skip to content

Lesley Dingle - Acquisition and Creation of Content

Daniel Bates - Visual Presentation, Technical Enhancement and Audio Editing

Following in the footsteps of fellow-Cambridge scholars Frederic Maitland (1850-1906) and Toby Milsom (1923-2016), Professor Baker, through his meticulous legal history researches, has, over the last fifty years, advanced hugely our knowledge and understanding of the English common law and its functioning, particularly during late mediaeval and Tudor periods.

By the time Professor Baker was interviewed for ESA in early 2017, he had amassed an impressive range of scholastic honours, testament to the esteem in which he is held by his legal peers: he is a Knight Bachelor; Emeritus Downing Professor of the Laws of England; a QC honoris causa; an Honorary Bencher of both the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn; a gold medalist of the Irish Society for Legal History; holds an Hon Doctor of Laws from University of Chicago; is an Honorary Fellow of the Society for Advanced Legal Studies; an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; an Honorary Fellow of the Society for Advanced Legal Studies; and a recipient of the Sutherland Prize from the American Society for Legal History. These accolades emphasise how fortunate the ESA has been to have had the opportunity to record Sir John in conversation [1].

This is a brief summary of his career based on these interviews and his own publications, and should be read in conjunction with a companion piece to be published in the CUP journal Legal Information Management.

Early life & education

John Hamilton Baker was born in Sheffield in 1944, during the latter stages of the Second World War. Like most of his generation, his parents suffered deprivations, and as a child, he did not see his father, who, at the time of his birth was with the army in Egypt, until 1946. John lived with his mother in Sheffield, the steel and manufacturing city that suffered severe damage from the German Luftwaffe, and during which his mother’s place of work, "a rather grand store" was completely destroyed during the "Sheffield Blitz" [2].

Soon after his birth, their house suffered a near-miss from a flying-bomb. He described his mother’s account of this incident, which destroyed the air-raid shelter in which they normally hid. On hearing the air-raid siren "she said "We’ll go down under the stairs instead of going down to the shelter," and that night the shelter got a direct hit and was destroyed. I’ve always thought that was a very lucky chance that we just escaped that. Of course I remember nothing of it at all," (Q4).

After the War, his father took the family south to the village of Pleshey in Essex, where he had grown up, in what Professor Baker described as "really quite poor surroundings". Mr Baker joined the local police force, and the family prospered, relatively, with his father becoming an Assistant Chief Constable. Despite this, somewhat tenuous link with the law, Professor Baker claimed that no parental connections led him into a legal career.

John was very fortunate in his schooling. Initially, (1949) he attended a primary school in Chelmsford (Trinity Road) which he described as "a very simple school, for relatively poor local children, [where] we were given a very good preparation for grammar school. They encouraged us to study. There was no pressure - I don’t remember doing homework - but by the time we left, we were doing maths at least to the level of the second form in the grammar school," (Q6).

During this enlightened episode in his education, the premature death of King George VI intruded in 1952 [3] into John’s life. The subsequent televised coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, which enthralled the nation had, as Professor Baker, put it, "a profound effect on me". Simultaneously, as part of the national celebrations, John visited "an exhibition in Chelmsford of "Heraldry in Essex" ...... and I was bowled over by these manuscripts and seals and paintings of coats of arms, and so forth. I can trace my interest in history to that moment," (Q6).

Thus inspired by things historical, he began to explore local historical sites and churches in Essex on his bicycle, and described how this interest ran parallel with his formal schooling. "The village, Pleshey, where my grandparents lived, had a wonderful motte and bailey-castle, or the remains of one, which was completely overgrown with trees in those days - a wonderful smell of leaf-mold when you went into it - I used to go and sit there sometimes and imagine what it would have been like. At the age of about 13 I wrote a little history of Pleshey and borrowed some 18th century books from the local library, which you could in those days, and took them home. It wasn’t a great work of scholarship, but it again, shows that I had this leaning which was in no way connected with what I was doing at school," (Q11).

By now, John was attending the King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford (1955-62). He was "very privileged to go to such an institution", but despite its high reputation, his self-assessment was that he was not "terribly academic at school". Local history had become his hobby, but when he entered the sixth form, because of the indifferent teaching of History, he decided, somewhat reluctantly, to pursue the science courses, with a view to specialising in Chemistry. John even sat an entrance examination in Natural Sciences at Cambridge. But Destiny had other ideas.

