Discovery – Regnal Dating Conventions of the 1600s Legal World…

Like any of the great professions, the domain of law is it’s own world within the larger world. Its interesting how often I had looked at the odd notations at the top of each page within Lane’s Reports without realizing what I was looking at…

I have discovered that the publication date on the book’s title page (“1657”) is the only expression of a modern date format in the entire book.  But as it turns out, the book is full of dates – now that I have learned how to read them!

My breakthrough came from my study of the excellent 1953 paper by Professor G.D.G. Hall of Oxford.  In that paper, Professor Hall discussed the dates of various cases, and although he did not explain Regnal dating specifically, he helped me to understand what these notations were.

In the modern world, recording dates in a compact and exact form is something we assume, but apparently this exactness was not always felt necessary. In the 1600s, respect for the church and the monarchy were paramount, and the recordings of legal activities were captured using conventions honoring those institutions. But apparently, it was generally only necessary to know which legal term a case was heard in, and in which court.

The Four Legal Terms (or seasons)

I had previously come to understand that the exaggerated and rather odd first word in Lane’s Reports, “MICHAELMAS” is the name of the Fall legal term (similar to our modern semesters).  This term was the start of the legal year, and is marked by a ceremony that began in the middle ages and continues to this day.  Each year, the judges walk in procession from the Temple Bar (the western gate of the city of London, where the 4 Inns of Court are located) to Westminster Abbey to start the Michaelmas legal term.

Each of the legal terms or court seasons is named for a religious day occurring in that season.  These four legal terms are:

  • Michaelmas – The Fall term (Oct-Dec), named for the Feast of the Archangels (including Michael)
  • Hilary – The Winter term (Jan-Apr), named for the feast Day of St. Hilary
  • Pasche – The Spring or Easter term (Apr-May)
  • Trinity – The Summer term (June-July), named for Trinity Sunday
DSC00122 (2)
Page 1 of “Lane’s Reports” begins with an interesting embellishment and the word “Michaelmas” – the Feast Day of the Archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Regnal years

Interestingly, the modern Anno Domini system of years was not used directly in legal case dating.  Instead, events were recorded by the year of the reign of the monarch sitting at the time the event took place.  So, the court cases in Lane’s Reports (which all took place while King James I ruled England) are all marked according to the year of his reign, starting on the date his reign began.  King James I’s reign began on 24 March 1603, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 17 November 1558 – 24 March 1603.  We discussed an interesting link between this quest and Queen Elizabeth I in a previous article.

Example of page Regnal Dating within Lane’s Reports

In the image above, the Regnal date given can be read as, “this case was heard in the Exchequer court during the Hilary term (new year) of the 8th year of the reign of King James I”.  Part of the reason I didn’t guess that these notations were dates related to King James I, is that it doesn’t say his name…at least not in a way I had expected.  It turns out (after research) I discovered that “Jac” is an abbreviation for “Jacobi”, which (along with “Jacobum”) is a latin name for “James“.  I don’t know how I could have missed that! : )

Date Analysis of the Cases in Lane’s Reports

Once I broke the code, I came to a new level of understanding of what I was seeing in Lane’s Reports.  These date references occur throughout the book!  I decided to do an analysis of the dates of all the 72 cases contained in it.  And what I found was quite interesting!


In the graph above, I have correlated the Regnal years given in Lane’s Reports to historical years, and mapped the cases to the legal terms within those years, starting with the Michaelmas term of 1606 and ending with the Easter term (Pasch) of 1612. In that analysis, I also counted up the amount of text (in pages) of each case.  So, you can see the number of cases in each term, and their average page length.

The thing that leaps out of this chart is that there are three year-long periods of time in which no Exchequer court cases were recorded in Lane’s Reports.  Certainly, this wasn’t because there were no court cases being heard – of course there were. It only means that there were no accounts of them recorded by Richard Lane, who was (in the beginning) a 22 year old law student who had just begun studying at Middle Temple Inn.

And this is where I seem to part academic company with Professor Hall (who asserts that Lane’s Reports were a random collection of reports cynically attributed to a famous dead lawyer to give them credibility).  If we assume that a young law student would sit in on all of the three courts, then we would expect that law student’s notebooks to have records of cases in all three courts, with each case dated according the term and court in which it was heard.  Thus, the manuscript (notebooks) would contain a mix of cases from these different courts.  But the publisher of Lane’s Reports was not publishing Lane’s manuscripts, but was instead clearly focused on publishing the first set of cases from the Exchequer Court.  If the source were indeed Richard Lane’s notebooks, the publisher would have selected only the exchequer cases from those notebooks, leaving out the others.   Thus, we would expect a faithful excerpt of Exchequer cases from those notebooks  to contain significant periods of time where there appear few or no exchequer cases.  This is exactly what is seen in the chart above.

Professor Hall did extensive search to identify the publisher’s manuscripts from which Lane’s Reports was published, with no clear success.  Other manuscripts he was able to find reflect the bulk of the cases reported in Lane’s Reports, but with some differences. This might be expected, as in the age before copying machines, lawyers would have their assistants copy cases of interest from other lawyers’ noteboooks, each building up their own body of reference material.  It so far appears that the surviving manuscripts (reviewed by Professor Hall) may have been copied from some earlier manuscript which was used by the publisher.  The original publisher’s manuscript (Richard Lane’s notebooks) does not seem to be in the public domain, and may not have survived.

So, as much as I admire his excellent work, I struggle with Professor Hall’s assertion that the publisher cobbled together a set of unattributed cases and attached Richard Lane’s name to it as a way to sell more books.  It certainly is possible, but seems a leap supported by speculation that downplays key elements of validity. For instance, the time period of the cases matches the time of Richard Lane’s admittance to study at Middle Temple Inn, and ends just before he was “called to the bar” (and thus allowed to start practicing law). This makes sense – once you are a lawyer, you would naturally start arguing cases, and would no longer spend your time reporting them.  If he was splitting his years of study across all 3 courts, we would expect to see Exchequer cases for only part of the time he was a student (which the chart above shows).

Also, attaching the name of a staunchly royalist lawyer and servant of the executed King Charles I in the time of the parliament-ruled commonwealth would seem risky.  As professor Hall also discovered, the license granted to publish the book did not mention its author.  Professor Hall interpreted this to mean that the author was an afterthought.  I think it at least equally likely that the name of the author may have been withheld when the license was applied for to sidestep the possibility of difficulties getting the license should that specific author’s name be seen as controversial.  Finally, although Richard Lane was not alive at the time the book was published, many of his contemporaries were. They might easily have identified the fraud had one been attempted. After all, these were cases also appearing in many of those same lawyers’ private notebooks. Richard Lane was a man they knew, and had studied under. His arms were displayed on the wall and windows of Middle Temple Hall. He may be mostly forgotten today, but in his time, Richard Lane was certainly well known and respected. In that sense, the very quality that might legitimately have made the use of his name attractive to the publisher would also have carried a risk to their own credibility if that use were discovered to be inauthentic.

In other news:  I did hear from Oxford, and have been provided an inventory of the files of the late Professor Hall (which have been archived there). Although the analysis of Lane’s Reports was a minor work in the lifetime of contribution made by the eminent Professor Hall, it appears his files may indeed contain his notes and manuscripts from his research into Lane’s Reports. What a treasure that would be! And, the archivist has confirmed that I would be welcome to examine those files.  I feel another trip to London is in my future!

What’s next?

  • Decode the notation used for references to other legal documents used throughout Lane’s Reports
  • Complete my study of Prof Hall’s 1953 paper and update my findings from it


Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed.  I admire great writing, but have to approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! 

-Greg Sherwood

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