Law, Lawyers and the English Reformation

John Guy uncovers Tudor England's legal profession.

Thomas More banished lawyers from Utopia. Writing his classic satire in 1516, he said of the Utopians: 'they absolutely exclude from their country all lawyers, who cleverly manipulate cases and cunningly argue legal points'. Tudor lawyers were indeed dubbed 'cunning men' – the parallel was with witchcraft. Yet More was a lawyer himself and the narrator of Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaeus, was also called 'Purveyor of Nonsense'! More, as so often, jested.

In fact, law was fundamental to Tudor society and statecraft. English liberties had been laid down in Magna Carta and its confirmations: 'no man shall be imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, or exiled... save per legem terrae' – 'by the law of the land'. And the English were litigious by nature.

The Reformation was the most vital movement of the sixteenth century – throughout Europe it was a religious and intellectual surge. But in England it was declared and regulated by law – unusual but effective. Indeed the mutual co-operation of Crown and lawyers was essential both to the English Reformation's success and to the survival of common lawyers as a profession – the one aided the other. This was true not only of the 'political' Reformation of Henry VIII but of the Elizabethan religious settlement too. And law affected the Reformation in unexpected ways – notably in 1559. But the English solution was flawed: an important ambiguity became exposed.

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