawyers in the sixteenth century. There is no handy catalogue of this material, nor are the descriptions found in library catalogues usually adequate to describe the contents of legal manuscripts. We know, however, that the manuscript material represented an important part of the books available to the sixteenth century lawyer.

As every school boy knows, printing was introduced in England by William Caxton in 1476. Caxton, however, will barely figure in our story, but his career contains some clues about the publication of books in England in his own time and for years to come. Prior to taking up printing, Caxton had been a wool merchant and had acted as the agent of the English government at the Court of the Duke of Burgundy in relation to the wool trade. As I read his record, as a publisher Caxton remained very much a businessman. He published books that he thought would be best sellers. Indeed, the reading public literally devoured his output, with the result that some of his books are known only by fragments of a few pages. A complete Caxton is a black pearl indeed.

While the printed book was far less expensive than the copied manuscript, it still was a relatively expensive item in our period. Paper itself was expensive and had to be imported from France and the Low Countries during much of our period. The type from which books were printed similarly came from the continent. It has been estimated from rather exiguous evidence that the cost of a finished book was represented in equal parts by the cost of paper, the cost of composition and the cost of binding. For a printer to undertake publication of a book represented a substantial investment, and it was not economical, having regard to composition costs, to print small editions. Again we have no solid evidence but the best modern guess is that editions of books in the time in which we are interested ran to about 500 copies. If we accept all this, then we can form a pretty good judgment as to the popularity of a book by looking at the number of editions it went through.


The modern lawyer feels almost overwhelmed with the proliferation of statutes. The importance of statutes to the English lawyer began long before our period. We have only to think about the legislation of Henry II, creating the Petty Assizes, Magna Carta, the great legislation of Edward I, including Westminster I and II, to realize how profoundly and fundamentally the common law has been shaped by statute.

The introduction of the printing press solved for the sixteenth century lawyer what must have been an exceptionally difficult problem for his predecessors: how to keep up to date with current legislation. Hence it comes as no surprise that one of the pioneer English law book printers, Machlinia, produced the session laws of the first parliament of Richard III, which apparently came out about two years after the event. I should add that there is recent eminent authority claiming that Caxton was the printer of this book, but Caxton’s most recent biographer and authoritative biographer (G. D. Painter) does not claim the book as Caxton’s. In about 1490, Caxton issued the session laws of the first four years of Henry VII. It is said that only one perfect copy exists. Thereafter the session laws appeared more promptly, and many editions of each of the session laws were called for. The obvious popularity of the session laws led, at least in part, to a notable innovation in Parliamentary draftsmanship. The statutes of Henry VIII provide clear examples. Each of Henry’s great reforming statutes is preceded by a preamble which is nothing more or less than an eloquent essay advocating what the statute stands for. The printing press was being used, for perhaps the first time in England, for contemporary political propaganda.

The session laws, when they first appeared, supplemented existing manuscript books of statutes. In general, there were two basic manuscript books, with many variations. The first type consisted of Magna Carta and the great statutes of Edward I, as well as other statutes before 1327; these came to be known as the old statutes. The second type of book consisted of statutes beginning with Edward III and continuing down to the date of the compilation of the particular book. Both manuscripts still appear on the rare book market.

It was the second type of book that was first put into print by Machlinia in 1485, followed by an edition by Pynson in 1507. It was known as “Nova Statuta”, in obvious contrast to the old statutes. In its way this book was the forerunner of the statutes at large.

The first type of book was first printed by Pynson in 1509 and went through 16 or 17 more editions in the sixteenth century. A second part was added in 1532, with additional material from the old statutes. This book first appeared in Latin and Law French, the languages of the old statutes. An English translation first appeared in 1537, but was not popular. This book was usually printed on a page somewhat larger than a playing card. It was thus handy to fit into a lawyer’s bag when he went to court.

These books were not the first printed English law books devoted to statutes. That honor belongs to the abridgement of statutes printed by Lettou and Machlinia in 1482, probably the second English law book to be printed. It seems fairly clear that existing manuscript material was used for this edition.

The abridgement was arranged under analytical headings, and a brief summary and reference to the statute was provided. Ten or so editions of the abridgement followed until publication of this particular kind of book came to an end in about 1552. Each successive edition brought the prior edition down to date. After the first edition, which is a large quarto, I have seen other editions which were printed as a rather small book so that they could be carried by the lawyer with ease.