A last minute change of heart, after he realised that science was not for him, resulted in an awkward discussion with the headmaster, Mr Fanshawe, "a very significant character". During this, his second choice, Archaeology, was dismissed, and John Baker finally settled on his third choice - Law. He revised his Cambridge application accordingly.

This change of tack brought into play two factors, which up to that point had seemed incidental to his studies - his O-level courses in Latin, and an encounter with an archivist at the local records office [4], who had taught John some elements of palaeography. The latter "remarkable stroke of luck" had occurred because sixth-form science students were expected to undertake "something cultural". As a consequence, he had his first close encounter with 14th century manorial rolls (from Roxwell Manor). This familiarity with mediaeval texts, and his learning how to read "funny handwriting" stood him in good stead in later years of research. Combined with his grounding in Latin, these were the two main skills he acquired from his seven years at the KEGS [5]. Both immediately bolstered his local history interests, rather than contributing directly to any of his school studies, and were unlikely bonuses from his early education.

University College London years: 1962-1971

John Baker’s attempt to study Law at Cambridge was thwarted by his giving what he recalled as "an absolutely terrible interview" with Dr Ellis Lewis [6] at Trinity Hall in 1962. Faced with this rejection, he accepted a place at UCL and started his studies in London later the same year.

This failure to gain a place at Oxbridge could have been seen a setback, but in a manner analogous to the acquisition of unlikely skills gained at KEGS, two outstanding factors in John Baker’s time at UCL made his future distinguished legal history career possible, in a way that a BA at Cambridge probably would have not. The first was a legacy of wartime shortages and deprivations, and the second physical proximity to central London.

As had been recalled by Michael Prichard [7] in an earlier ESA interview [8], the War had disrupted severely the teaching of Law at the London colleges: UCL, Kings and LSE - buildings had been damaged and staffing depleted drastically, and so on. One result was that students had to shuttle between colleges to attend lectures, and as Professor Baker recounted "because we still had the very last remnants of intercollegiate teaching at London when I was there.. We had to go down to Kings College for instance to do Evidence with a Professor Nokes [9], and for Legal History we were sent down to the LSE to Milsom [10]," (Q15).

As a result of the latter, one of the most defining professional relationships of John Baker’s life was forged. As will be mentioned later, Professor Toby Milsom became a mentor and inspiration to Baker’s legal history studies and to his attitudes in deciphering the workings of the common law in the 15th-17th centuries.

The second factor that bore heavily on John Baker’s later career arose from his initially-envisaged non-academic trajectory - he had always seen himself as a practising barrister. This necessitated his joining one of the Inns of Court as soon as possible, and completing the dining schedule of 12 terms so that he could qualify for being called to the Bar. He was only able to do this by virtue of being in close proximity to central London, i.e. being at a London college.

Although, ultimately, Professor Baker never followed the path into practice, his deep association with the Inner Temple was crucial in his being able to avail himself early in his career of the facilities and ambiance of the inns, into whose histories he delved meticulously in later years. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of John Baker’s relationship with the inns: his understanding of their procedures and personalities have been central to his unravelling the evolution of the English common law, of which the inns were/are the cradle and custodians.

In retrospect, it could be postulated that John Baker’s failure to gain entry to Cambridge for his undergraduate legal training was an essential element for the making of his subsequent, glittering career. Professor Baker’s trajectory might have been very different had he been successful in his initial application at Trinity Hall.

In our conversations apropos his undergraduate days at UCL (1962-65), Professor Baker identified no indigenous UCL mentors, and his main intellectual inspiration was Professor Toby Milsom at LSE. Nevertheless, in spite of Milsom’s Legal History course being the "most fascinating" he had taken, and that it tied in with his historical interests, Professor Baker said that he never had any inclination to become an academic "...never dreamed of it - I wasn’t an academic type, as I thought. I was going to the Bar in my mind," (Q21).

His plans for the Bar were disrupted, however, when the Head of Department, George Keeton [11] "summoned me one day because he’d .....seen some of my private research work on the history of lawyers, which obviously (he thought) looked as though I might become an academic, and said, "Would you like a lectureship?" I was taken aback... without a PhD or anything of that sort. That’s the way it was then - no appointments committees, no application, no references," (Q20). This, apparently, was Keeton’s way of hanging on to promising young talent by "grabbing people before they got into practice, because he knew he wouldn’t get them back afterwards," (Q21).

This sudden intervention prompted John to "pull my socks up and try and get a first, so I did", and for his efforts, the department at UCL awarded him the 1965 annual Andrews Medal and Prize for the best result in the final exam. It was the first in the long list of awards and honours he was to receive during his career.

