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John Selden was a brilliant lawyer, author, politician, legal analyst, and historian in seventeenth-century England. John Milton, the famed poet and a contemporary of Selden, called Selden "the chief of learned men reputed in this Land."
Selden was born in Salvington, Sussex, England, in 1584. His baptismal record says only, "John, the sonne of John Selden, ye ministrell, was baptized the xxth day of December," the brevity of which indicating Selden likely was born within the customary four days of the ceremony but leaving in question the exact day of birth. The elder John Selden was a musician—a minstrel—who married Margaret Baker, the only child and, therefore, heir of a landed nobleman. The Selden family improved its status further so that by 1609 they held more than 80 acres of land and could afford to send their only surviving child to university.
After attending Oxford University and the Inns of Court, Selden was called to the bar in 1612, and then apprenticed for at least another two years. He published a number of works about English Legal History before he was admitted to the bar, and he continued to write while practicing law. His earliest work was a study of Syrian mythology in the Bible, De dis Syris, a treatise finished in 1605 and published in 1617. It established his reputation as of one Europe's leading scholars on Asian history.
"Ignorance of the law excuses no man; not all men know the law, but because it is an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to confute him."
History of Tithes, a masterpiece of research on the history of English Law published in 1618, is by far his most influential work. In History of Tithes, Selden argued that the clergy had a legal but not a divine right to tithes, or 10 percent of a person's income. Selden also claimed that tithes were not ordained by God's law. This conclusion was controversial because it implicitly denied the divine right of kings, or the notion that monarchs were descended from rulers appointed by God, for it implied a separation of state law and divine law. The divine right of kings supported the rule that kings could not forfeit their right to the throne through misconduct, but Tithes put this rule in doubt.
Three years after the publication of Tithes, Selden became embroiled in another controversy when he helped Parliament draft the House of Commons Protestation, a complaint to the Crown about the rights and privileges of the House of Commons. Selden professed the belief that Parliament did not owe its powers to the Crown and that the independence of Parliament was rooted in the lawful and traditional heritage of the English people. This belief, argued Selden, was supported by early records that showed that parliamentary government was an ancient Anglo-Saxon custom. King James I imprisoned Selden in the Tower of London for five weeks for what he deemed treasonous statements.
In 1623 Selden was elected to the House of Commons. He promptly earned a reputation for candor and conviction in his support of religious and civil freedoms. He also became known for his opposition to the taxation of cargo by its weight. Selden was so persuasive that the House of Commons passed a resolution prohibiting the tax. The resolution did not win the approval of King Charles I, and Selden was sent to the Tower of London for another brief stay.
Selden continued to publish works that used historical analysis to explain or correct England's order of affairs. Along with predecessor Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) and protégé Sir Matthew Hale (1609–76), Selden helped provide an intellectual basis for the early seventeenth-century parliamentary revolution against the power of the Crown. In 1640 Selden became a member of the Long Parliament, a special parliament created in that year by Charles I, who had governed without a parliament for 11 years. Ironically, Selden spent his later years keeping the rolls and records for the Tower of London.
Selden's most famous work was published after his death. This was Table Talk, a survey of Selden's witty conversations with famous friends such as poet Ben Jonson. Published in 1689, Table Talk presented a more relaxed, colorful image of Selden that was not apparent in his scholarly works. Selden's emphasis on the importance of history lives on through the Selden Society, a group that promotes the study of English legal history.
Selden died in London on November 30, 1654.
Berkowitz, David Sandler. 1988. John Selden's Formative Years: Politics and Society in Early Seventeenth-Century England. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated Univ. Presses.
Berman, Harold J. 1994. "The Origins of Historical Jurisprudence: Coke, Selden, Hale." Yale Law Journal 103 (May).
Christianson, Paul. 1996. Discourse on History, Law, and Governance in the Public Career of John Selden, 1610–1635. Toronto, Ont.: Univ. of Toronto Press.