The abridgements, which were anonymously compiled, were succeeded by two important books. The first of these was an abridgement by William Rastell first published in 1557. It is of interest to note that Rastell began life as a printer and then abandoned the trade to become a barrister and ultimately a Justice of the Queen’s Bench. Rastell’s book was much more complete than the earlier abridgements; the statute was paraphrased or quoted in each instance. Fifteen editions followed with the last sixteenth century edition being published in 1598. Each of these editions brought the material down to the date of publication.

The second of these books was Ferdinando Pulton’s abstract of the penal statutes, the first edition of which was said to have been published in 1560, to be followed by eight or nine editions before the end of the sixteenth century.

The first step toward the publication of the statutes at large occurred in 1543 when Berthelet published a volume containing all statutes from 1225 until the end the reign of Henry VII and a second volume containing all the statutes down to date in the reign of Henry VIII. Three further editions of these books were issued with the last edition of the first volume appearing in 1577. These later editions were substantially reprints of the first, with the statutes brought down to date.

Finally, in 1587 Christopher Barker, who was the official printer of the statutes, published the statutes at large. This is a huge book, over 1800 pages in length, quarto in size, with rather crowded type.

It will perhaps be strange to the modern lawyer that there were no books published in the sixteenth century which deal with statutory interpretation–at least printed books which survive. The material interpretative of the relevant statutes was incorporated in treatises dealing with particular legal topics. There were, however, important manuscript materials dealing with statutes. These took the form of readings (“lectura”) which were delivered by prominent barristers at the Inns of Court. In the fifteenth century the old statutes were systematically analyzed, primarily for the benefit of the students at the Inns of Court. In the reign of Henry VIII, the new statutes became the subject of readings as well. Some of these readings were printed in the seventeenth century, and several of them, such as Francis Bacon’s reading on the Statute of Uses, became standard treatises. A number of these readings have been published by scholars in this century. The readings disclose highly polished analyses of the statutes under scrutiny, and some of them record arguments on many points between the reader, the judges, and other barristers present. The survival of the readings in manuscript to this day indicates clearly that they were valued parts of the sixteenth century lawyer’s library.


This was yet another key category in the lawyer’s library. The Yearbooks go back to the twelfth year of Edward I and proceed virtually uninterrupted through the reign of Henry VII, with the series coming to an end with scattered years of Henry VIII. One might have expected that the advent of the printed book would have called for prompt publication of this important body of material. But this is not what happened. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but a consideration of a number of factors will help to explain this result.

First, the lawyers had at hand a substantial body of manuscripts of the Year Books. As many as a dozen survive to this day for a particular year, and it is clear that a substantial number of manuscripts have disappeared from our view unlikely ever to be recovered. While the printed book was undoubtedly cheaper than the copied manuscript, it still was a relatively expensive item.

The second factor is the nature—indeed, the changing nature of the year books themselves. While they are undoubtedly the forerunners of our modern law reports, they also differ significantly. We must remember that there were no courts of appeal in our period. Over the centuries, the disappointed litigant had to resort to Parliament, and as time went on, to the Council. The Year Books thus reflect the opinions of the judges at the only level on which the judges operated. In addition, the procedural rules of the common law courts played a major role in shaping the character of the Year Books. Until midway in the reign of Edward IV (roughly 1475), the pleadings in the King’s Courts were oral. The writ which commenced the action was in writing and in Latin. But the other elements of pleading, the declaration, the plea, the replication, the rebutter were delivered orally in open court by the barrister, all with the object of reducing the issues to a single issue of fact which was determined by the jury. There was one other critical feature of this oral system of pleading. A barrister could put forth a plea, for example, on a tentative basis, and it was not binding on his client until the client approved. It is this procedural framework which is the key to the understanding of most of the Year Books because they are essentially colloquy between the bench and bar about tentative stages in the pleading. It is fairly rare that we find what we would call a square holding on a point of law; what we do find is the train of thought of the judges on these points. When the law changed in the time of Edward IV, so that henceforth the pleadings had to be in writing and were binding, the nature of the proceedings in court changed. How rapidly the change took place is not entirely clear, but recent scholarship indicates that tentative pleading persisted to a degree until the middle years of the reign of Henry VIII. In any event the change in the rules of pleadings called for a new style of law reporting which took about a century to evolve until we reach the first great modern reporters, Dyer, Plowden and Coke. What we have in the Year Book is the expression of opinions by the judges and learned lawyers—indeed differing opinions. It is clear, however, that these opinions were carefully noted and brought to the attention of judges in later cases. This is the beginning, but only the beginning of a system of precedent, for judges still find the law from the brooding omnipresence in the sky. The owners of treatises on the law noted their copies copiously with references to the Year Books. Indeed, some had copies specially made with blank pages interleaved which they later filled with notes and citations.

