Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Littleton, Thomas (1402-1481)

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LITTLETON, Sir THOMAS (1422–1481), judge and legal author, born at Frankley House, Frankley, Worcestershire, in 1422, was eldest son of Thomas Westcote of Westcote, near Barnstaple, whom Coke calls ‘the king's servant in court.’ His mother was Elizabeth, daughter and sole heir of Thomas de Littleton, lord of the manor of Frankley, and esquire of the body to Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. As heir to his mother, whose estates were more considerable than his father's, he was baptised in her name, though the rest of the family retained that of Westcote.

He was a member of the Inner Temple, where he gave a reading, still extant (Harl. MS. 1691, ff. 188 et seq.), on the Statute of Westminster II., ‘De Donis Conditionalibus.’ He was in practice as a pleader in 1445, was escheator of Worcestershire about the same time, and served the office of sheriff of that county in 1447.

Littleton was also recorder of Coventry in 1450, when, as representing the mayor and corporation of that city, he presented Henry VI, on his visit to the city, 21 Sept., with a tun of wine and twenty fat oxen, for which, and for his ‘good rule of the citizens,’ he received the royal thanks.

In 1451 he had from Sir William Trussel a grant of the manor of Sheriff Hales, Staffordshire, for life, ‘pro bono et notabili consilio’ given by him, and on 2 July 1453 he was called to the degree of serjeant-at-law.

Littleton was apparently more or less involved in the troubled politics of the period, for in 1454 he obtained from the protector, Richard of York, a general pardon under the great seal. In 1455 he was appointed (13 May) king's serjeant, rode the northern circuit as justice of assize, and was placed on a commission under the privy seal for raising funds for the defence of Calais. In the following year he was one of the commissioners of array for Warwickshire. Littleton was also appointed, before the demise of Henry VI, steward of the Marshalsea court, and justice of the county palatine of Lancaster. On the accession of Edward IV he again obtained a general pardon under the great seal, and was at once placed on a parliamentary commission to adjust some disputes between the Bishop of Winchester and his tenants. He was soon in high favour with the new king, whom he attended on his Gloucestershire progress in 1463–4, and by whom he was raised to the bench as justice of the common pleas on 27 April 1466. His salary was fixed, de gratia speciali, at 110 marks a year, with an allowance of 106s. 11⅓d. for a furred robe at Christmas and 66s. 6d. for a linen robe at Pentecost. He continued on the northern circuit, was a trier of petitions from Gascony in the parliaments of 1467 and 1472, was created a knight of the Bath on the admission of the Prince of Wales to the order, 18 April 1475, and died at Frankley on 23 Aug. 1481. He was interred in the nave of Worcester Cathedral—south side—under an altar-tomb of marble, erected by himself, upon which was his effigy in brass a scroll with the legend ‘Fili Dei, miserere mei’ issuing from his mouth. The brass was removed during the civil wars. A figure of Littleton kneeling, in coif and scarlet robes, long adorned the east window of the chancel of the chapel of St. Leonard, Frankley, and there was also a portrait of him in one of the windows of Halesowen Church. No trace of either now remains. An engraving by Robert Vaughan, from a sketch of the figure in the Frankley window, was prefixed to the second (1629) edition of Coke's ‘Institutes,’ pt. i. The full-length portrait of Littleton by Cornelius Janssen in the Inner Temple Hall was probably studied from both windows with the help of the effigy on the tomb, and may therefore be regarded as fairly authentic.

