D.P. Waddilove Reviews Sir John Baker’s English Law Under Two Elizabeths (2021)

D.P. Waddilove

D.P. Waddilove is Associate Professor of Law and Notre Dame University.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of D.P. Waddilove’s review of Sir John Baker’s English Law Under Two Elizabeths, which appears in Law and History Review 39, no. 4 (2021).

Sir John Baker, English Law Under Two Elizabeths: The Late Tudor Legal World and the Present, The Hamlyn Lectures 2019, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xxxv, 213. $89.99 hardback, $29.99 paperback (ISBN 978-1-108-83796-5 hardback, 978-1-108-94732-9 paperback).

The combined breadth and depth of this little work is breathtaking, exemplifying Sir John Baker’s mastery of the field.  While ranging across essentially the whole span of substantive law, civil and criminal, public and private, this book also covers procedure, institutions, legal methodology (especially the role of text), legislation, and the legal profession under Elizabeth I, as well as, to an impressive extent, under Elizabeth II.  The book’s historical conclusions are not, as one might expect in Hamlyn lectures, breezily asserted on the strength of the author’s undoubted expertise.  Instead, the footnotes contain a jaw-dropping array of sources, primary and secondary, manuscript and in-print, ancient and modern, familiar and obscure.  They convey the vast learning of the author that only a lifetime devoted to English legal history could produce.  And it shows Baker as greater even – yes, this reviewer thinks – than Maitland.

Chapter 1 begins with law under Elizabeth I as a system, considering the institutions and individuals who comprised it, how law was enacted and embodied, and how it related to the populace.  Chapter 2 ranges across the substantive law of the period, both public and private, including topics such as land law, tort, contract, crime, and personal liberty.  Chapter 3 considers the relationship between common law – judge-made law – and legislation, beginning with Elizabeth I, then shifting to today’s uncomfortable situation.  Chapter 4 becomes explicitly comparative regarding the continuities and divergences in the legal systems of the two Elizabeths.  Chapter 5, which is much shorter than the others, is the author’s evaluation of the relative merits of then and now.

The great strength of the book is naturally its historical exposition.  Baker has succeeded in bringing alive the legal system of early-modern England.  He manages to treat this immensely sophisticated, complex, and sometimes recondite system, with an incredible degree of accessibility, subtlety, and completeness.  Characteristic highlights include the discussion of common-law personal liberty exemplified in the expiration of the unfree status of villeinage under explicit judicial preference for, as was said at the time, “liberty… one of the things which the law most favours” (39-40); or the equal protection of lawful foreigners whose legal position the common law avouched through admirably practical rules such as their entitlement to a half-alien jury (41-42, 168-169).  Such detail appears illustrating broader themes.  One is entrenchment of comprehensive rule of law, such that both the crown, and perhaps more importantly, magnates and crown officials (e.g. sheriffs) became subject to correction at law (44-45, 50-53, 176-180).  Throughout, the combination of detail and wide scope presents a portrait valuable for the expert and the beginner, the lawyer and historian, the professional and the casual reader.

The book is nevertheless, and inevitably, imperfect.  Insufficiently explained references occasionally leave the novice unillumined, such as unexplained mention of “benefit of clergy” (70), off-hand and highly oblique reference to transportation (71), and treatment of “judicial review” left undefined (167, 174).  The second half of the book also ranges less effectually into matters modern.  It begins with an interesting, but insufficiently digested, consideration of the relationship between common law and statute, especially with respect to repeal of statutes (122-132), which would have benefited from greater clarity as to whether common law means a body of substantive rules or a legal methodology.  Occasionally, modern claims of a controversial nature are made too quickly (170), and too much modern ground is covered to leave the reader thoroughly satisfied. 

But the second half still makes important points, with the author convincingly demonstrating, for instance, that “the Elizabethan common law was more accessible and far less expensive than High Court litigation today.” (153).  Also noted, importantly, is the effective elimination of orality from law during the course of the second Elizabeth’s reign, which means that law when the present Queen ascended the throne arguably bore more resemblance to when her predecessor did the same 400 years earlier than it does to the 2020s.  The author rightfully suggests more might be done on this and other historical questions of the reign of Elizabeth II. In short, this little book distills a lifetime of learning and scholarly achievement. And it demonstrates that, half-a-century on, the early modern period hardly remains “the dark age of English legal history,” thanks essentially to the work of Sir John Baker, in this reviewer’s estimation, the greatest English legal historian of all time.