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Kirkleatham Hospital, head of John Turner, Sergeant-at-Law

A Sergeant-at-Law was a barrister of the highest rank whose distinctive identification was the coif, a close-fitting cap of lawn or silk, as shown in the above detail. The Sergeants-at-Law were the oldest formally created order in England, having been created by Henry II. In the 16th.-century this small elite group of lawyers took much of the work in the central common law courts. With the creation of Queen's Counsel during the reign of Elizabeth I the order began to decline. In the 19th.-century its exclusive jurisdictions were ended, and when the Judicature Act of 1873 came into force in 1875 no more were created. The last Sergeant-at-Law, Lord Lindley, died in 1921. Latterly the formal robe of the order was red, as here, though in court a black silk gown was worn.

Readers of the Shardlake series by C J Sansom will recall that Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer who is their central character, was a Sergeant-at-Law.

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Taken on September 15, 2011