Littleton's will, dated the day before his death, affords an interesting glimpse of the contents of his library. After disposing of his ‘gode litel massbook and gode vestment with the apparyl to an auter’ ‘to the use’ of Trinity Chapel, Frankley, and his ‘great antiphoner’ ‘to the use’ of St. Leonard's chapel, Frankley, he bequeathed the ‘Catholicon’ (i.e. the English-Latin dictionary known as ‘Catholicon Anglicum,’ printed by the Camden Society in 1882), the ‘Constitutions Provincial’ (i.e. Lyndewode's ‘Constitutiones Provinciales Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ,’ printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1490), the ‘De Gestis Romanorum’ (the well-known ‘Gesta Romanorum’) and some other treatises to Halesowen monastery, the ‘Fasiculus (sic) Morum’ (perhaps a copy of the Latin original of Jacques Le Grant's ‘Livres des Bonnes Mœurs,’ Paris, 1478, fol., of which ‘The Boke of Good Maners’ published by Caxton in 1487, fol., is a translation) to Enfield Church, and the ‘Medulla Grammatica’ (more correctly ‘Grammatice’), an English-Latin dictionary, to King's Norton Church (see Catholicon Anglicum, Camden Soc., Pref. x.) His ‘great English book’ he directed to be sold and the proceeds applied for the benefit of his soul, for which he made liberal provision of trentals and masses. The overseer of the will was John Alcock [q. v.], bishop of Worcester (see Nicolas, Testamenta Vetusta, i. 363 et seq., and Collins, Peerage, ed. Brydges, viii. 324 et seq.) The Trinity Chapel mentioned in the will was Littleton's domestic oratory, where by license of Bishop Carpenter, dated 20 Jan. 1443–4, he was accustomed to have low mass regularly celebrated. Littleton married before the date of the license, in which his wife is named Joan, relict of Sir Philip Chetwynd of Ingestre, Staffordshire, who brought him in jointure the manors of Ingestre and Tixall, and a moiety of the manor of Grendon, Staffordshire, with other estates in the same county, and in Warwickshire and Worcestershire. She was the daughter of Sir William Burley [q. v.] of Bromscroft Castle, Shropshire, speaker of the House of Commons, from whom she inherited extensive estates in Shropshire. Littleton had issue by her three sons and two daughters. She survived him, and died on 22 March 1504–5. In his own right Littleton held, besides Frankley and several other estates in Worcestershire and Warwickshire, the manor of Arley in Staffordshire, twelve houses in Lichfield, and the advowson of the vicarage of Bromsgrove. His town house, which he rented from the abbot of Leicester at 16s. per annum, was situate on the north side of St. Sepulchre's Church. From his eldest son, William, who succeeded to Frankley and to his mother's estates, and was knighted by Henry VII for services rendered at the battle of Stoke, 16 June 1487, descends the noble family of Lyttelton. Richard, the second son, who took under Littleton's will a moiety of the manor of Baxterley, Warwickshire, and some other estates in tail, was a barrister and the ancestor of Sir Edward Littleton of Pillaton Hall, Staffordshire. His posterity died out in the male line in 1812. The present Lord Hatherton is his representative in the female line. To Thomas, his third son, Littleton devised the manor of Spetchley with other estates in Worcestershire and Staffordshire, in tail; from him both Edward, lord Littleton of Munslow [q. v.], lord keeper to Charles I, and Sir Thomas Littleton, bart. [q. v.], speaker of the House of Commons in the reign of William III, traced their descent. Both Littleton's daughters died unmarried.