The advent of printing in England occurred just at the time that this change in procedure was occurring; and we should not be surprised to find that the printers were quite cautious in putting the Year Books into print.

It is interesting to note the Year Books which were not printed at all in our period. These include yearbooks for the regions of Edward I, Edward II, and Richard II. Some years of Edward III were also omitted, on what grounds no one can now say as they can be consulted in the Rolls Series and are generally of equal interest with the other years of Edward III.

If we did not know about the change in procedure with its obvious effect upon law reporting, we should have expected the Year Books of Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII to come pouring forth from the press shortly after they had been compiled.

That this did not happen is testimony to the somewhat confused state of the art of law reporting.

The Year Books of Henry IV and Henry V excited very little interest. There were, in the first instance, single editions of six of the fourteen years of Henry IV and one of the nine years of Henry V. After Richard Tottell took over the printing and publication of law books, in the 1550s he published editions of all the years of both Henry IV and Henry V.

The Year Books of Edward III, who reigned for fifty years, were more popular. The early years were issued in many editions, save for the inexplicable omission of years 11 through 16, which were not printed until the nineteenth century. Interest in the later years of Edward III was somewhat less, and there are only one or two editions, for example, of the years 40 through 50. Here again Tottell stepped in to provide a single edition for all the years.

The book called Liber Assissarium is also a Year Book. First published by John Rastell in 1516, it contains both civil and criminal cases from the entire reign of Edward III. Two further editions were published by Tottell in 1561 and 1580. Not long ago I acquired a copy of the 1516 edition. The binding needed repair in any event, but one thing that attracted me to this copy was the statement in the catalogue that the end papers included a proclamation from the reign of Edward VI. Fortunately, the binder who restored the book was able to rescue the proclamation intact. It can be dated precisely to October 1549. If the binding was the original binding, as it almost certainly was, this means that this particular copy went unsold for over 30 years.

The most popular year books were those of the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV, with the brief addition of Edward V and Richard III. The first year books to be put into print were those of 33, 34, 35, 36 and 37 of Henry VI. They were published by Machlinia in the 1480s, the earlier ones in partnership with Lettou. While not all the years of Henry VI were printed, the overwhelming majority were, and in the case of each year, five, six, seven or eight editions of each of the years were published. All the years of Edward IV were published, and these too went through many editions.

Until Tottell began to publish collected editions of segments of the Year Books, the printers published and sold each year as a separate book or pamphlet. It is from one of these issues by John Rastell that we learn the price of the pamphlet, for he states at the end that the price of this book is 12d unbound. Notwithstanding the separate publication of various years, the lawyers who bought the books had the years bound together, so that one finds the Year Books of Henry VI bound in two volumes, the Year Books of Edward IV in two volumes, although the second volume is really only the extraordinarily lengthy Year Book of year 5 of his reign. It is not uncommon to find different printers and fairly widely separated dates represented in a single bound volume. As I have already indicated, Tottell began the practice of issuing complete volumes, with a single title page, although each year was treated as a separate entity with separate foliation and colophons. What Tottell started others completed, so that by the early years of the seventeenth century, the Year Books were represented by 11 volumes.

We begin to move toward the modern report with the reports compiled by Sir James Dyer. They were published posthumously in 1585 by his nephews in order to represent a true copy of Dyer’s own work. There is much in Dyer that he copied from the notes of other lawyers or judges, but much also that represented his own experience. A further edition was published in 1592.

It is with Edmund Plowden that we really find a form of report which we can understand without knowing many of the procedural details that are so important in understanding the Year Books. Plowden published his commentaries in 1571 while he was alive; his motive was to prevent inferior copies from circulating. Plowden has given us only cases which he reports from his own experience. The pleadings and the arguments of counsel are carefully set forth, the decision of the court and the reasons for the decision are clearly spelled out. Further editions followed in 1578, 1584, 1588 and 1594.

