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John Selden

John Selden

Selden, John, 1584-1654, English jurist and scholar. He studied at Oxford, was called to the bar in 1612, and was elected to Parliament in 1623. He had already assisted in preparing the protestation of Commons in 1621, asserting to King James I Parliament's rights in the affairs of state, and he had briefly been held in custody as a result. He continued to support the rights of Parliament in its struggle with the crown, was prominent in the trial of George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, and helped to draw up the Petition of Right in 1628. For his activity in the recalcitrant Parliament of 1629 he was imprisoned and was not released until 1631. He represented the Univ. of Oxford in the Long Parliament from 1640 to 1649. Selden was considered one of the most erudite men of his time. His England's Epinomis and Jani Anglorum (1610) established him as the father of legal antiquarianism. The preface to his edition of the Fleta (1647) summarizes his lifelong study in the origins of British law. Selden's reputation as an Orientalist was begun with his De Diis Syris (1617), and he prepared a number of studies of rabbinical law. His History of Tithes (1618) involved him in a conflict with the clergy, and the work was suppressed. Among his other works is Mare Clausum (1635), a defense of England's right to sovereignty over the seas between that country and the Continent, written in response to Hugo Grotius's Mare Liberum. He is popularly best remembered for the record of his conversations kept by his secretary, Richard Milward, and published as Table Talk (1689, ed. by Frederick Pollock, 1927).

See G. W. Johnson, Memoirs of John Selden (10 vol., 1883-84).

John Selden (December 16, 1584November 30, 1654) was an English jurist, scholar of England's ancient laws and constitution and scholar of Jewish law. He was known as a polymath of astounding intellectual depth and breadth; even John Milton, one of the greatest luminaries of 17th century England, hailed Selden as "the chief of learned men reputed in this land."

He was born at Salvington, in the parish of West Tarring, Sussex (now part of the town of Worthing). His father, another John Selden, had a small farm. It is said that his skill as a violin-player was what attracted his wife, Margaret, who was from a better family, being the only child of Thomas Baker of Rustington -- descended from a knightly family of Kent. Selden was educated at the free grammar school at Chichester, and in 1600 he went on to Hart Hall, Oxford. In 1603 he was admitted to Clifford's Inn, London; in 1604 he moved to the Inner Temple; and in 1612 he was called to the bar. His earliest patron was Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, the antiquary, who seems to have employed him to copy and summarise some of the parliamentary records then held at the Tower of London. For some reason, Selden very rarely practised in court, but his practice in chambers as a conveyancer and consulting counsel was large and apparently lucrative.

It was, however, as a scholar and writer that Selden won his reputation. 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 twenty-two or twenty-three. But if this was the Analecion Anglo-Britannicon, as is generally supposed, he did not publish it until 1613. In 1610 three of his works came out: England's Epinomis and Janus Anglorum; Facies Altera, which dealt with the progress of English law down to Henry II; and The Duello, or Single Combat, in which he traced the history of trial by battle in England from the Norman Conquest.

In 1613 he supplied a series of notes, including quotations and references, to the first eighteen cantos of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion. In 1614 he published Titles of Honour, which, in spite of some obvious defects and omissions, remained a comprehensive and trustworthy work for centuries; and in 1616 his notes on John Fortescue's De laudibus legum Angliae and Ralph de Hengham's Summae magna et parva. In 1617 his De diis Syriis was issued, and immediately established his fame as an oriental scholar among the learned in all parts of Europe. It is remarkable for its brilliant use of the comparative method, in which it was far ahead of its age, and is still consulted by students of Semitic mythology.

In 1618 his History of Tithes, although only published after submission to the censor and licensing, caused anxiety among the bishops and provoked the intervention of the king. The author was summoned before the privy council and compelled to retract his opinions. His work was suppressed and he was forbidden to reply to anyone who might come forward to answer it. This seems to have caused Selden's entry into politics. The English Civil War was already in the making, and it seems that, although he was not in Parliament, he was the instigator and perhaps the draughtsman of the memorable protestation on the rights and privileges of the House affirmed by the House of Commons on December 18 1621. He and several others were imprisoned, at first in the Tower and later under the charge of Sir Robert Ducie, sheriff of London. During his brief detention, 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 John Coke, William Noy and John Pym on Sergeant Glanville's election committee. He was also nominated reader of Lyon's Inn, an office he declined to undertake. For this the benchers of the Inner Temple fined him £20 and disqualified him from being one of their number. Nevertheless, after a few years, he 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 Bedwyn in Wiltshire, and took a prominent part in the impeachment of George Villiers, 1st 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, Wiltshire, and was involved in drawing up and carrying the Petition of Right. In the session of 1629 he was one of the members responsible for the tumultuous passage in the House of Commons of the resolution against the illegal levy of tonnage and poundage, and, along with Sir John Eliot, Denzil Holles, Long, Valentine, William Strode, and the rest, he was sent back 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 Archbishop Laud arranged for him to be freed. 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, Selden 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 defuncti secundum leges Ebraeorum and De successione in pontificatum Ebraeorum, 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 English 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. In the words of John Milton, this "volume of naturall & national laws proves, not only by great authorities brought together, but by exquisite reasons and theorems almost mathematically demonstrative, that all opinions, yea errors, known, read, and collated, are of main service & assistance toward the speedy attainment of what is truest."

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. 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 parliament on the question of the militia ordinance.

In 1643 he 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, Cambridge--an office he declined to accept. In 1646 he subscribed the Solemn League and Covenant, and in 1647 was voted £5000 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 English law-book Fleta. 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 around 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 the earl's widow, the former Elizabeth Talbot. It is believed that he married her, although their marriage does not seem to have ever been publicly acknowledged. He died at Friary House in Whitefriars, and was buried in the Temple Church, London. His tomb is today clearly visible through glass plates in the floor of this church. Furthermore, he is commemorated by a monumental inscription on the south side of the Temple Church. More than two centuries after his death, in 1880, a brass tablet was erected to his memory by the benchers of the Inner Temple in the parish church of West Tarring.

Several of Selden's minor works were printed for the first time after his death, and a collective edition of his writings was published by Archdeacon Wilkins in 3 volumes folio in 1725, and again in 1726. Table Talk, for 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.



  • Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Bliss (London; 1817, 4 vols.)
  • John Aikin, Lives of John Selden and Archbishop Usher (London, 1812)
  • David Sandler Berkowitz, John Selden’s Formative Years: Politics and Society in Early Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1988)
  • Sergio Caruso, La miglior legge del regno. Consuetudine, diritto naturale e contratto nel pensiero e nell’epoca di John Selden (1584-1654), Giuffrè: Milano 2001, two vols.
  • Paul Christianson, "Selden, John (1584–1654)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Johnson, Memoirs of John Selden, etc. (London, 1835)
  • Rosenblatt, Jason P. Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden, Oxford University Press, 2006
  • S.W. Singer (preface and notes), The Table-Talk of John Selden. (London, 1856)
  • Archdeacon David Wilkins (editor), Johannis Seldeni Opera Omnia, etc. (London, 1725)
  • John Milton, Areopagitica. (London, 1644)

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