Lecture three—Sir William Blackstone

Selden Society 2016 Lecture Series

Lecture three—Legal writersSir William Blackstone was presented by Emeritus Professor Wilfrid Prest on 19 May 2016.

O let me pierce the secret shade
Where dwells the venerable maid!
There humbly mark, with rev’rent awe,
The guardian of Britannia’s Law,
Unfold with joy her sacred page,
(Th’ united boast of many an age,
Where mix’d, yet uniform, appears
The wisdom of a thousand years)
William Blackstone ‘The Lawyer’s Farewell to his Muse, written in the year 1744’

Sir William Blackstone (1723–80) wrote the most famous and influential treatise on Anglo-American-Australian common law—the four volume Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–69)—but he was also a major figure in 18th century public, academic and cultural life.

Orphaned at the age of 11, Blackstone won scholarships to Charterhouse and then to Pembroke College, Oxford. By the age of 20, his academic efforts had been rewarded with a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. After being called to the Bar at the Middle Temple (one of London’s four inns of court) in 1746, he commenced practice at the Bar, but not with any great initial success.

At this point, Blackstone made the novel decision to prepare a set of lectures on the laws of England, to be given to students at Oxford. Blackstone’s were the first lectures on English common law to be given at a university anywhere in the world. Although offered as a private fee-paying addition to the formal university curriculum, his lectures soon acquired a national and even international reputation.

After returning to the London Bar, more successfully this time, Blackstone spent the last ten years of his life as a busy judge and would-be penal reformer.

About the Speaker

Blackstone’s biographer, Emeritus Professor Wilfrid Prest, investigates this influential legal writer in his diverse roles as academic, bibliophile, architect, historian, reformer, critic, poet and politician through the lens of 18th century political, legal and cultural life.

Emeritus Professor Wilfrid Prest has published widely on Sir William Blackstone’s life and works. He studied for his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, took a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford and came to Adelaide as a lecturer in the Department of History in 1966.

Besides a faculty position at the John Hopkins University, and various visiting posts at the Australian National University, Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton and St Andrews, Prest taught history at Adelaide University until 2002. Professor Prest then took up an ARC Australian Professorial Fellowship and transferred to the Adelaide Law School in 2003. His final academic appointment before retirement in 2007 was as Professor of Law.

He is currently Professor Emeritus and Visiting Research Fellow in History and Law. His publications include Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England: a variorum edition, Blackstone as Barrister (Selden Society, London, 2010) and William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008). The new Oxford variorum edition of the Commentaries, of which he is general editor, is due for release in mid-2016.

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