As I have already indicated, there were Year Books in manuscript which were not printed in our period. The Year Books of Edward II were added to the 11 volumes of printed year books when the set was reprinted in 1678-79. While the manuscript used for the edition of Edward II was stated to have belonged to Sergeant Maynard, a great Year Book scholar, the product was, simply stated, an awful mess. Maitland undertook for the Selden Society a modern edition of these Year Books, and the Selden Society has now published 14 years out of the 20 years. Pike and Horwood have also contributed in the Rolls Series printed editions of theretofore unpublished year books of Edward I and Edward III. Several years of Richard II have been presented in modern editions by the Ames Foundation.

However, a major problem still remains for the reports of the sixteenth century. While Dyer, Plowden and Coke made notable contributions for the period, many other manuscripts were in existence. Some of these found their way into print in the seventeenth century, but on the whole, the results were disappointing because of the poor or non-existent editing or faulty selection of the manuscripts which were printed. Other manuscripts which appear to be important remain unpublished. Fortunately, Dr. J. H. Baker of Cambridge University has undertaken the task of editing some of these materials for publication by the Selden Society. Until his efforts and those of other scholars reach us, there will be still hidden from us many of the reports used by the sixteenth-century lawyer.

The Year Books, while very modest in scope when compared with the gigantic mass of case material available to the modern lawyer, still presented a formidable body of learning to the sixteenth century lawyer. The response to the problem of using the cases in the Year Books was not long in coming. In 1490, Richard Pynson published his first law book, an abridgement of Year Book cases attributed to Nicholas Statham. The scope of the abridgement was rather fragmentary, concentrating in the main of cases from the reign of Henry VI. This is but another example of the printing of a contemporary manuscript which presumably was being widely used by the bar.

In 1516, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert published his abridgement in three volumes. This work covered a broad range of Year Books, starting with Edward I, and utilized materials from the plea rolls as well. This was and remains a major work of legal scholarship, as Fitzherbert had available to him manuscript sources which are now lost. Further editions of this very large book were published in 1565 and 1577. As an aside, the price of the first edition of Fitzherbert was stated to be 40 shillings, but it is not indicated whether this included binding. This was not a small sum at the time.

Sir Robert Brooke compiled an abridgement which was based on Fitzherbert but contained a good deal of new material, including full abridgements of the Year Books of Henry VII and Henry VIII. The first edition of Brooke was published posthumously in 1568 and was followed by editions in 1570, 1573, 1576 and 1586.

There were other digests, such as one of the Liber Assissarium, and other year books, but none rank in importance with Brooke and Fitzherbert.

While Brooke and Fitzherbert were the ancestors of the modern digests, they differed significantly from them. The analytical headings were broad, resulting in the inclusion under a single heading of a heterogeneous mass of materials. Nevertheless, the importance of these books to the sixteenth century lawyer and to the legal historian of today can scarcely be over estimated.


The English common law produced five great treatises: Glanvill, Bracton, Littleton, Coke and Blackstone. Coke and Blackstone come after our period. The greatest treatise for our period is, of course, Littleton’s Tenures. It was the work of Sir Thomas Littleton, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. His book was published in 1481 or 1482, either just before or just after the author’s death by Lettou and Machlinia, the earliest English law book printers. The book is a systematic and detailed treatise on the law of real property, as it existed in Littleton’s time, even though it failed to treat of uses to which Littleton himself had resort. It became the subject of Sir Edward Coke’s commentary, which was the First Institute of that great lawyer’s work. Littleton and Coke on Littleton were the undoubted expositors of the law of real property for three hundred years. In our period some sixty editions of Littleton were printed. Littleton’s text was originally in Law French but English translations started to appear in about 1532 and accounted for about 22 of the over sixty editions of Littleton. As in the case of other important books of the time, many of the extant copies of Littleton are copiously annotated and some entries are interleaved. In fact, these annotated copies are the precursors of Coke’s work.

