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Littleton [Lyttleton], Sir Thomaslocked

(d. 1481)
  • J. H. Baker

Littleton [Lyttleton], Sir Thomas (d. 1481), justice and legal writer, was the eldest son of Thomas Westcote or Heuster, a lawyer who became chief prothonotary of the common pleas, and Elizabeth Littleton, daughter and heir of Thomas Littleton (d. 1422). It is supposed that he assumed his mother's surname and arms under the terms of her first marriage settlement, as heir to the Littletons' manor of Frankley in Worcestershire.

Lawyer and judge

In the 1430s, perhaps under his stepfather's influence, Littleton went to London to study law, and he was admitted to the Inner Temple. Sir Edward Coke's claim that Littleton was a member of the inn was long doubted, but it is corroborated by manuscript evidence that he attended readings there after he became a serjeant. Coke also said he had seen Littleton's own reading on the Statute of Westminster II c. 1, De donis (concerning entails); this would have been given in the 1440s, and if it could be found would be the earliest named reading. By the end of the 1440s Littleton was an established lawyer, and he was elected recorder of Coventry in 1449. In 1453, when probably not out of his thirties, he was created serjeant-at-law, and two years later he was appointed king's serjeant. His clients included the earl of Wiltshire, the duke of Buckingham, Lord Clinton, Sir William Trussel, and the duchy of Lancaster. In 1466 he was raised to the bench, and from then until his death he sat as a justice of the common pleas. As an assize justice he was sent at first on the northern circuit, but in 1471 he changed to the midland. In company with Chief Justice Bryan he was made a knight of the Bath at Whitsun 1475.


In January 1444 Littleton married Jane (d. 1505), the young widow of Sir Philip Chetwynd. She brought him estates at Grendon and Dordon in Warwickshire, and Ingestre in Staffordshire, which she claimed as her jointure but which were the subject of litigation with the Chetwynd family for over thirty years. Fifteen years later, she inherited other lands in Shropshire and Staffordshire from her father, William Burley (d. 1459), a Shropshire apprentice of the law and sometime speaker of the Commons. Littleton bought further property in those counties, as well as in his home county of Worcestershire, and also rented a London house on the north side of St Sepulchre's Church in Holborn.

Littleton: its history and reputation

The justice's professional immortality derives not so much from his learning as displayed in the year-books, which report many of his arguments and opinions, as from his celebrated treatise on tenures. The treatise, known simply as Littleton, was printed anonymously and without title by John Lettou and William Machlinia within a year of his death in 1481: it was the first law book printed in England. Since it purported to have been written for the instruction of one of the author's sons, it probably dates from about ten years earlier. A few fifteenth-century manuscripts survive, though none can be positively dated before the first printed edition, and it therefore seems possible that the text was indeed private to the Littleton family until the justice's death. Littleton's modesty might have deprived posterity of a masterpiece. It proved to be the most successful law book ever written in England, enjoying over ninety editions, some of them (after 1525) translated from the original law French into English. (There is an earlier English translation in manuscript.) It was already an established authority by the early sixteenth century, and its propositions were cited as 'maxims' and 'grounds' of the law of property. Chief Justice Mountague asserted in 1550 that it was 'the true and most sure register of the foundations and principles of our law' (Les commentaries, fol. 58rv), and in 1600 William Fulbecke went so far as to say that 'Littleton is not now the name of a lawyer, but of the law itself' (Direction, fol. 27v).

Until Victorian times, Littleton was one of the first books placed in the hands of a law student. Copies were often interleaved for heavy annotation, and the contents laboriously digested into commonplaces. An anonymous Jacobean commentary was printed in 1829, but the best-known commentary was that by Sir Edward Coke. Coke on Littleton (1628) took the form of a massive gloss piled around the words of Littleton, in the continental manner, emphasizing the almost oracular authority of the original text. Coke, outraged by the ill-judged censures of the French civil lawyer François Hotman, lauded the text as 'the most perfect and absolute work that ever was written in any human science' (Coke, Le Second Parte des Reportes, fol. 67). Littleton himself made no such claim to infallibility, and in the epilogue expressly denied it, stating that his object was to communicate an elementary understanding of legal reasoning, and warning that some of what he wrote might not be law. The key to the book's success lay in the clarity of its style and the simplicity of its propositions. Littleton sensed more keenly than most lawyers of his time the need for a distinction between the theoretical and the vocational stages of legal education. He knew the finer points of pleading and practice as well as anyone, but kept them from cluttering his exposition of first principles. He cited few cases, mentioned few controversies, and passed over modern developments (such as uses or trusts of land) which might have confused the beginner. Instead, the underlying axioms of the land law were revealed in easy stages, with examples and reasoned explanations—the law was more praiseworthy, according to the concluding Latin motto, when it could be proved by reason: 'Lex plus laudatur quando ratione probatur' (Coke, Institutes, fol. 395). The work shows a coherence in common-law thought which the year-books of the same period largely conceal from the modern reader.