Over the next six years (1965-71), John Baker was Assistant Lecturer, and then Lecturer, in law at UCL, during which time he taught Contract, Tort, English Legal System and Legal History. The last, was undertaken, as was now traditional, by sending his students to LSE, where Professor Milsom was still ensconced [12], and the close relationship between Baker and Milsom continued to flourish. A milestone was reached in the late ‘60s, after the publishers Butterworths had contracted with Milsom to write a text on legal history to replace the then standard text by Plucknett. It turned out that Milsom’s concept for this volume was more sophisticated than they had anticipated, and at the suggestion of Tony Thomas [13] at UCL (Q222), they then approached John Baker to produce a more elementary text to fill the gap - "a very simple 200-page book," (Q14). I put it to Professor Baker that Milsom had been his inspiration for writing it: "Yes, undoubtedly, but I would never have had the gall to write a text book if I hadn’t been asked by Butterworths to do it," (Q27).

An Introduction to English Legal History appeared more or less simultaneously with his departure from UCL, and received good reviews. Most of these commented on his wide use of original source material, but in our discussions about it, Professor Baker was self-deprecating - "It didn’t rest a great deal on original research," (Q28), claiming that he would not have tried his hand so early in his career had he had not had the inspiration and backing of Toby Milsom. As Professor Baker emphasised throughout our conversations, Milsom’s influence on the development of his research was intellectual rather than practical[14].

Despite his rather dismissive opinion of his first major publication "I would never have written it later in my career. But I’ve been stuck with it, and all I could do was try to make it slightly better as time went on. I would have probably done it differently if I had thought of it later," (Q28), the book has now appeared in four editions (1971, 1979, 1990 and 2002). In the course of our conversation (Q249) Professor Baker mentioned that he is thinking of a fifth edition in his retirement - not bad for a book he was reluctant to write.

During his time at UCL, John Baker self-taught his way through his Bar exams, and was called to the Bar in 1966. His plan to follow a route into practice was stalled, however, when instead of doing a pupillage, Professor Keeton persuaded him to register and write up for a PhD, some private research he had been doing on serjeants at law. This he did, but the supervision Keeton provided was somewhat wanting, so that the end product, though adequate for the degree, was not publishable. Apart from acquiring a PhD, the lasting value of this work was, however, that " I did teach myself quite a lot of what one needs to know about doing research, manuscript materials and so forth..." (Q29). John Baker’s time had therefore been well-spent in learning skills that would ultimately make him a world authority, and his lack of opportunity to acquire a pupillage for a career at the Bar was legal history’s, and the common law’s, gain. Nevertheless, Professor Baker emphasised that "until I took the decision to come to Cambridge, I still thought that I was someday going to be a barrister," (Q31).

In the six years following his LLB, John Baker began the long journey of publication and scholarship that has characterised his impressive career. He published numerous "articles and notes" before leaving UCL in 1971, although most of these were what he was at pains to describe in our conversations as relatively trivial items and not serious research: "just an announcement", or "another tangential piece of work" [15] etc. But others were more substantive, and showed that even at this early stage in his career (i.e. before he had finally settled on an academic trajectory), John Baker was making substantial contributions to legal history. For example, I asked him, whether the conclusions he had then drawn in1969 [16], on the showdown between Coke [17] and Ellesmere [18] in 1616, claiming it to have been more about personalities than equity in law, had stood the test of nearly fifty years of additional scrutiny? He replied, "I think was certainly a clash of personalities. It was also, I think, a constitutional crisis of a kind. I have been exploring that in my latest book on Magna Carta. I think that was actually one of the best articles I ever wrote: revisiting it 30 or 40 years later I wasn’t able to add very much to it," (Q186).

It was also at this time that he started work on editing the law reports of John Spelman[19], that Brian Simpson [20] had discovered in the British Museum [21], and when Baker himself unearthed Coke’s note-books - what he called "the most exciting discovery I ever made...and I’ve only just got round to editing them [in 2017], " (Q31) [22], also in the British Museum.

In his extended CV supplied to the ESA, between 1968 and 1971 Professor Baker listed twelve published "articles and notes", as well as the first edition of An Introduction to English Legal History.

This record shows that his interests in history, palaeography, and training in both Latin and Law, combined with his inspirational relationship with Toby Milsom, had fused into a unique mix of scholarship and application. This boded well for making fundamental advances in the history of the common law. John Baker was poised for great achievements.