Both Glanvill and Bracton continued to be of importance for our period, for they with Littleton were regarded as books of authority and were relied on and cited in books of the sixteenth century. As printed books they are not of great importance. One of the first books printed by Tottell was his edition of Glanvill in 1552. The publication of the book was said to have been bought about by Sir William Staunford, whose books we will shortly notice. Bracton was published by Tottell in 1569, the three hundredth anniversary of Bracton’s death, in a very handsome edition. Glanvill was not reprinted until 1604. There is, however, another factor which must be taken into account: the survival of manuscript copies of both books. Over thirty manuscripts of Glanvill survive to this day and there are about fifty extant manuscripts of Bracton. We may rightly assume the disappearance or destruction of other manuscript copies over the last four hundred years. It was probably also important that Bracton was a very large book, running to 888 pages in Tottell’s edition. There was also the Law French version of Bracton known as Britton, which was compiled in the 1290’s. Only one published edition was issued in our period in 1540, but again the book was probably readily available in manuscript.

To carry the antiquarian note just a bit further, I am sure I need not tell this learned audience that Professor Thorne of Harvard, the most recent editor of Bracton, has discovered that Bracton was not compiled by Bracton at all but was probably the work of William of Raleigh, who was Bracton’s mentor.

Three other classics should be mentioned. Sir John Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae was written in the form of a lawyer or judge instructing a prince who would be king on the virtues of the constitution and laws of England. It draws parallels between the English system and the civil law, and it is a book of considerable importance for English constitutional law. It also gives useful information about the legal profession in England at the time it was written in the 1470’s. The book’s importance is enhanced by the fact that Sir John Fortescue was Chief Justice of the King’s Bench under Henry VI. First published in the original Latin in 1545, seven editions with an English translation followed before the end of the sixteenth century.

Christopher St. Germain’s Doctor and Student was a contemporary book having been written in the 1520’s. St. Germain was learned in both the civil law and the common law, and the book consisted of dialogues between the doctor, a man learned in the civil law, and the student, an apprentice at the common law. The book tells us a great deal about contemporary legal doctrine and is invaluable in indicating the early development of equity. A Latin version first appeared in 1528, followed by an English counterpart (in the translation the text was altered) in 1530. Some 12 or more editions in English followed during the sixteenth century.

Our final classic is De Republica Anglorum or, as the English translation of the title runs, The Commonwealth of England by Sir Thomas Smith. Like Fortescue, Smith is largely concerned with constitutional and comparative law. He was both a learned man, having been the first Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge, and an experienced politician, having been Secretary of State to Elizabeth I. His book comes about a century after Fortescue and reflects the basic ideas of his time. The first edition with the Latin title was published in 1583, followed by three further editions in the sixteenth century.

As you well know, the enforcement of the criminal laws and of regulatory statutes largely depended in the sixteenth century on the justices of the peace. While there was no requirement that the justice of the peace be a lawyer, and many laymen served, so also did many barristers and others learned in the law. Books on the justice of the peace abounded.

The first was a handbook, setting forth statutes, forms, and process which the justice of the peace had to deal with. The handbook was merely a compilation of materials without introduction or analysis. The first printed edition was by Pynson in about 1506. About 35 editions followed with the last recorded edition issued by Tottell in 1574.

Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, the compiler of the great Abridgement, also compiled a handbook for justices of the peace. There is some question whether Fitzherbert did more than contribute the preface, but the book does contain some analytical discussion. The first edition in Law French was published in 1538 and was followed by at least nine editions in English, the last of which appeared in 1566. Fitzherbert’s book was revised, enlarged and brought up to date by Richard Crompton in 1583 with substantial analytical material added. Three further editions of Crompton appeared in the sixteenth century.

The best book on the justices of the peace was written by William Lambard, a prominent official of the Chancery, a learned lawyer and himself a justice of the peace. Lambard’s book, which, like his other books bore a title in Greek, Eirenarcha, first appeared in 1581, followed by nine more editions in the sixteenth century. The analytical parts of Lambard’s book may have been based in part on a reading given by Thomas Marlowe in 1503, which circulated rather widely in manuscript.

The law of procedure occupies a very large and important place in the history of the common law. For our period this means the writs which commenced an action and the pleadings which followed. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, registers of writs had been compiled, whether officially or not we do not know. The register of writs was revised from time to time to include new writs, but it is clear that the manuscripts available in our period were not up to date. William Rastell published the Register of Writs with a Latin title in 1531. A second edition was published in 1595, which is a good indication that the book was not in great demand.

Of far greater practical importance was the Natura Brevium which not only set forth the writs but contained a commentary on them. The first edition in Law French was published by Pynson in 1496. More than 15 editions followed in our period. The book also appeared in English with the first edition published by Redman in 1532, followed by 10 more editions in the sixteenth century.

