1902 Encyclopedia > John Selden

John Selden
English jurist, parliamentarian and scholar
(1584-1654)




JOHN SELDEN (1584-1654), jurist, legal antiquary, and Oriental scholar, was born on 16th December 1584 at Salvington, in the parish of West Tarring, near Worthing, Sussex. His father, also named John Selden, held a small farm, and seems to have occasionally added to his liveli-hood by his labour as a wheelwright and his skill as a musician. It is said that his accomplishments as a violin-player gained him his wife, whose social position was somewhat superior to his own. She was Margaret, the only child of Thomas Baker of Rustington, a village in the vicinity of West Tarring, and was more or less re-motely descended from a knightly family of the same name in Kent. John Selden commenced his education at the free grammar-school at Chichester, whence he pro-ceeded in his sixteenth year with an exhibition to Hart Hall at Oxford. In 1603 he was admitted a member of Clifford's Inn, London, and in 1604 migrated to the Inner Temple, and in due course he was called to the bar. While still a student he appears to have been on terms of friendship with Ben Jonson, Drayton, and Camden; and among his more intimate companions were Edward Little-ton, afterwards lord keeper ; Henry Bolle, afterwards lord chief-justice; Edward Herbert, afterwards solicitor-general ; and Thomas Gardener, afterwards recorder of London. His earliest patron was Sir Robert Cotton, the antiquary, by whom he seems to have been employed in copying and abridging certain of the parliamentary records then preserved in the Tower. For some reason which has not been explained, Selden never went into court as an advocate, save on rare and exceptional occasions. But his practice in chambers as a conveyancer and consulting counsel is stated to have been large, and, if we may judge from the considerable fortune he accumulated, it must also have been lucrative.

It was, however, as a scholar and writer that Selden won his reputation both amongst his contemporaries and with posterity. His first work, an account of the civil administration of England before the Norman Conquest, is said to have been completed when he was only two- or three-and-twenty years of age. But if this was the Analecton Anglo-Britannicon, as is generally supposed, he withheld it from the world until 1615. In 1610 appeared his England's Epinomis and Janus Anglorum, Fades Altera, which dealt with the progress of English law down to Henry II., and The Duello, or Single Combat, in which he traced the his-tory of trial by battle in England from the Norman Conquest. In 1613 he supplied a series of notes, enriched by an immense number of quotations and references, to the first eighteen cantos of Drayton's Polyolbion. In 1614 he published Titles of Honour, which, in spite of some obvious defects and omissions, has remained to the present day the most comprehensive and trustworthy work of its kind that we possess ; and in 1616 his notes on Fortescue's De Laudibus Legum Angliae and Hengham's Summa Magna et Parva. In 1617 his De Diis Syriis was issued from the press, and immediately established his fame as an Oriental scholar among the learned in all parts of Europe. After two centuries and a half, indeed, it is still not only the fundamental but also in many respects the best book which has been written on Semitic mythology. In 1618 his History of Tithes, although only published after it had been submitted to the censorship and duly licensed, nevertheless aroused the apprehension of the bishops and provoked the intervention of the king. The author was summoned before the privy council and compelled to retract his opinions, or at any rate what were held to be his opin-ions. Moreover, his work was suppressed and himself forbidden to reply to any of the controversialists who had come or might come forward to answer it.