Cambridge: Squire Law Library (1971-73)

Dr John Baker’s entry into the Law Faculty at Cambridge came via an unconventional route - the Squire Law Library (SLL). In the early 1970s, the library occupied the ground and first floors of the Cockerell Building on the Old Schools site in the centre of town, while the Faculty used various lecture rooms scattered round about. This was at a time before the library had become a Dependent Library to the University Library, so that the Librarian was a member of the Law Faculty.

In 1971, Tony Thomas, Professor of Roman Law at UCL, alerted John to a vacant faculty position at Cambridge: "There’s this vacancy at Cambridge. I think it would suit you. It’s your sort of world. Why don’t you apply?" (Q36). During the ensuing interview with Professor Clive Parry [23], who was on the Faculty Appointments Committee and also Chairman of the SLL Committee, John Baker was walking around Downing College in conversation with him, when Parry announced that "I have to tell you that you’re second on the short list, so you’re not going to get it, but would you like to be Librarian of the Squire Law Library?" John was "taken aback" and replied "I don’t have any librarianship qualifications," to which his response was, "You read books, don’t you?" (Q36).

So, with no formal application, interview, or references, Dr Baker obtained a position at the University of Cambridge as Librarian of the Squire Law Library, and ended his aspirations for a career at the Bar. Although, as Professor Baker put it, "Clive was certainly a character," this meeting with Parry was ultimately instrumental in "pushing me into the librarianship," (Q51). It marked the beginning, somewhat unconventionally, of John Baker’s entry into legal history scholarship at Cambridge, and was the start of a career that has extended for over 45 years.

John Baker was the last Squire Law Librarian to be a full Faculty member (his successor, Mr Hughes was appointed only Temporary Librarian in Charge), and, as he put it, drolly, when he eventually resigned from the post in 1973, "the Faculty then decided, presumably, that I had been so ineffective that they didn’t need one at all...," (Q48). His predecessors had included the indomitable Dr T. Ellis Lewis, who had held the post between 1931 and 1968, and who had interviewed and rejected John for entry to Trinity Hall eleven years earlier.

The SLL staff was small, and consisted of an assistant librarian (Gordon Hughes) who "actually ran the show", and three other members: Ted Hill, Peter Zawada, and Tony Rawlings. The previous assistant librarian (Willi Steiner [24]), had bequeathed the SLL his new classification system, which was in the process of being computerised. As a consequence, John Baker inherited "probably the first computerised catalogue in experimental piece of work", so that there was no necessity to indulge in any reorganisation of the library.

Also, as he explained, his duties "weren’t meant to be full time and they weren’t. They were a general oversight, because Gordon Hughes did the day to day running, and I didn’t have to do cataloguing or anything of that sort. I did spend quite a lot of time on accessions....I used to spend quite a lot of time every month reading catalogues and deciding what I thought would go well in the Squire. Since I love collecting and buying books, I found that quite an agreeable part of the role," (Q43).

The part-time nature of the role at the SLL allowed John Baker to undertake supervisory duties at St Catharine’s College, where he was now a Fellow. He covered Contract, Tort, Constitutional Law, English Legal System and Legal History, and as time passed, his load rapidly increased as he was asked to take on Legal History for other colleges.

He recalled with fondness the physical circumstances of his new workplace: the "Old Schools was a "breathtakingly lovely felt uplifted every time one set foot in it...I had a room on the first floor overlooking Senate House was very nice," (Q39). These sentiments echoed those of another of the ESA interviewees, Professor Kurt Lipstein [25], with whom John Baker shared occupancy of the library, who had described the Cockerell Building as ".... the ideal library. It was old fashioned with lovely wood panelling and wood flooring.... a wonderful atmosphere..."

John Baker found that he had ample time to continue his research and antiquarian studies. As a result, in 1972 he became involved, through an ex-colleague at UCL, Bill Butler[26], with a commercial company (IDC) to microfiche manuscript legal materials, first at Harvard, and later at Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, the Bodleian, and Cambridge. John’s goal had been "to do the British Library, but they are so antediluvian there that we could never get agreement on how to do it - or anything else," (Q65).

