Charles Dickens and the Law: (2) David Copperfield and Doctors’ Commons

the Prerogative Wills Office

In Chapter 23 of David Copperfield Charles Dickens describes how David’s great-aunt Betsey Trotwood paid £1,000 for him to be articled to Messrs Spenlow and Jorkins, who carried on the profession of proctors in Doctors’ Commons.  Although the book is to a certain extent autobiographical, Dickens never himself worked in a proctor’s office: instead, he entered a solicitor’s office as a clerk in 1827.  But after teaching himself shorthand he became a reporter two years later in one of the offices of Doctors’ Commons, an experience from which he would have derived his knowledge of what went on there.

When I read the book last month, I realised that I knew nothing at all about Doctors’ Commons or what the proctors did there.  This piece results from an attempt to put things right, in the hope that it may also be of interest to others.

If you turn right out of Blackfriars Station, and then right up Queen Victoria Street, a plaque on the wall of the Faraday Building, close to the College of Heralds, provides the passer-by with the only evidence that Doctors’ Commons ever existed in or near that place.   The plaque in fact has been placed south of the site to which Doctors’ Commons was relocated in 1672[1] following the destruction of its original buildings in Paternoster Row in the Great Fire of London.

Like the Inns of Court, it resembled an Oxbridge College, but on a smaller scale. The arched entrance was in Knightsrider Street (which still exists), on the southern side of St Paul’s Cathedral as it slopes down to the Thames[2]. Its two quadrangles were paved with stone and fringed by old red brick buildings which housed the Common Hall (where the courts were held), a spacious library, the Prerogative Wills Office, a refectory, and a mixture of residential accommodation and offices for the judges, the doctors and the proctors. Thomas Rowlandson’s print of Doctors’ Commons in London[3] gives an excellent idea of what the Common Hall looked like when a court was sitting.  A writer in Knight’s London (1843) describes this scene in these  terms:

“The Common Hall where the Court of Arches, the Prerogative Court, the Consistory Court and the Admiralty Court, all had their sittings, was a comfortable place, with dark polished wainscoting reaching high up the walls, while above hung the richly emblazoned arms of learned doctors dead and gone; the fire burned cheerily in the central stove. The dresses of the unengaged advocates in scarlet and ermine, and of the proctors in ermine and black, were picturesque. The opposing advocates sat in high galleries, and the absence of prisoners’ dock and jury-box – nay even of a public – impressed the stranger with a sense of agreeable novelty.”

The offices in the two quadrangles bore outside their doors the lists of the doctors who were practising there, in much the same way as such lists are still to be found outside the different sets of chambers in the Inns of Court today.

It is possible that a society of Doctors’ Commons existed before the sixteenth century. A different source suggests that the society was created in 1511 by Richard Blodwell, who was then Dean of the Arches. It acquired its buildings in Paternoster Row in 1567[4]. In 1768, following the relocation to Knightsrider Street, it was incorporated by Royal Charter[5]. The Court of Probate Act 1857, however, made it lawful for the corporation to dissolve itself and surrender its Royal Charter, and for its Fellows to share the proceeds of dissolution. In the event, although a motion to dissolve the society was passed in January 1858 and the last meeting was held in July 1865, the year when the buildings were sold,[6] the Fellows never formally surrendered their Charter and the society only ceased to exist when its last fellow died in 1912.[7]

Who, then, were the doctors and what did they do?

When the English common law was being developed by the King’s courts in medieval times, there remained a few specialist courts that continued to apply civil law, which was based on Roman law. These were the ecclesiastical courts[8], both before and after the Reformation, and the Admiralty Courts, which applied Roman law because of the international character of many of the disputes with which it was involved.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities were the two institutions which provided training for students to become doctors of civil law, and that qualification was needed by anyone who wished to practise in the specialist courts.  Those who obtained it could be admitted as advocates by the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and they fulfilled the same role in the specialist civilian courts as barristers did in the common law courts.  In the same way, those who qualified as proctors in the civilian courts performed the same function as solicitors in the common law courts.  Following incorporation in 1768 the doctors/ advocates were elected Fellows of the Incorporated Society.

The Dean of the Arches, the judge of the Court of Arches (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s highest court) was President of the Society.  His court had originally sat in Bow Church, in Cheapside, whose arched church and tower gave the court its name.  He was known as “Dean” because he originally had jurisdiction over a deanery of 13 parishes in London which all fell outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.   His office has continued to exist and function up to the present day, although he is now appointed jointly by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York.[9] The last three holders of that office, Sir John Owen[10], Dame Sheila Cameron QC[11] and Charles George QC are or were all well known to me, although I never had any dealings with their court.

There were five courts of civil law jurisdiction[12]:

  • The Court of the Arches

This court heard all appeals in ecclesiastical matters in the province of Canterbury

  • The Court of Audience

This court heard the causes, complaints and appeals that were filed with the Archbishop of Canterbury

  • The Prerogative Court

This court heard disputes in testamentary matters and those connected with the administration of estates

  • The Court of Faculties and Dispensations

This court granted favours or indulgences, such as permitting a marriage when the banns had not been called three times, or permitting a clergyman to hold a benefice without complying with all the strict requirements

  • The Court of Admiralty.

