Nielsen Hayden genealogy

Thomas Littleton

Male - 1481


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  • Name Thomas Littleton  [1
    Gender Male 
    Died 23 Aug 1481  [2, 3
    Buried Worcester Cathedral, Worcestershire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [3
    Person ID I16051  Ancestry of PNH, TNH, and others | Ancestor of TSW
    Last Modified 12 Aug 2018 

    Father Thomas Westcote 
    Mother Elizabeth Littleton 
    Family ID F9953  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Joan Burley,   d. 1505 
    Married Jan 1444  [3
    Children 
    +1. William Littleton,   b. 1450, of Frankley, Worcestershire, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 1507  (Age 57 years)
    Last Modified 12 Aug 2018 
    Family ID F9873  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Notes 
    • Judge of the Common Pleas. Author of the Treatise on Tenures.

      From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

      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', 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'.

      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'. 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'. 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.

  • Sources 
    1. [S47] The History of Parliament. Some citations point to entries from the printed volumes not yet added to the online site.

    2. [S317] The Bulkeley Genealogy, by Donald Lines Jacobus. New Haven, Connecticut: 1933., year only.

    3. [S76] The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-ongoing).