This seems to have introduced Selden to the practical side of political affairs. The discontents which a few years later broke out into civil war were already forcing themselves on public attention, and it is pretty certain that, although he was not in parliament, he was the instigator and perhaps the draftsman of the memorable protestation on the rights and privileges of the House affirmed by the Commons on the 18th of December 1621. He was with several of the members committed to prison, at first in the Tower and subsequently under the charge of Sir Robert Ducie, sheriff of London. During his detention, which only lasted a short time, he occupied himself in preparing an edition of Eadmer's History from a manuscript lent to him by his host or jailor, which he published two years afterwards. In 1623 he was returned to the House of Commons for the borough of Lancaster, and sat with Coke, Noy, and Pym on Sergeant Glanville's election committee. He was also nominated reader of Lyon's Inn, an office which he declined to undertake. For this the benchers of the Inner Temple, by whom he had been appointed, fined him £20 and disqualified him from being chosen one of their number. But he was relieved from this incapacity after a few years, and became a master of the bench. In the first parliament of Charles I. (1625), it appears from the "returns of members" printed in 1878 that, contrary to the assertion of all his biographers, he had no seat. In Charles's second parliament (1626) he was elected for Great Bedwin in Wiltshire, and took a prominent part in the impeachment of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. In the following year, in the "benevolence" case, he was counsel for Sir Edmund Hampden in the Court of King's Bench. In 1628 he was returned to the third parliament of Charles for Ludgershall in Wiltshire, and had a large and important share in drawing up and carrying the Petition of Right. In the session of 1629 he was one of the members mainly respon-sible for the tumultuous passage in the House of Commons of the resolution against the illegal levy of tonnage and poundage, and, along with Eliot, Holies, Long, Valentine, Strode, and the rest, he was sent once more to the Tower. There he remained for eight months, deprived for a part of the time of the use of books and writing materials. He was then removed, under less rigorous conditions, to the Marshalsea, until not long afterwards owing to the good offices of Archbishop Laud he was liberated. Some years before he had been appointed steward to the earl of Kent, to whose seat, Wrest in Bedfordshire, he now retired. In 1628 at the suggestion of Sir Robert Cotton he had compiled, with the assistance of two learned coadjutors, Patrick Young and Richard James, a catalogue of the Arundel marbles. He employed his leisure at Wrest in writing De Successionibus in Bona Befuncti secundum Beges Ebrxorum and De Successions in Pontiflcatum Ebrxorum, published in 1631. About this period he seems to have inclined towards the court rather than the popular party, and even to have secured the personal favour of the king. To him in 1635 he dedicated his Mare Clausum, and under the royal patronage it was put forth as a kind of state paper. It had been written sixteen or seventeen years before; but James I. had prohibited its publication for political reasons ; hence it appeared a quarter of a century after Grotius's Mare Liberum, to which it was intended to be a rejoinder, and the pretensions advanced in which on behalf of the Dutch fishermen to poach in the waters off the British coasts it was its purpose to explode. The fact that Selden was not retained in the great case of ship money in 1637 by John Hampden, the cousin of his former client, may be accepted as additional evidence that his zeal in the popular cause was not so warm and unsuspected as it had once been. During the progress of this momentous constitutional conflict, indeed, he seems to have been absorbed in his Oriental researches, publishing De Jure Naturali et Gentium juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum in 1640. He was not elected to the Short Parliament of 1640; but to the Long Parliament, summoned in the autumn, he was returned without opposition for the university of Oxford. Immediately after the opening of the session he was nominated a member of the committee of twenty-four appointed to draw up a remonstrance on the state of the nation. He was also a member of the committees entrusted with the preliminary arrangements for the impeachment of Strafford. But he was not one of the managers at the trial, and he voted against the Bill for his attainder. He was, moreover, a member of the committees nominated to search for precedents and frame the articles of impeachment against Archbishop Laud, although it does not appear that he was implicated in the later stages of the prosecution against him. He opposed the resolution against Episcopacy which led to the exclusion of the bishops from the House of Lords, and printed an answer to the arguments used by Sir Harbottle Grimston on that occasion. He joined in the protestation of the Commons for the maintenance of the Protestant religion according to the doctrines of the Church of England, the authority of the crown, and the liberty of the subject. He was equally opposed to the court on the question of the commissions of lieutenancy of array and to the parlia-ment on the question of the militia ordinance. In 1643, however, he became a member and participated in the discussions of the assembly of divines at Westminster, and was appointed shortly afterwards keeper of the rolls and records in the Tower. In 1645 he was named one of the parliamentary commissioners of the admiralty, and was elected master of Trinity Hall in Cambridge,—an office he declined to accept. In 1646 he subscribed the Solemn League and Covenant, and in 1647 was voted £65000 by the parliament as compensation for his sufferings in the evil days of the monarchy. He had not, however, relaxed his literary exertions during these years. He published in 1642 Privileges of the Baronage of England when they sit in Parliament and Discourse concerning the Rights and Privileges of the Subject; in 1644 Dissertatio de Anno Civili et Calendario Reipublicae Judaicae; in 1646 his treatise on marriage and divorce among the Jews entitled Uxor Ebraica; and in 1647 the earliest printed edition of the old and curious English law-book Fleta. What course he adopted with regard to the trial and execution of the king is unknown ; but it is said that he refused to answer the Eikon Basilike, although Cromwell was anxious he should do so, the task which he declined being afterwards performed by Milton in his Iconoclastes. In 1650 Selden passed the first part of De Synedriis et Prefecturis Juridicis Veterum Ebraeorum through the press, the second and third parts being severally published in 1653 and 1655, and in 1652 he wrote a preface and collated some of the manuscripts for Sir Roger Twysden's Historiae Anglicae Scriptores Decem. His last publication was a vindication of himself from certain charges advanced against him and his Mare Clausum in 1653 by Theodore Graswinckel, a Dutch jurist.

After the death of the earl of Kent in 1639 Selden lived permanently under the same roof with his widow. It is believed that he was married to her, although their marriage does not seem to have ever been publicly acknowledged. He died at Friary House in Whitefriars on 30th November 1654, and was buried in the Temple Church, London. Within the last few years a brass tablet has been erected to his memory by the benchers of the Inner Temple in the parish church of West Tarring.





Several of Selden's minor productions were printed for the first time after his death, and a collective edition of his writings was published by Archdeacon Wilkins in 3 vols, folio in 1725, and again in 1726. His Table Talk, by which he is perhaps best known, did not appear until 1689. It was edited by his amanuensis, Richard Milward, who affirms that "the sense and notion is wholly Selden's," and that "most of the words" are his also. Its genuineness has sometimes been questioned, although on insufficient grounds. In Hallam's opinion it "gives perhaps a more exalted notion of Selden's natural talents than any of his learned writings," and in Coleridge's it contains "more weighty bullion sense" than he had "ever found in the same number of pages of any uninspired writer."

See Bliss, Wood's Athens Oxonienses (London, 1817, vol. iv.); Aikin, Lives of John Selden and Archbishop Usher (London, 1812); Johnson, Memoirs of John Selden, &c. (London, 1835); Singer, Table Talk of John Selden (London, 1847); and Wilkins, Johannis Seldeni Opera Omnia, &c. (London, 1725). (F. DR.)



The above article was written by: F. Drummond.



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