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Famous English Canon Lawyers: VIII Edmund Gibson, D.D. († 1748) and David Wilkins, D.D. († 1745)

  • J. H. Baker (a1)


Since our next pair were not lawyers at all. it may seem rather incongruous to include them in the company of ‘canon lawyers’. Yet it would be pedantic to exclude them from a survey of English canonistic literature for want of the requisite formalities, especially since their collections of legal sources have been so widely consulted by ecclesiastical lawyers down to the present. Both their endeavours were prompted, indirectly, by a fierce controversy over the constitution of the Church of England and the historic role of Convocation; but, unlike much of the polemical literature spawned by that debate, the works of Gibson and Wilkins each made a more enduring contribution to the history of English ecclesiastical law.



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1. Most of what follows is based on Sykes, N., Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, 1669–1748 (Oxford, 1926). This supersedes the entry in DNB. Cf. [Smalbroke, R.], Some account of the Rt Reverend Dr Edmund Gibson (1749).

2. It will also be recalled that Richard Burn, a member of the same college in a later generation, had interests in local history as well as in ecclesiastical law.

3. Cf. Owen, D. M., The Medieval Canon Law (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 6061, on a wider Oxford group. Dr Owen quotes Bishop Stubbs' remark upon them, that ‘the very dust of their writings is gold’.

4. It bears the name Dr Edward Bernard (d. 1697), the astronomer and bibliophile who acted as editor in chief, but the entries were compiled by different contributors.

5. A new edition, by Cardwell, was printed in 1854.

6. For the background, see Sykes, op, cit., pp. 57–58. It occasioned some unresolved questions about the legality of Lambeth degrees.

7. Her sister Elizabeth was the wife of Dr John Bettesworth. Her father was the Rev. John Jones, rector of Selattyn.

8. 18th ed., 1750.

9. From the sub-title to the 1713 edition.

10. Cambridge Univ. Lib. Adv. a. 70.1. is Thomas Tanner's copy, with his notes.

11. Introduction, pp. xvii-xxxi.

12. See the comments (adverse to Gibson) by SirHoldsworth, William, History of English Law, Vol. XII (1938), pp. 609610. Some opponents went so far as to accuse him of high treason for denying the king's jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters, though Gibson's argument was that the ecclesiastical courts were as much the king's courts as the old courts of common law. A more measured response was made by Foster, Michael (later Mr Justice Foster) in An Examination of the Scheme of Church Power, laid down in the Codex Juris Ecclesiastici Anglicani (1735; 5th ed., 1763).

13. 1 & 2 Phil. & Mar., c. 8, (see of Rome Act 1554) printed in Vol. I, p. 37.

14. E.g. Authentick memoirs of the life of Dr Codex (1725).

15. Preface, p. viii.

16. Note, however, Grey, R., A System of English Ecclesiastical Law extracted from the Codex Juris Ecclesiastici Anglicani (1730; 2nd ed. 1732; 3rd ed. 1735; 4th ed. 1743). Richard Grey was rector of Hinton, Northants.

17. In 1733 a Bill for removing the ex officio jurisdiction of the Church courts over the laity, unless the informer undertook to pay the costs, and to entitle defendants to trial by jury, passed the House of Commons but was abandoned in the Lords.

18. He had been generally expected to succeed Wake in the 1730s, but fell out with Walpole a year before Wake died in 1737.

19. See George Gibson's letter of 1756, quoted below.

20. In the H. E. Huntington Library, San Marino: Gibson collection.

21. The nature of the dispute is not clearly revealed by the correspondence. In a letter of 25 Nov. 1754, G. Scott reports to his brother that he is ‘heartily sick’ of the affair and ‘now on very indifferent terms with a near relation of mine’, and refers to ‘that very extraordinary piece of advice of the late Dean of Arches’. This last was Dr Bettesworth, the husband of Bishop Gibson's wife's sister, and one of the bishop's executors.

22. For the troubled history of the patent, see Sale, W. M., Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (Ithaca, 1950), pp. 134144. The sole printing of statutes belonged to the king's printer, though he seems never to have staked a claim to synodal legislation.

23. See Carter, H. ed., A History of the Oxford University Press, Vol. I (Oxford, 1975), pp. 332333. Cf. Basket v University of Cambridge (1758) 1 Wm Bl 105.

24. The king's printer had the monopoly of printing statutes, and the Codex included a number of statutory texts. However, Baskett was content with one copy as a formal acknowledgment of his interest.

25. History of the Oxford University Press, vol. I. p. 333. Copies of the 1713 edition seem to be more readily found even today.

26. Cf. Sykes, op. cit., p. 71: ‘Although devoid of originality and imagination, he was at his best in the patient and minute research which such a publication demanded.’

27. The Canon Law of the Church of England (1947), p. 55. Cf. D. M. Owen, op. cit., p. 61, who says that it is ‘still of use to the modern scholar, a point on which Professor Cheney did not agree with me’.

28. Seldeni Opera Omnia (1725, 1726).

29. Jacob, E. F., ‘Wilkins's Concilia and the 15th Century’ (1931) 15 Trans. Royal Historical Soc. (4th series) 91131.

30. Wilkins married Mary, daughter of Lord Fairfax, in 1725. He died at Hadleigh, in Suffolk, where he was rector, on 6 September 1745.

31. Bodl. Lib. MS. C. 64 is a Spelman collection, with additions by Tanner, which passed to Wilkins.

32. Bodl. Lib. MS. Autog. C.8, f.13, printed in (1931) 16 Procs. British Academy 377.

33. Spelman, H., Concilia, decreta, leges, consuetudines in re ecclesiarum orbis Britannici (1639).

34. For the history of this work, see Powicke, F. M., ‘Sir Henry Spelman and the Concilia’ (1931) 16 Procs. British Academy 345379.

35. Haddan, A. W. and Stubbs, W., Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 1869), in three volumes.

36. Councils and Synods with other Documents relating to the English Church, vol. I, 8711204 (Oxford. 1981); vol. II, 1205–1313 (Oxford, 1964). The 1981 instalment was, most regrettably, printed from typescript copy.

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Famous English Canon Lawyers: VIII Edmund Gibson, D.D. († 1748) and David Wilkins, D.D. († 1745)

  • J. H. Baker (a1)


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