The treatise is divided into three books. The second book alone deals with tenures, the author having decided first to describe the system of estates in land. The first begins with a definition of fee simple, which is still found in textbooks on real property. These first two books, according to a note at the end, were intended to explain the Old Tenures, a fourteenth-century primer which Littleton's New Tenures virtually supplanted. The third book is three times longer than the first two together, and covers a series of topics relating to title. The further division of the treatise into 749 sections was made by the Tudor printers, who also interpolated some apocrypha—including a few references to cases—about 1530. A translation into modern French, by the Norman lawyer Houard, was published at Rouen in 1766. William Jones (d. 1794) prepared a new law-French text in 1776, but abandoned his plan for a new edition on learning that Hargrave was working on a new edition of Coke on Littleton. The last French edition was printed in 1841, and the last English reprint was published in Washington, DC in 1903.

Death and succession

Littleton died on 23 August 1481 and was buried in Worcester Cathedral, where he founded a chantry for his parents and for William Burley and Sir Philip Chetwynd. His tomb chest, bearing the indent of a figure in judicial robes, is still to be seen in the nave; the brass was stolen during the civil war. There was formerly a portrait in scarlet gown and coif, kneeling at a prie-dieu, in the windows of Frankley church, where at the time of his marriage he had founded for his domestic use a chapel of the Holy Trinity; there was a similar figure at Halesowen in Shropshire. The Frankley window was probably the basis of the engraving executed by Robert Vaughan for the 1629 edition of Coke on Littleton. The Inner Temple has a more fanciful full-length painting, attributed to Cornelis Janssens, which was given by Coke's daughter in 1662; for over 250 years it hung in hall with a companion portrait of Coke. Littleton's will, dated the day before his death, does not list his law books but mentions a number of others, including a Catholicon and Polychronicon, Lyndwode's Provinciale, De gestis Romanorum, Fasciculus morum, Medulla grammatica, and an obscure 'grete English boke'. He appointed as its overseer John Alcock, then bishop of Worcester.

The justice's eldest son, Sir William (1450–1507), knighted after the battle of Stoke, and his second son, Richard (d. 1517), were both members of the Inner Temple; a third son, Thomas (d. 1524), was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1476 and kept chambers there for many years. He also had two daughters, Ellen and Alice, who died unmarried. Only Richard—who represented Ludlow in the 1491 parliament—seems to have practised law, and his father left him the town house near Newgate; he became a bencher of the Inner Temple, where he gave an important reading on the law of felony (Westminster II cc. 12–14) in 1493. Richard Littleton was seated at Pillatonhall in Staffordshire, where his male line continued until 1812; there is a portrait of him incised on stone in Penkridge church. From William Littleton descended the lords Lyttleton of Frankley (now represented by Viscount Cobham), and from Thomas descended Edward Lyttelton (d. 1645), lord keeper to Charles I, who became Lord Lyttelton of Mounslow.


  • Littleton's tenures, ed. E. Wambaugh (1903)
  • P. Winfield, Chief sources of English legal history (1925), 309–14
  • C. Carpenter, Locality and polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society, 1401–1499 (1992)
  • J. H. Baker and J. S. Ringrose, A catalogue of English legal manuscripts in Cambridge University Library (1996)
  • E. Coke, First part of the institutes (1628)
  • H. Cary, A commentary on the tenures of Littleton (1829)
  • B. Willis, A survey of the cathedrals of York, Durham, Carlisle … Bristol, 2 vols. (1727)
  • BL, Harley MSS 965, fol. 193
  • F. H. Inderwick and L. Field, Report on the paintings of Littleton and Coke in the Inner Temple (1894)
  • Les commentaries, ou, Les reportes de Edmunde Plowden (1571)
  • W. F. Carter, ‘Pedigree of the family of Lyttelton’, The Genealogist, new ser., 37 (1921)



  • R. Vaughan, engraving, 1629
  • C. Janssens, painting, 1635, Inner Temple, London
  • line engraving (after a plate by R. Vaughan), BM, NPG; repro. in E. Coke, The first part of the institutes of the laws of England, 9th edn (1684)
  • portraits, Inner Temple, London
private collection
W. S. Holdsworth, , ed. A. L. Goodhart & H. G. Hanbury, 17 vols. (1903–72)
Selden Society
J. H. Baker, ; SeldS, suppl. ser., 5 (1984)
British Library, London
British Museum, London