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The journey into the mind of an Elizabethan lawyer is at best a hazardous affair, but it is also a journey that must be attempted if we are to acquire that knowledge of how the law was learned, interpreted, and applied in an era of decisive legal change. Since knowledge of the law also became an avenue for entering the practical world of government and politics, the mind of the Elizabethan lawyer becomes even more important than has been realised for an understanding of the history of the seventeenth century, and especially the watershed of Jacobean times. The availability of the early notes and textbooks of Thomas Egerton from his residence at Lincoln's Inn in the 1560s and 1570s provide us with an important group of sources for examining the development of a legal mind in the sixteenth century that is crucial for our understanding of the early seventeenth. Moreover, when combined with his later papers and personal correspondence from the 1580s and 1590s, these sources make possible an examination of not only a legal mind, but also the religious, social, and cultural values that underlie Egerton's role in the political and legal problems of the age.
Egerton's legal career was based not only on his studies at Lincoln's Inn, but also on the learning which he had acquired at grammar school and university. Although there is no direct evidence of his studies prior to admission to Brasenose College, his notes and writings at Lincoln's Inn contain sufficient material related to his collegiate studies to investigate his intellectual development beginning with his years at Oxford in the late 1550s.
This study is devoted chiefly to Ellesmere's career and writings as Lord Chancellor, 1603–1617. After an introduction to his life and career from 1541 to 1603, Part One is a study of his role in the legal and political history of Jacobean England. In order to place the analysis of law and politics in a broader context, topics discussed include economics, religion, social customs and thought, in addition to questions concerning the forms of action at common law, disputes between the courts, law and equity, and the political activities of Parliament, the Privy Council, and the Crown. Part Two consists of a critical edition of eight of Ellesmere's little known or unidentified tracts on the royal prerogative, Anglo-Scots Union, the Parliament of 1604–1610, the administration of government, law reform, the ecclesiastical courts, Coke's Law Reports and the Chancery-Common Law conflict.
James Stuart's idea of Kingship–that it was indefeasible and held by hereditary divine right–posed a formidable problem to the administrators of Jacobean England, most of whom had been nurtured in the government of Queen Elizabeth. King James denned his prerogative to rule as absolute, and he believed that all institutions of government and law existed solely by his grace. Even though he fully accepted the proposition of governing in partnership with the Privy Council, Parliament, and the courts of law, he spoke continually of his exalted role. This pontifical ‘mystery of state’ had roots deep in the ecclesiological substratum of medieval thought. It had formed, moreover, an underlying assumption of political and constitutional thought down through the sixteenth century. But James's speeches on his idea of kingship brought the ‘mystery’ of state out into the public marketplace, and prompted the more self-seeking members of society to commend and advance it orally and in the press. This public exposition created a new literary tradition in the early years of his reign: the composition of satirical political poems and panegyric on the person and presence of the monarch.
The speeches and writings of King James–and their influence on the spoken and written word–had small utility for the sober statesmen who staffed his government. Ellesmere, as Lord Chancellor, was an individual entrusted to recognise and to administer the powers of the Crown.
The life and career of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Ellesmere, bears vivid testimony to the axiom that the shape and texture of Britain's landscape has had a major influence on its people. Egerton's world was the northern borderland of England and Wales, an area which comprised Cheshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, and northern Shropshire. Known as the northern lowland region of the Welsh marches, this area of Britain had been in the backwater of Britain's historical development from the mid-fourteenth century to the advent of Tudor rule. But it witnessed in the sixteenth century a significant revival. The intensification of dairy farming, together with the mining of coal and iron ore, broadened the region's wealth and increased its exports. This invigorated economic foundation spurred the growth of the port of Chester and the market towns of Oswestry, Whitchurch, and Shrewsbury. A new Anglo-Celtic gentry class, acquiring the lands of the decimated feudal nobility, developed in both town and country to provide the basis of a new ruling elite. Grammar schools were founded, contributing to an increase in literacy, the development of the arts, and a religious reformation. Thus in the sixteenth century the people of this region had economic, social, cultural, and religious experiences which began to bring them into the mainstream of English life on the Midland plain that stretched below them.
The future Lord Chancellor was raised in the Dee valley, a stretch of rich greensward which forms the western half of this lowland region.