Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ayliffe, John

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AYLIFFE, JOHN, LL.D. (1676–1732), jurist, was born at Pember, Hampshire, in 1676. He was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, where he matriculated February 1690, became B.A. 1699, M.A. 1703, LL.B. and LL.D. 1710. Up to 1710 he practised as a proctor in the chancellor's court, and 'had a prospect,' he tells us, 'of succeeding to some chancellorship or other preferment in the church of the like nature.' But his political opinions stood in the way. He was an ardent whig at a time when Oxford was the home of Jacobitism; and as he seems to have omitted no occasion of making his opinions known, he was subjected, according to his own account, to 'lawsuits and other persecutions, for the sake of my adhering to the principles of the Revolution; which shall be the test of my loyalty so long as I live.' What these lawsuits and other persecutions were we have no means of knowing; but the publication of the book from which we quote this complaint brought his sufferings to a climax. In 1712, on the advice of his friends, he issued a specimen of a work on Oxford for which he had collected materials while practising in the chancellor's court; but, whether from a belief that he would so sketch the history of the university as to malign the Stuarts, or that he would pry too curiously into the internal affairs of colleges, the scheme was received with such disfavour that he had thoughts of abandoning it. The book was published, however, in 1714, about a week before the queen's death. A few months afterwards Ayliffe was summoned before the university court at the suits of Dr. Gardiner, then vice-chancellor, and of Dr. Braithwaite, the former vicechancellor, for certain words highly reflecting on them. In the passage which gave offence (i. 216) he had gone out of his way to say that the funds of the Clarendon Printing House had been misappropriated — an accusation which he afterwards said should have been made more specifically, as he had evidence to prove that Gardiner was a partaker in the spoil. The result was that Ayliffe was expelled from the university, and deprived of all privileges and degrees. Meanwhile he was attacked by Cobb, the warden of New College, for another passage (i. 322), where he remarked on the thin crop of eminent men of which that college could then boast 'through the supine negligence of a late warden, and the discouragements arising from domestick quarrels, and the forgetfulness of such as owe some gratitude to the memory of a munificent founder.' He was accused, moreover, of disobedience, and of having in a conversation with one Prince threatened to pistol the warden. This last charge Ayliffe did not deny. According to his own account he had said 'that if the warden shou'd distress him by any unjust expulsion, he might be driven to such an extremity for want of a subsistence (having only a fellowship to live on) as to pistol the warden; and the said Prince did readily agree with this respondent, that it was only doing himself justice.' Rather than make submission he resigned his fellowship. The whole story is told in a pamphlet, called the 'Case of Dr. Ayliffe at Oxford,' and published in 1716. In the ' Gent. Mag.' (Ixxiv. 646) the pamphlet is referred to as 'a vindication of himself,' and certainly its heated style and the nature of the legal knowledge which it displays leave little doubt that Ayliffe either wrote or inspired it. Apart from the matters directly in question he mentions among the real causes of the proceedings his insinuation that the unwillingness of several colleges to give him an account of their benefactors was 'an argument of their perverting the uses of the charity,' his protest against the negative voice claimed by some heads of colleges, and his political opinions. On the last point there is some confirmation in a letter from Oxford published in the 'Political State of Great Britain' (1716, xii. 649). The writer gives instances to show how difficult it was for a whig to live at Oxford, and says: 'Dr. Ayliffe too must be publicly expelled. Several points were pretended, but they were easily seen thro'. If Oxford be a Jacobite seminary, who can expect Hanoverian principles should be there tolerated? 'And Amherst tells us of a public speech delivered just after the king's accession, in which Ayliffe was violently abused, and which contained the words: 'hisce mediis ad aulam affectat viam; abeat, discedat; conveniunt mores' (Terræ Filius, xiv.) The greater part of Ayliffe's 'Ancient and Present State of Oxford,' which occasioned these attacks, is avowedly an abridgment of Wood's 'History and Antiquities of Oxford,' 'deliver'd,' as he says, 'from the many errors and evident partiality of that laborious undertaker and searcher into antiquities.' The work enters into legal details at tedious length, and is now nearly forgotten. Aylifte's chief titles to fame are his two treatises on the canon law and the civil law, into which he threw the whole learning of his life. The 'Parergon Juris Canonici Anglicani' appeared in 1726, and, though time and the labours of later writers on ecclesiastical law have diminished its value, it is still regarded as a work of high authority (see 'Veley v. Burder,' 12 A. and E. 302). He died 5 Nov. 1732. In 1734 was published the first volume of a 'New Pandect of the Civil Law,' which he had written some years before, but had kept back from lack of subscriptions. There was at the time an awakening interest in the civil law, and Ayliffe designed his book not only for the lawyer, but also for the politician and the diplomatist. He considered, moreover, that his subject had a higher educational value than philosophy. 'Whoever consults Justinian's Institutes,' he had said in his history of Oxford, 'will find more sound reasoning therein than in all the works of Ramus, Ockham, and the rest of that tribe.' Ayliffe's treatise has been described as dull, tedious, and confused (Browne's Comp. View of the Civil Law, p. ii), and with some justice; for under his great weight of learning he did not move easily. And this may be the reason why, in spite of its comprehensiveness and accuracy, it has not had the reputation of works so much inferior as Wood's 'Institutes' and Taylor's 'Elements.' Though never finished, it remains to our own day the most elaborate treatise on modern Roman law written in English.

1. 'The Ancient and Present State of the University of Oxford,' 2 vols, 1714, reprinted in 1723. The appendix contains a number of charters, decrees, &:c., relating both to Oxford and Cambridge. 2. 'The Case of Dr. Ayliffe at Oxford: giving, first, an Account of the Unjust and Malicious Prosecution of him in the Chancellor's Court of that University, for Writing and Publishing a Book, entituled the Antient and Present State of the University of Oxford: And secondly, an Account of the Proceedings had against him in his College, chiefly founded on the Prosecution of the University; whereby he was oblig'd to quit the one, and was expell'd the other,' 1716. Probably written by Ayliffe.) 3. 'Parergon Juris Canonici Anglicani; or a Commentary by way of Supplement to the Canons and Constitutions of the Church of England,' &c., 1726; 2nd edition, 1734 The titles are alphabetically arranged. There is an historical introduction, and appended to the work is a catalogue of the monastic and religious houses dissolved by Henry VIII, with their yearly value. 4. 'The Law of Pledges, or Pawns, as it was in use among the Romans, and as it is now practiced in most foreign Nations,' 1732. This was a publication by anticipation of Book IV. Tit. 18 of the work on the civil law, and was addressed to the House of Commons, then making inquiries into what Ayliffe called 'the dark recesses and malepractices of pawnbrokers and their accomplices in iniquity.' 5. 'A New Pandect of Roman Civil Law, as anciently established in that Empire, and now received and practiced in most European Nations,' &c., vol. i., 1734. The second volume never appeared. The entry of '2 vols.' in the 'Biblioth. Jurid.' of Lipenius is a mistake.

[The Case of Dr. Ayliffe at Oxford; references to himself in his other works; Notice by Burton in S. D. U. K. Biog. Dict.; Gent. Mag. lxxiv. 646, 855, lxxxix. 956; Eawlinson's MSS. fol. 16, 105.]

G. P. M.