Professor Baker’s amusing account of this week-long sojourn to Harvard illustrated his enthusiasm to embrace new technology in the pursuit of deciphering early legal records "It was terribly hot....It was very generous of them to fly me over, but they couldn’t afford a decent hotel, so I stayed in a hotel without air conditioning in an extreme heat-wave. So I either opened the windows at night and couldn’t sleep for the traffic noise or I closed them and suffocated. I remember, having worked very hard on manuscripts all day, I would go to the Boston Public Library (where it was air-conditioned) and stay until I was thrown out at about 11, and then I would go and have an ice cream or something somewhere, and then go back to this awful hot room. Being young, I was able to keep that up for a week, but it was pretty awful," (Q75). Along with a parallel project to do a reprint of the yearbooks for Oceana Books [27], which eventually came to nought, John thought these bibliographical project were "the kind of thing a law librarian ought to do," (Q76).

Despite having time for research and teaching, after two years, he began to feel that his position at the SLL was "slightly unreal....I don’t know why. It’s far more common in the States to have academics as law librarians in charge. I think it was probably unique here. I was the only person in the country in that sort of position and I just felt slightly awkward about it.....Also, I remember Glanville Williams [28] coming to me with lists of complaints about the library, and there were things I didn’t feel that I could actually change very easily, and that got me down a bit....So I applied for the next assistant lectureship," (Q59).

In his extended CV during his tenure at the Squire Law Library (1972 to 1973), Professor Baker listed four "articles and notes" as well as a presentation in 1972 (that saw publication as "part contribution to books" in 1975). In the latter he introduced the concept of 1483 to 1558 as the Dark Age of English Legal History [29], and on which he later produced one of his most important historical offerings [30].

Cambridge: academia (1973-2011) and beyond

Professor Baker’s interview before the Appointments Committee for a university lectureship, when one eventually came up, was "pretty terrifying". Nevertheless he was successful, and in 1973 transferred from the Squire Law Library to the Faculty proper.

For the next almost forty years, John Baker followed an uninterrupted trajectory of steady progression through the academic ranks at Cambridge, and played a full part in the teaching, administration, and scholarship of the Faculty of Law: Lectureship (1973-83); Reader in English Legal History (1983-88); Professor of English Legal History (1988-98); and Downing Professor of the Laws of England (1998-2011). He also served on numerous University committees, undertook a series of posts in his college (St Catharine’s), where he rose to President, as well as playing a major role in administering the archives at the Inner Temple.

In addition, he played a crucial role in anchoring the publication activities of the Selden Society (which he had joined in 1965 on becoming Assistant Lecturer), by becoming its Literary Director in 1981, and which he remained for thirty years. It also became a vehicle for his own impressive output of erudite publications that established him as the authority on, inter alia, the development of the common law vis a vis the Inns of Court during the late mediaeval-early Tudor period.

Initially, as a Lecturer, John Baker taught his Legal History classes in Room 4, in the Old Schools complex, in what had been the mediaeval school of Canon Law [31], where he recalls the "acoustics were wonderful" (apart from the King’s bell which rang loudly between 5.20 and 5.30pm daily!). He also taught Contract, this time in the East Room of the complex, in what he recalls as "one of the most beautiful rooms in the university", but where, in contrast, the acoustics were poor, and "you had to shout," (Q67). In spite of the enhanced technical facilities that the Faculty now enjoys in the new Sir David Williams Building, Professor Baker intimated that he still prefers the atmosphere offered in the Old Schools: ", I don’t like to come here too much," (Q104).

Professor Baker remembers the administrative procedures of the Faculty as being "steady state", requiring little effort to keep it running. Early in his Lectureship tenure (1975) he was made Secretary of the Faculty, and the rules by which it had run had hardly altered since they were written by John Thornley ca. 1948, and all one had to do was to "just [keep] it ticking over," (Q67). Although the facilities available in the Old Schools were very limited, it was what he called "intimate", with staff, in their gowns, meeting at 11am each morning in a small coffee room that was the Faculty’s focal point. Here they chatted before going off to their lectures. Day to day matters were dealt with by the Faculty Administrator and secretary to the Chairman, Miss Suckling [32], who occupied an adjacent small office. Life was relatively uncomplicated.

When asked about significant episodes in his administrative duties, Professor Baker identified the important period in the Faculty’s history which coincided with his stint as Faculty Chairman. By this time (1990-92), he had been promoted ad hominem to Professor of English Legal History. He found himself part of a quintet of successive chairmen (Sealy [33], Jones [34], Baker, Tiley [35] & Spencer [36]) who had the task of shepherding the Faculty through the lengthy and arduous process of organising, planning, and executing its move, along with the Squire Law Library, from disparate sites in central town and the Old schools, to the new building on the Sidgwick site off West Road. Professor Baker’s involvement coincided with the period when the Faculty had to decide if the building, as planned, was suitable. Previous chairmen (professors Sealy and Jones) had commissioned and acquired plans for the new complex, which was to be designed by Foster & Partners.

