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Great Christian Jurists in English History, edited by Mark Hill QC and R. H. Helmholz

10 August 2018

Sheila Cameron looks at Christian influence on great legal minds

THOSE who recall the great 20th-century judge Lord Denning will have a vivid recollection of his search for justice in individual cases.

His biographer emphasises that Denning did not “circumvent, distort or abrogate existing legal doctrine in his pursuit of the individual justice of the case before him”. So he was heard to say in kindly terms to the litigant in person: “We would like to help you but unfortunately the law of the land is against you, and we are here to apply the law.” His underlying Christian faith, demonstrated by his tattered Bible, was apparent in his writings and judgments.

Were his predecessors clear in public about their faith? That is what this book seeks to discover. The editors’ aim was to produce essays taking a “personal approach” to their chosen subjects and to show the extent to which Christianity played a part in their lives and their approach to legal questions.

The 14 jurists selected are by no means uniform in their backgrounds, as Professors Helmholz and Hill point out in their introduction. Their lives in total covered the period from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Two were civilians trained in Roman law, two were in Holy Orders, and the remaining ten were all common-lawyers. The 14 individual essayists are all distinguished in their own right, and the biographies, of similar length, explore the lives of the jurists, as far as known, plus their written work, and extract examples of the influence of Christianity on each of them.

The further back in time one goes, the more difficult it is to say much of a personal nature about a particular jurist, owing to lack of material. Before the Reformation, Christianity was an inherent part of English life, and the connection between Church and Law was very close. Henry of Bratton and William Lyndwood combined legal office with ecclesiastical benefices. Their views in the 13th and 14th centuries, and that of Christopher St German in the 15th-16th century, have to be gleaned from their writings.

Looking at the 16th and 17th centuries in the days of religious and constitutional turmoil in England, the essays on four famous jurists of the time disclose interesting personal facts about them. Sir Edward Coke, Richard Hooker, John Selden, and Matthew Hale were acquainted with each other. Coke, no doubt, knew Hooker well from attending services regularly when Hooker was Master of the Temple in the 1580s. How much did the theologian influence the mind of the lawyer? Coke worked closely with Selden on the famous Petition of Right, which resulted in Charles I’s sending them to the Tower of London together for their support of freedom of the subject. Selden was also a close friend of Hale.

In the 18th century, the place of religion was declared publicly at a high level. Lord Kenyon, Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench from 1788, was known for “preaching from the Bench”. In summing up to a jury, he said: “The Christian religion is part of the law of the land.”

A few years earlier, the distinguished lawyer, politician, and writer William Blackstone declared his faith in the House of Commons in similar terms. In contrast, Lord Mansfield, a former Chief Justice, was reticent about his faith, while showing strong support for religious freedom generally.

Three 19th-century jurists were each distinctive: Stephen Lushington, the ecclesiastical judge; Lord Selborne, the law reformer; and F. W. Maitland, the classic legal historian.

This book deserves wide readership not only by researchers but for its general historical interest. Each essay is discrete and can be enjoyed separately or as part of the whole.

Sheila Cameron QC was Dean of the Arches and Auditor from 2001 to 2009.

Great Christian Jurists in English History
Mark Hill QC and R. H. Helmholz, editors
CUP £100
Church Times Bookshop £90

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