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Tudor England: Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

The rise of the legal profession in late medieval and early Tudor England was greeted with disdain by the wider population. Anthony Musson asks whether the reputation of lawyers and judges as scavengers and social climbers was deserved.

We are currently experiencing a wave of public antipathy towards bankers and MPs: professionals who have profited financially during a time of economic recession and who, it is felt, lack a guiding morality. They display the sinful characteristics of pride, greed and avarice that accompany an apparently self-centred mentality. People living over 500 years ago displayed similar reactions to members of the legal profession. Judges and lawyers of the medieval and early Tudor periods were condemned by chroniclers and preachers alike and regularly provided satirical inspiration for poets and dramatists. Dissatisfaction erupted into violence during the Peasants’Revolt in 1381. Lawyers were physically attacked and Chief Justice John Cavendish’s head was claimed as a trophy. Shakespeare’s immortal line ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’ reflected reality 70 years’ later, during Cade’s Rebellion, as ordinary people sought to exterminate ‘legal scum’ in the reign of Henry VI.

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