Professor Baker recounted that, by common consent, there was unease at the unconventional design, but that by the time he took over the reins, it was a fait accompli. Nevertheless, he had to work for two years with Foster & Partners, and the relationship was difficult. Initially, Professor Baker took the unprecedented step of holding a ballot involving the whole Faculty to see if they were prepared to move. There was a small majority in favour, but he implied that their decision had been informed by the fact that if they said "no", which they "...[were] entitled to, then the University [would] effectively wash its hands of [them] for the next ten or 20 years and [they] won't get an alternative building - so it [was] this or nothing. I think most members of the Faculty thought, "Well, anything will be better than what we are putting up with at the moment," (Q101).

His personal contribution to the plans was the inclusion of a Moot Court, and pull-out shelves in the library, but he remembers particularly his difficult dealings with [then] Sir Norman Foster[37]. To illustrate this, he related the facts surrounding the infamous glass screen in the present Sir David Williams Building. Foster "...was a rather arrogant person - didn't listen to us at all. I was particularly worried about the noise problem, because they’d designed this open-plan building in which there was nothing between people pouring out of lectures in the basement and the library. I said, "This is going to be noisy, - bound to be," and he more or less went puce and said, "What on earth do you know about it? I am the architect." Of course, I was right, and the great architect was wrong. We had to put a glass screen in - which is what I had asked for - though he’d said, "You won't need it." So my dealings with Sir Norman Foster, as he then was, were not happy," (Q103).

Finally, in 1998, John Baker was elevated to the Downing Chair of the Laws of England. At the time, he recalled that he was dithering over whether to accept a "prestigious chair at Oxford" that had come vacant, but when approached by the electoral board of the Downing chair, he preferred to stay in Cambridge. He succeeded Gareth Jones, and commented that it was appropriate that the founding father of legal history, Frederic Maitland [38], has also held this position. It was while an incumbent of the Downing chair, in 2003, that John Baker was knighted, an occasion that he fondly recounted as "wonderful", "....a very splendid occasion. I was able to take my [father. It was] shortly before my mother died, and I am very pleased that they were able to [appreciate] it.." (Q118), [39]

Professor Baker retired from the Downing chair in 2011, as he put it " I....voted in favour of [a general retirement age] because I think we ought to get out and make way for the next generation. I have seen what problems it causes in the States to have people staying on - these geriatrics who don't do anything, occupying all the best rooms, and costing a lot of money...," (Q122). Retirement, however, has been a euphemism for working at home, and continuing with his research at a prodigious place. He is currently editing Coke’s notebooks, which were what he called his "first discovery", in the British Museum, when a lecturer at UCL [40] - a project he had shelved for forty-five years, but had always planned to undertake.

During our conversations, at each stage of his academic progression, I asked Professor Baker to sum up his research activities during the relevant period, and there was a common thread that ran throughout his career. It can be summed up in the statement he made at the end of his tenure as Professor of Legal History (in 1998) "I just kept doing what I have always done," (Q112), i.e. editing manuscripts and writing monographs. It was a modus operandi he followed for nigh on fifty years, and which has allowed him to amass the astonishing tally of 38 books, 123 chapters in books, 183 articles and notes, 12 pamphlets, 35 book reviews, and 97 invited lectures. (This list was compiled from a CV made available by Professor Baker at the start of our conversations - and several times he self-deprecatorily dismissed these numbers as including some rather trivial items). But the list includes some magisterial classics, such as his 2003 Oxford History of the Laws of England Vol. VI: 1483-1558, and his recent, innovative 2017 Reinvention of Magna Carta 1216-1616.

This prodigious output of original research and fundamental observations on the evolution of the common law, particularly its intimate links with the workings and personalities of the Inns of Court, has resulted in a steady stream of accolades and bestowed honours. These include, inter alia, 1984 Fellow British Academy; 1985 Ames Medal and Prize (Harvard); 1988 Hon Bencher Inner Temple; 1991 Fellow, University College London; 1992 Hon. LL.D. Chicago; 1996 Q.C., honoris causa; 1997 Honorary Fellow, Society for Advanced Legal Studies; 2001 Honorary Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 2008 Gold Medal, Irish Society for Legal History; and most recently, 2013 Sutherland Prize, American Society for Legal History.

