Inter Magnalia Fleetwoodi: Re-examining William Fleetwood in Light of the Late-Sixteenth Century Legal Treatise, A Discourse upon the Commission of Bridewell



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In The Reinvention of Magna Carta (2017), Sir John Baker argues for William Fleetwood’s authorship of A Discourse upon the Commission of Bridewell (c. 1580s). Examining A Discourse and other writings, I wish to qualify two points Baker makes about Fleetwood: that his use of chapter 29 in legal argument was “distinctly old-fashioned,” and that “in none of Fleetwood’s works is there a discernible theme of constitutional monarchy.” I do not entirely dispute Baker’s first point, but he does not consider the full implications of Fleetwood’s use of chapter 29 in A Discourse and in his argument for the Case of the Tallow Chandlers (1583). While Fleetwood sometimes exalted the royal prerogative, as Baker does point out, I argue here that he asserted its limitations and restraint by parliamentary authority.
To Baker, Fleetwood is a transitionary figure. While he analyzed, applied, and advocated Magna Carta more than his contemporaries did, he remained steeped in the late-medieval learning of the inns of court and did not “reinvent” Magna Carta as the Jacobean lawyers would soon do. Despite this traditionalism, I argue that Fleetwood’s approach to chapter 29 in some ways anticipated how Jacobean lawyers interpreted that statute, and in whose thinking there was a strong sense of the liberty and protection of the subject. With its timely publication in 1643, decades after its original composition, I conclude that A Discourse also anticipated seventeenth century arguments for the restriction of royal power.



Early Modern England, Elizabethan era, early Stuart period, English law, London, Bridewell, charter, commission, Magna Carta, Fleetwood, Bacon


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