Littleton's fame rests upon a short treatise on ‘Tenures’ written primarily for the instruction of his son Richard, to whom it is addressed, but which early attained the rank of a work of authority. Though preceded by, and to some extent based upon, a meagre tract of uncertain date known as ‘Olde Tenures,’ Littleton's work was substantially original, and presented in an easy, and, notwithstanding it is written in law-French, agreeable style, and within moderate compass, a full and clear account of the several estates and tenures then known to English law with their peculiar incidents. Probably no legal treatise ever combined so much of the substance with so little of the show of learning, or so happily avoided pedantic formalism without forfeiting precision of statement. The date at which it came to be recognised as an authority cannot be exactly fixed; it is, however, cited by FitzHerbert in his ‘Novel Natura Brevium,’ published in 1534 (see the chapter on Formedon). Coke's elaborate commentary upon it testifies to the position which it held in his day. He himself evidently regarded it with a reverence bordering on superstition. ‘The most perfect and absolute work,’ he calls it, ‘that ever was written in any human science,’ an extravagance of eulogy provoked and excused by the absurd and ignorant censure of the civilian, Francis Hotman (see Coke, Inst. pt. i. Pref. and Rep. pt. x. Pref.) Littleton's text with Coke's comment long remained the principal authority on English real property law. Both, however, have now become almost entirely obsolete, and, though still occasionally cited in the courts, are chiefly valuable to the historian and the antiquary. The historical importance of the ‘Tenures’ was early appreciated by the Norman lawyer, Houard, who translated the work into modern French under the title ‘Anciennes Loix des François conservées dans les coutumes Angloises recueillies par Littleton,’ Rouen, 1766, 2 vols. 4to; 2nd ed. 1779. From the omission of certain minor tenures and all reference to cases of a later date than 1474–5, Coke inferred that Littleton left the work unfinished at that date. On the other hand the earliest extant manuscript of the ‘Tenures,’ Mm. v. 2, in the Cambridge University Library, contains internal evidence of having been in circulation in 1480.

The editio princeps of the ‘Tenures’ is a folio published at London by Lettou and Machlinia, but without date or title. The rudeness of the black letter and the free use made of abbreviations point to a very early date, but that of 1481 assigned by Conyers Middleton in his ‘Dissertation concerning the Origin of Printing in England’ is wholly conjectural. Another folio edition, also without date or title, published at London by Machlinia alone, has fewer abbreviations and more regular type. Copies of both these editions are in the British Museum. There are also two folio editions by Pynson without date or title, one printed by William Le Tailleur at Rouen, and conjecturally assigned to 1495, the other, probably of later date, published at London, together with the ‘Olde Tenures,’ and adorned with an engraved frontispiece representing Henry VII and his court. The same frontispiece, with the title ‘Leteltun Teners new Correcte,’ is found in another undated folio edition, also by Pynson. The first edition, with both date and title, is ‘Leteltun Tenuris new Correcte,’ London, Pynson, 1516, fol. This was followed by ‘Lytylton Tenures newly and moost truly Correctyd and Amendyd’ (with the ‘Olde Tenures’ and ‘Natura Brevium’), London, Pynson, 1525, 16mo; 1528, 16mo and 24mo; reprint by Rastell, 1534, 8vo. These editions are all in Gothic type. Two editions in Roman type were published by Redman with the title ‘Les Tenures de Lyttelton novelment Imprimes et ovesque toute diligence Revises, Coriges, et Amendes: et ensement ove plusours authoriteis annotes et marques en le marge de cest liver ou mesme les cases sount overtement debattus et purparles pluis a large,’ London, 12mo and fol. Both are of uncertain date, but the 12mo seems to be referred to in the address to the reader appended to Pynson's 1525 edition. Another, also by Redman, with the title ‘Lytylton Tenures newly Imprinted,’ is assigned by Herbert (Typ. Antiq. ed. 1790, iii. 1787) to 1540 (32mo). Other black-letter editions appeared in London in 1530, 1545, and 1553, and were followed by ‘Lyttylton Tenures newly Revised and truly Corrected, with a Table after the alphabete to finde out briefely the Cases desired in the same,’ London, Tottell, 1554, 8vo; ‘Litleton's Tenures. Conferred with divers true wrytten copies, and purged of sondry cases, having in some places more than ye autour wrote and lesse in other some,’ London, Tottell, 1557, 8vo; ‘Les Tenures du Monsieur Littleton ovesque certein cases addes per auters de puisne temps,’ &c., London, Tottell, 1567, 8vo (the ‘certein cases’ are those omitted from the preceding edition), 1572 8vo, 1577 and 1579 16mo, 1581 8vo (ed. William West [q. v.], author of the ‘Symboleography,’ who for the first time divided the text into numbered sections), 1583 8vo, 1588 4to (a copy of this edition, with manuscript notes attributed to Lord Clarendon, is in Lincoln's Inn Library), and 1591 4to; Yetsweirt, 1594, 12mo (in this edition, which is described on the title-page as ‘Revieu et Change en lordre des Sections,’ an attempt was made to improve on West's distribution of the text); Wight and Bonham Norton, 1599, 12mo (described as ‘Revieu et Corrige en divers Lieux’); Wight, 1604, 4to (a reprint of West's edition); Stationers' Company, 1608, 1612, 1617 (all 12mo reprints of West's edition). Another edition was published by the assigns of John More, London, 1639, 12mo.