The most important book on writs for the practicing lawyer (Lé Novel Natura Brevium) was by our old friend, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, the first edition of which appeared in 1553, and was published by Tottell. The analytical material was greatly expanded, and Fitzherbert’s book became, with revisions by later editors, the standard book on the subject well into the eightteenth century. Seven more editions appeared in the sixteenth century.

The most learned book on the subject of writs was written by Simon Theloall and published in 1576, but it apparently did not win acceptance as a practical book, as no further editions appeared in the sixteenth century.

As I have already indicated, the pleadings as distinguished from the writ were oral until the middle of the reign of Edward IV. At the same time, the common law was very strict about the necessity of legal accuracy at all stages of the pleadings. Accordingly, it is not surprising to learn that medieval lawyers had written forms to guide them through this tricky process. These books were also useful in framing pleadings once the requirement had been laid down that they had to be in writing. Two of these books Novae Narrationes and Articuli ad Novas Narrationes found their way into print at an early date, the first by Pynson in 1496 and the second also by Pynson in 1525. New books of forms were called for, and Pynson responded to the need by publishing Liber Intrationum in 1510. A second edition appeared in 1546. The best and most complete book on the subject is Rastell’s Entries, first published in 1566 with a second edition in 1574 and a third edition in 1576. Rastell is a very large book of over 1250 pages, a large quarto in size. Rastell obviously belonged in chambers.

While these books on procedure and pleading were undoubtedly practical working books for the sixteenth century barrister, they are of great importance to the legal historian because they reveal much about the substantive law which does not appear in the Year Books or in Littleton. Fortunately, an edition of the manuscripts of Novae Narrationes has been published by the Selden Society with an introduction by Professor Milsom. The manuscripts of the Register of Writs have been edited for the Selden Society by the late Derek Hall, who contributed an important and illuminating introductory essay which revises many formerly held opinions about this book.

Among our books we also have a law dictionary, somewhat elementary to be sure. It was compiled by John Rastell and first published in 1527. More than 10 editions appeared in the sixteenth century under various titles. The text is in Law French and English.

In addition to form books on writs and pleadings, we also have form books for a more general range of legal instruments. The first of these is by Phaer under the title of “A new boke of Presidents in maner of a Register”. The first edition appeared in 1543 and was followed by more than 25 editions in the sixteenth century. Phaer’s book is small in dimensions and runs about 250 to 350 pages, depending on the edition.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, about 1590, William West published the first part of his Symboleography. The second part followed a few years later. West is much more comprehensive than Phaer and was republished many times in the seventeenth century.

Littleton’s Tenures was not an easy book to master. Perhaps the sixteenth century student would have been consoled if he knew that a later pundit declared that Coke’s commentary made Littleton even more difficult. We are therefore not surprised to find that there were books which made the student’s task easier. The first and most popular was Perkins’ Profitable Book, first published by Redman in 1528. The spelling of the author’s name in the early editions was Parkins and we may conjecture that this spelling correctly reflected the proper pronunciation of the name. In any event, some 13 editions of the book followed in the sixteenth century. A somewhat less learned book covering the same ground was The principal lawes customes and estatutes of England, first published in 1538 with 12 later editions in the sixteenth century.

Two books by Sir William Staunford deserve mention. Staunford was a lawyer of considerable learning who became a Justice of the Common Pleas in 1554. For us the most important of Staunford’s works is Les Plees del Coron, first published in 1557. This book became the standard book in England on criminal law and went through four more editions in the sixteenth century. Staunford’s book was not superseded until Pulton’s book on the subject appeared in 1609. While a modern critic has characterized the work as an “awful mess”, I do not think this criticism is warranted. To a modern reader the book would present problems, but so would any other sixteenth century treatise, if only for the reason that the sixteenth century author saw as his objective to gather all the relevant materials and quote them verbatim. The other book by Staunford is An Exposition of the Kinges Royal Prerogative first published in 1561. This book dealt with the important question of the King’s powers beyond those conferred by statute or other sources of law and particularly with the famous statute of Henry VIII. The whole question was of great interest to English lawyers in the sixteenth century, during which the war was confined to words and in the seventeenth century when it became a major part in the conflict between the Crown and Parliament, ultimately ending in Civil War.

Related items: Henry N. Ess III Biography