This court, created soon after the Battle of Sluys (1340), belonged to the Lord High Admiral of England. It heard disputes relating to mariners and their vessels.[13]

By 1850, when David Copperfield was written, the world of Doctors’ Commons was on its way out.  Its steadfast protection of its monopoly rights had greatly hindered its development.  In Chapter 23 Dickens puts these reflections into the mind of his hero after he has watched proceedings in the courtroom:

“Altogether, I have never, on any occasion, made one at such a cosey, dosey, old-fashioned, time-forgotten, sleepy-headed little family-party in all my life; and I felt it would be quite a soothing opiate to belong to it in any character – except perhaps as a suitor.”

The Court of Probate Act 1857 created a new Court of Probate, abolished the testamentary jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts and gave common lawyers the right to practise in areas previously the exclusive domain of civil lawyers.

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 created a new Divorce Court, in which barristers and advocates could both appear.  In future the law of England was to view marriage as a contract (which could be dissolved if one party was found guilty of conduct which the law regarded as a fundamental breach of the marriage contract) and not as a sacrament (when only a private Act of Parliament could dissolve a marriage).

The High Court of Admiralty Act 1859 liberalised the rights of audience in the Admiralty Court.

And in 1867 the Court of Arches permitted barristers to have rights of audience and to exercise all the offices of an advocate there.

No wonder there was no longer any need for Doctors’ Commons, but it surely did not deserve its fate in 1867, when its ruins were described by a contemporary London essayist in these terms:

“A deserted justice-hall, with dirty mouldering walls, broken doors and windows, shattered floor, and crumbling ceiling.  The dust and fog of long forgotten causes lowering everywhere, making the small leaden-framed panes of glass opaque, the dark wainscot grey, coating the dark rafters with a heavy dingy fur, and lading the atmosphere with a close unwholesome smell…   Melancholy, decay and desolation are on all sides.”

Sic transit gloria mundi[14].


[1] In a Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (1720) John Strype wrote: “This College was consumed by the general Devastation that happened by Fire to the City, Anno 1666.  And then Exeter House in the Strand was employed for the same Use.  Where the Civilians had their Chambers and Offices; and the Courts were kept in the Hall.  But after some Years the Commons being rebuilt far more conveniently, and more sumptuously than before, the Civilians removed thither again.”

[2] Its site between Knightrider Street and Upper Thames Street is shown, in magnified form in B R Davies’ map London 1843.

[3] Plate 31 of Microcosm of London (1808).

[4] There were 16-17 doctors in 1585, and only five proctors ten years later. In 1694 the numbers had increased to 44 doctors and 45 proctors.

[5] It was known as the College of Doctors of Law exercent in the Ecclesiastical and Admiralty Courts.

[6] They were demolished soon afterwards.

[7] Most of its surviving records, including its Register (1511-1855) and a 19th century minute-book, are now housed in Lambeth Palace Library.

[8] In his Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (1720) John Strype included a section descriptive of Doctors’ Commons. He wrote:

“The causes whereof the civil and ecclesiastical law take cognisance are … Blasphemy, apostacy from Christianity, heresy, schism, ordinations, institutions of clerks to benefices, celebration of Divine service, matrimony, divorces, bastardy, tythes, oblations, obventions, mortuaries, dilapidations, reparation of churches, probate of wills, administrations, simony, incests, fornications, adulteries, solicitation of chastity, pensions, procurations, commutation of penance, right of pews, and other such like, reducible to those matters.”

The Court of King’s Bench had power to issue a writ of prohibition if one of these courts exceeded its jurisdiction.

[9] Although the jurisdiction of the Court of Arches is still limited to the Archdiocese of Canterbury, the Dean of the Arches is also the auditor of the Chancery Court of York.

[10] Sir John, who died five years ago, held this office for 20 years when he was also successively a circuit judge and a High Court Judge. He had beautiful handwriting.  He was brave enough to direct a jury 25 years ago that they could find a defendant guilty of raping his wife, thereby putting an end to nearly 300 years of a mistaken belief that under the common law of England a man could lawfully have intercourse with his wife without her consent (shades of Soames Forsyte in John Galsworthy’s Man of Property).  His ruling was upheld in the higher courts.

[11] In Inner Temple Hall there is a painting of a very grand dinner in 1966 when the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple acted as hosts to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.  On the right hand side of the picture, the back of my neck appears: I can identify myself easily because I was sitting next to Sheila Cameron who stands out among a sea of men in evening dress. We were both young members of the Bar at the time. This glimpse of the back of my neck is the nearest I have ever got to having my portrait painted.

[12] As identified by John Strype (see above). Appeals lay from all these courts to the Court of Delegates whose members were appointed on an ad hoc basis.

[13] Its criminal jurisdiction was transferred to the new Central Criminal Court in 1834.

[14] Thus passes away the glory of the world.

One thought on “Charles Dickens and the Law: (2) David Copperfield and Doctors’ Commons

  1. Pingback: Charles Dickens and the Law: (5) Hard Times – Henry Brooke

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