An area which deserves special mention is his fondness for, and assiduous research of, the role of the Inns of Court in the common law, and their own history. Much of this has been summarised in his 1986 compilation of his historical essays, The Legal Profession and the Common Law, and his 2000 The Common Law Tradition [41].

John Baker joined the Inner Temple in 1963 by eating dinners [42] during his second term as a undergraduate at UCL, although his choice was no more systematic than the fact that his fellow student in digs in Muswell Hill, was already a member. Because of his interest in the early common law, Professor Baker " ...always felt close to [the inns] for that reason. It’s also a very agreeable society, and I have enjoyed being associated with it [the Inner Temple], especially as a bencher," (Q135).

His fondness for the Inner Temple dates back to his early days: "I still remember going down to my first dinner in Hilary term. It was a dark evening with snow gently falling, and it was just amazing to step out of busy Fleet Street into this completely different world - a gas-lit lane, with the glittering stained glass windows in the hall, which was nice and warm inside....I was captivated as an impressionable youth. But my first serious research was on the serjeants and I didn't work on the Inns until somewhat later," (Q201/202).

From the start of his research, the Inner Temple’s facilities proved invaluable to John Baker. "...[T]here is a very fine library with a lot of manuscripts. But what was of greatest use to me when I was an assistant lecturer at UCL was that there used to be a lot of 17th century books on the open shelves....and I could go down to the Inner Temple and just pull them off the shelves. I used to sit in a little alcove up in the gallery, overlooking the gardens and the river, looking at these books - I can still remember the rather nice smell of decaying year books, with these beautiful scenes outside the window. Very happy days. Unfortunately they are going to destroy the gallery now...," (Q136).

With time, the inns became central to Professor Baker’s focus on the common law, as their importance in its development became apparent to him. Apropos a question on their significance to his overall research: "....they are more central than the universities, because the universities in the past - the periods I work in - were largely seminaries for the clergy. So I regard the Inns of Court as being the home of the common law, and that it’s where everything I do comes from really. I suppose that’s why I feel close to them," (Q138).

In these few sentences, John Baker summarises his fascination for, and recognition of the importance of, the Inns of Court.

Finally, it would be remiss to conclude an outline of Professor Baker’s career without summarising the role played by the late Professor Toby Milsom. Professor Baker generously mentioned at several points in our conversations the influence that Milsom’s ideas on the development of the common law has had on his own thinking. It was Milsom, while professor at LSE, who introduced John Baker to the study of legal history, and was effectively his undergraduate mentor. Milsom’s was ".... the most fascinating course I had done. Of course, it tied in with all my interests.... he had a completely different method of teaching than he had of writing, so he never had lectures written out. It was just one or two notes scribbled on the back of an envelope or a card. They were very chatty, and yet you learned a lot without seeming to. He was a very brilliant man," (Q15-18).

Nevertheless, despite his association with Milsom for several years at UCL as an undergraduate and lecturer, it was not until Milsom published his 1969 book Historical Foundations of the Common Law that John Baker "fully appreciate[d]...just how innovative Milsom was," (Q28). A short time later, in 1971, when Baker published his first text An Introduction to English Legal History[43], he explained that "...the only insights in it were probably plagiarised unconsciously from Milsom - I just assumed that was the way Legal History was," (Q28).

These early appreciations of Milsom’s innovativeness were reinforced by his working with Milsom on their joint 1986 Sources of English Legal History: Private Law to 1750. Apropos this, he commented that Milsom’s notions indicated that in "..understand[ing] legal developments, one shouldn't just look at the outcomes, but at the arguments, especially the losing arguments - and also the contemporary framework of discussion, because they seldom argued in our terms, and we can be misled if we go back looking for a modern kind of discussion. You have really got to get into the sources," (Q251).

Also, in relation to a quotation from the introductory chapter of his 2013 Collected Papers that "Nothing can be understood unless one realises the dominance of form and procedure and the limitations these pose on the questions that could be asked and the need to switch one’s mind to the same thought processes as the lawyers of the period in which we are working", Professor Baker said magnanimously and simply, "It was pure Milsom. It came from Milsom," (Q280).

Throughout our conversations, it was clear the respect and fondness that he held for his late mentor.

I was a great pleasure to have interviewed Professor Baker, whose scholarship and love of his subject were evident. He was a gracious and generous interviewee, and we are privileged to have his reminiscences in our archive.


[1] Between February and March 2017. Quotations are referred to Question numbers in the interview transcripts (Qx).