The following are the principal black-letter English versions: ‘Lyttilton Tenures truely translated into Englysshe,’ London, Berthelet 1538, Powell 1548, Marshe 1556, all 8vo; ‘Lyttelton Tenures in Englysshe,’ London, Petyt (no date), 8vo, Tottell, 1556 16mo and 1586 8vo; ‘Littleton's Tenures in English. Lately Perused and Amended,’ London, 1594 and 1597 8vo, 1604 12mo, 1612, 1621, 1627, and 1656, all 8vo. In Roman type are: ‘Littleton's Tenures in French and English,’ London, 1671, 12mo; ‘Littleton's Tenures in English,’ London, 1825, 8vo, and 1845, 24mo, and ‘Lyttleton, his Treatise of Tenures in French and English. A new edition printed from the most ancient copies and collated with the various readings of the Cambridge MSS. To which are added the Ancient Treatise of “The Olde Tenures” and “The Customs of Kent.” By T. E. Tomlins,’ London, 1841, 8vo.

A commentary on the ‘Tenures’ written during the reign of James I remained in manuscript (Harl. 1621) until 1829, when it was edited by Henry Cary of Lincoln's Inn, with the title ‘A Commentary on the Tenures of Littleton, written prior to the publication of Coke upon Littleton,’ London, 8vo. The commentator's name is unknown. The commentary is praised by Hargrave as ‘very methodical and instructive.’ As to Coke's commentary, which was first published in 1628, see Coke, Sir Edward.

[Visitation of Worcestershire, 1569 (Harl. Soc.), p. 92; Camden's Britain, ed. Holland, p. 574; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vii. 47, 312; Coke's Institutes, ed. Hargrave and Butler, Pref.; Lyttleton, his Treatise of Tenures, ed. Tomlins, Pref.; Collins's Peerage (Brydges), vol. viii., ‘Lyttelton;’ Prince's Worthies of Devon, p. 584; Gent. Mag. 1792, pt. ii. p. 985; Paston Letters, ed. Gairdner; Dugdale's Chron. Ser. pp. 65, 68; Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council, ed. Nicolas, vi. 240; Rot. Parl. v. 476, 571, vi. 3; Rymer's Fœdera, ed. Holmes, xi. 566; Nicolas's Hist. Brit. Knighthood, vol. iii.; Chron. List, vol. ix.; Inq. P. M. 21 Edw. IV, No. 55; Nash's Worcestershire, i. 464, 492–3; Abingdon's Antiq. Worc. Cath. 1723, p. 41; Britton's Hist. and Antiq. Worc. Cath., App. 2; Dugdale's Warwickshire, ii. 1054; New and Gen. Biog. Dict. 1798; Biog. Brit.; Foss's Lives of the Judges; Ames's Typogr. Antiq., ed. Dibdin, ii. 5, 459 sq., iii. 239; Bridgman's Legal Bibliogr.; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Cat. of Nat. Portraits, South Kensington Loan Coll. 1866, No. 36; Burke's Extinct Baronetage, ‘Littleton.’]

J. M. R.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.183
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
373 i 10 f.e.
7 f.e.
Littleton, Sir Thomas: for 1402 read 1422
ii 12-13 omit under the . . . Earl of Warwick