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Spelman, Sir Johnlocked

(c. 1480–1546)
  • J. H. Baker

Spelman, Sir John (c. 1480–1546), judge and law reporter, was the fourth son of Henry Spelman (d. 1496) and his second wife, Ela, daughter of William Narborough of Narborough, Norfolk, and widow of Thomas Shouldham (d. 1472) of Marham. His father was a reader of Gray's Inn, and is portrayed in his robes as recorder of Norwich on a brass at Narborough; his reading was printed in 1951. John Spelman followed his father to Gray's Inn about 1500. On becoming a bencher in Lent 1514 he read on the first five chapters of the Statute of Westminster I. Several cases argued on this occasion survive in manuscript. In Lent 1519 he delivered his celebrated second reading, on the Statute of Quo warranto. This was not printed until 1997, but it circulated widely in manuscript, and the disputed cases are also preserved. In Lent 1521 he delivered a third reading, as serjeant-elect; this was on Prerogativa regis, and a manuscript text survives in Gray's Inn.

Spelman was created serjeant on 1 July 1521, elected to his father's old office of recorder of Norwich the following year, and on 28 November 1526 became one of the king's serjeants. On 3 July 1531 he was appointed to the judgeship of the king's bench which had been vacant since the death of Sir John More, the chancellor's father, and on 8 July was sworn in by Sir Thomas More. He was knighted the following year. As a judge of assize he went on the arduous northern circuit until 1537, when he changed to the home. In 1540 he stopped going on circuit, and the cessation of his reports at the same time suggests that he was becoming decrepit. There was indeed a garbled later recollection that he had retired to the country on grounds of age; but he seems in fact to have continued sitting in Westminster Hall until 1545, and died in office on 26 January 1546. Sir Robert Brooke described him as 'valde peritus in lege' ('mightily learned in the law'; Brooke, 1, fol. 182v). He was buried at Narborough, where there is a brass depicting him in judicial robes, coloured red, with his wife and children, and a picture of the resurrection. The inscription describes him as 'Secundary Justice of the Kinges Bench' but gives his date of death incorrectly as 26 February.

Spelman is renowned for his reports of cases, which run from about 1502 until 1540 and were known to Stanford and Coke. The reports begin with the Christmas festivities in Gray's Inn which Spelman attended as a young student, and include readings and moots in the inn as well as cases observed in Westminster Hall. After he became a serjeant in 1521, the reporting emphasis shifted to the common pleas, and when he became a judge in 1531 to the king's bench. He was the first reporter to note legal discussions 'at table' in Serjeants' Inn, Chancery Lane, these being the first indications of a nascent procedure for discussing reserved crown cases. He also reported some private judicial sessions in the exchequer chamber, the most important of which is his account of Lord Dacre's case (1535), the case which enabled Henry VIII to force the Statute of Uses on an unwilling Commons. Among several notes on matters of state are accounts of the fatal proceedings against Wolsey ('home de graund pompe et riches'), the coronation, trial, and execution of Anne Boleyn, and the trials of Fisher and More. The autograph of the reports is lost, but the corpus which remains, rearranged in its original alphabetical format, was published for the first time in 1977.

On the death of his half-brother Thomas Shouldham in 1514, Spelman obtained the estate at Narborough where he became established. After some litigation with the Shouldhams, his title was perfected by final concord in 1526 and he thereupon built Narborough Hall, where his descendants lived until 1773. The house still displays a stone tablet with the judge's arms, impaling Frowyk, and the date 1528. The impalement commemorated his only marriage, to Elizabeth (d. 1556), daughter of Chief Justice Frowyk's brother Henry, with whom he had a remarkable number of offspring. The judge left his law books to his seventh son, Erasmus, with an exhibition to study in Gray's Inn, but none of his children made any mark in the law. His grandson Sir Henry Spelman (1563/4–1641) was the celebrated antiquary, and Sir Henry's son Clement Spelman (bap. 1598, d. 1679), bencher of Gray's Inn and cursitor baron of the exchequer, was the last-known owner of Spelman's autograph reports. Another Clement Spelman (d. 1680), the great-grandson of Sir John's second son, John, was a king's counsel and recorder of Nottingham; his standing effigy in robes is in Narborough church, and his library is preserved as a parochial library in Swaffham church.


  • J. H. Baker, ed., John Spelman's reading on Quo warranto, SeldS, 113 (1997)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/31, sig. 5 [Lady Elizabeth Spelman]
  • inquisition post mortem, TNA: PRO, C 142/95/14
  • TNA: PRO, E 101/209/4 [patent as king's serjeant]
  • R. Brooke, La graunde abridgement (1573)
  • The English works of Sir Henry Spelman, ed. E. Gibson (1727)


  • brass effigy on monument, Narborough church, Norfolk
Selden Society
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London