[2] December 1940

[3] George VI (1895-1952) at age 57 years.

[4] Hilda Elizabeth Poole Grieve, (1913-1993), archivist and historian, Essex Record Office (1939-66).

[5] See Q10

[6] T. Ellis Lewis (1900-1978), Lecturer in Law, Aberystwyth (1927-1931). Lecturer in Law, Cambridge, University 1931-68. Fellow of Trinity Hall 1932.

[7] b.1927, Gonville & Caius, Lecturer in Law, University of Cambridge (1953-95), Editor, Cambridge Law Journal (1996-2003).

[8] E.g. Q11 in his first interview.

[9] Prof Gerald Nokes, Professor of Law, King's College London (1955-66).

[10] Stroud Francis Charles (Toby) Milsom, QC MA FBA (1923-2016), Professor of Legal History LSE (1964-76), Professor of Law Cambridge (1976-90).

[11] George Williams Keeton, (1902-1989), Professor of English Law UCL (1937-69). .

[12] He remained there from 1964 to 1976.

[13] Joseph Anthony Charles Thomas (1923-81); Professor of Roman Law (1965-81).

[14] E.g. Q215

[15] Apropos LQR, 84, 1968 on Blackstone’s lecture, or 5, Irish Jurist 1970 on funeral monuments

[16] The Common Lawyers and the Chancery: 1616. Irish Jurist, 1969, 4, 368-92.

[17] Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), Attorney General (1594-1606) to Elizabeth I & James I, Chief Justice of Kings Bench (1613-16).

[18] Thomas Egerton, 1st Baron Ellesmere, 1st Viscount Brackley, PC (1540-1617), 1st Baron Ellesmere from 1603 to 1616, judge, Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor.

[19] Sir John Spelman (1495? – 1544), judge of the King’s Bench.

[20] Alfred William Brian Simpson (1932-2011), Professor of Law, Kent (1973-83), Charles F. and Edith J. Clyne Professor of Law University of Michigan (1987-2009), Fellow Lincoln College Oxford (1955-73).

[21] Reports of Sir John Spelman, vol 1, 1977, Selden Soc. 93.

[22] Coke’s note-books and the sources of his Reports, 1972, C. L J. 30, 59-86.

[23] Clive Parry (1917-1982), Professor of International Law (1969-1982).

[24] Wilhelm ("Willi") Anton Friedrich Paul Steiner (1918-2003), Assistant Librarian Squire Law Library (1959-1968), Secretary & Librarian, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (1968-1982).

[25] Kurt Lipstein (1909-2006), Professor of Comparative Law (1973-76).

[26] William Elliott Butler, (1939- ) John Edward Fowler Professor of Law, Pennsylvania State University (2005-), Professorial Research Associate, SOAS (2006-), Emeritus Professor of Comparative Law in the University of London (2005-). Soviet law expert.

[27] Founded 1945 in New York, acquired by OUP in 2005.

[28] Glanville Llewelyn Williams (1911-97), Rouse Ball Professor of English Law (1968-78).

[29] 'The Dark Age of English Legal History' in D. Jenkins ed., Legal History Studies 1972 (155 pp., Univ. Wales Press, Cardiff, 1975), 1-27.

[30] The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volume VI: 1483-1558 (OUP, 2003).

[31] Illustrated on p. 13 of Baker’s booklet 750 Years of Law at Cambridge, 1996, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge..

[32] Millicent A. "Betty" Suckling (d. 1988). Mayor of Cambridge (1983-84).

[33] Leonard Sedgwick Sealy (b. 1930), S J Berwin Professor of Corporate Law (1991-97).

[34] Gareth Hywel Jones (1930-2016). Downing Professor of the Laws of England (1975-98).

[35] John Tiley (1941-2013), Professor of the Law of Taxation (1990-2008).

[36] John R Spencer (b?-), Professor Emeritus of Law.

[37] Sir Norman Robert Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, (b.1935-).

[38] Professor Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906), Downing Professor 1888-1906.

[39] There is an excellent photo of the investiture in the photo gallery accompanying this entry.

[40] MS.Harl. 6686. He wrote a preliminary account in 1972: Coke’s note-books and the sources of his reports, CLJ, 30(1), 59-86.

[41] Both Hambledon Press, London. 495pp and 404pp, respectively.

[42] In those days, one had to keep twelve terms by eating dinners before being called to the Bar - 36 in all. Q135.

[43] 1971 Butterworths, 330pp