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England's Last Bachelors and Doctors of Canon Law

  • Paul Barber (a1)


The editorial of this Journal recently recorded that an English university had awarded degrees in Canon Law for the first time in nearly 500 years.1 That event sparked this short piece of research to discover the identity of the last graduates. To begin our short story, imagine, if you will, the scene on a summer's day in 1535.



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1 (2003) 7 Ecc LJ 111. An MA in Canon Law was awarded by the University of London to eleven graduates of Heythrop College on Wednesday 11 December 2002, which number included the first ever female to be awarded such a degree in England. See the Catholic Herald, 13 December 2002, p 2. The year 2004 also marked the tenth anniversary of the first Canon Law degrees ever awarded in Wales. See the list of dissertations at (2004) 7 Ecc LJ 371.

2 The statutes set a minimum of three years' study of civil law followed by five years of canon law for those who had already taken the degree of Master of Arts. An extra two years of civil law was prescribed for those without the MA. (See Brundage, J A, ‘The Canon Law Curriculum in Mediæval Cambridge’, in Bush, J A and Wijffels, A (eds), Learning the Law—Teaching and Transmission of English Law, 1150–1900 (London, 1999.)) Mediæval bachelors degrees in the higher faculties were normally undertaken after study in the Faculty of Arts, so study in these faculties was essentially what we would regard as ‘postgraduate’.

3 C N L Brooke (ed), The History of the University of Cambridge, 1, 332. At Cambridge Cromwell appointed Dr Thomas Leigh, DCL, of King's College, to carry out the visitation on his behalf.

4 Boase, C W, Register of the University of Oxford, Oxford Historical Society (Oxford, 1885), Vol I. Robert Francis also studied canon law at Cambridge, was Vicar of Farringdon, Hants, in 1526 and had died by 1559. For biographical details of Oxford men I have used generally: Emden, A B, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford, AD 1501–1540 (Oxford, 1974);Foster, J, Alumni Oxonienses 1500–1714 (Oxford, 1891). I have modernised the spelling of names throughout.

5 Searle, W G, Grace Book Γ, containing the records of the University of Cambridge for the years 1501–1542 (Cambridge, 1908). For biographical details of Cambridge graduates I have used generally: Venn, J A, Alumni Cantabrigienses (Cambridge, 1922), Vols. I–IV;Cooper, C H, Athenae Cantabrigienses (Cambridge, 1858).

6 Possibly formerly Rector of Wickham, Durham, 1513 and later chantry priest and Master of Richmond School, Yorks, 1548. He was buried on 6 December 1571.

7 He surrendered Derby in 1538 according to the account in Gumbley, Walter, The Cambridge Dominicans, Blackfriars, Oxford 1938, where his name is given as Ralph rather than Laurence which appears in Cooper (1, 69).

8 If this is the same William Burwell who was admitted to a BA in 1518/9.

9 Possibly Scholar of Christ's College and formerly Master of Thompson College, Norfolk, in 1524.

10 Possibly Scholar at Jesus College and later Vicar of Caldecot, Cambs. 1538–43.

11 The records also show three further supplicats for the degree that year, with no subsequent record of admission, by William Horwood, William Hoskins and John Baker. Unless the records of their admission are lost, these may have been the first to be deprived of the opportunity to receive the degree.

12 Over the preceding thirty years, numbers of bachelors admitted each year had ranged from 1 to 16 and averaged just over 8. whilst admissions to the doctorate had ranged from 0 to 7 and averaged just over 1: ibid, and Bateson, M, Grace Book B, containing the proctors' accounts and other records of the University of Cambridge for the years 1488–1511, Vol. 11, Luard Memorial Series, Vol. 3 (Cambridge, 1905).

13 For a full description of the process of admission, see Baker, J H, 750 Years of Law at Cambridge (Cambridge, 1996), p 6.

14 1533 appears also as possibly the last occasion on which the degree of Bachelor of both Laws (UJB) was awarded—to John Pickerell, possibly the son of William Pickerell, an Esquire Bedell.

15 The Second Decree of Pole's Legatine Constitutions of 1555/6 provided, interalia, ‘that canon law be taught in the public schools as it used to be’: see Bray, G, The Anglican Canons 1529–1847 (Boydell Press, 1998), pp 139 and 77.

16 The custom of using post-nominal letters is a post-Reformation one. I have followed the convention used by Mitchell and Pantin (Mitchell, W T and Pantin, W A (eds), The Register of Congregation, 1448–1463, Oxford Historical Society (Oxford, 1998)) of JCB and JCD rather than that used by Emden and others of BCnL and DCnL because, as well as being neater and more in line with modern usage, it fits the text of the Grace Books which normally describe the degrees as ‘in jure canonico’. Contemporary abbreviated usage shows a preference for ‘d’ or ‘dec’ for ‘decretals’, thus, for example ‘dec d.’: see e.g. the Register of Doctors’ Commons, Lambeth Palace Library DC1, but to modern eyes this might cause confusion with Divinity.

17 Venn, J, Grace Book δ, containing the records of the University of Cambridge for the years 1542–1589 (Cambridge, 1910), f 45a (pp 114 and xi). Griffin later became Vicar of Ashton-under-Lyme in 1557 until his death in 1564.

18 On 30 April 1555, William White BCL is recorded as having supplicated for the degree that year, but no admission is recorded (he also supplicated for the DCL the following year).

19 Also recorded as Daniel, : A Wood, Fasti Oxonienses (London, 1815), i, 95, 150.

20 Recorded in Anglicised form in some sources as ‘Nicolas Ormanet’ or ‘Harmanet’.

21 Mayer, T M, Reginald Pole, Prince and Prophet (Cambridge, 2000), pp 291297.

22 William Stubbs suggested that ‘the shadow of the double degree’ lingered on in the plural form of ‘laws’ still represented by the ‘LL’ at Cambridge to this day: ‘The History of the Canon Law in England’, lecture, 20 April 1882 in Lectures and Addresses on Mediaeval and Modern History (Oxford, 1900), pp 380 and 369.

23 Stubbs also recorded the claims of Nicholas Staughton and Richard Pearson to have been admitted distinctly as Doctors in both faculties at Oxford in 1659 and 1669 respectively, but evidence to back these claims is elusive. In about 1715, Charles Browne applied to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford to proceed as bachelor and doctor of canon law. He was told that he could not be prevented from doing so, but that it would give the university a great deal of trouble. He died before he could achieve his ambition: ibid. p 381.

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England's Last Bachelors and Doctors of Canon Law

  • Paul Barber (a1)


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