Frederic William Maitland

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Frederic William Maitland
Frederic William Maitland by Beatrice Lock (Mrs Fripp).jpg
Portrait of Frederic William Maitland by Beatrice Lock, 1906
Born (1850-05-28)28 May 1850
Died 19 December 1906(1906-12-19) (aged 56)
Gran Canaria
Occupation Historian, Jurist
Nationality English
Notable works

The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I

The Constitutional History Of England
Spouse Florence Henrietta Fisher
Children Ermengard, Fredegond


Frederic William Maitland, FBA (28 May 1850 – 19 December 1906) was an English historian and lawyer who is generally regarded as the modern father of English legal history.[1]

Early life[edit]

Maitland was born at 53 Guilford Street, London, the only son of John Gorham Maitland (1818–1863) and of Emma, daughter of John Frederic Daniell. His grandfather was Samuel Roffey Maitland. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, being bracketed at the head of the moral sciences tripos of 1872, and winning the Whewell scholarship for international law.[2] He was a Cambridge Apostle and President of the Cambridge Union.[3]


Maitland was called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1876, and became a competent equity lawyer and conveyancer, but finally devoted himself to comparative jurisprudence and especially the history of English law. He began a book on property law, but abandoned it out of frustration at certain features of English property law; he expressed these sentiments in an anonymous article in the Westminster Review in 1879, followed by three further articles in the Law Magazine and Review between 1881 and 1883.

In 1880, Maitland was introduced by Frederick Pollock, who had been to Eton and Cambridge with Maitland, to the Sunday Tramps, a walking club founded by Leslie Stephen. Through the Tramps, Maitland was introduced in 1884 to Paul Vinogradoff, a Russian medievalist who was in England to study records lodged in the Public Records Office (PRO). Maitland would later write that the day of their meeting "determined the rest of my life". Maitland's biographer and brother-in-law, H. A. L. Fisher, later claimed that he was so chagrined by the fact that a Russian knew more about English legal records than he did that he made his first visit to the PRO shortly thereafter, though Geoffrey Elton points out that Maitland had already been working in the archives before he met Vinogradoff.

In 1884 he was appointed reader in English law at Cambridge, and in 1888 he was elected as Downing Professor of the Laws of England. Despite his generally poor health, his intellectual grasp and wide knowledge and research gradually made him famous as a jurist and historian.

Maitland was the Selden Society's first literary editor from 1887 to 1895, and edited many volumes for the organization, including Select Pleas for the Crown, 1200–1225 and Select Pleas in Manorial Courts and The Court Baron. He also made important contributions to the Cambridge Modern History, the English Historical Review, the Law Quarterly Review, Harvard Law Review and other publications. Maitland delivered the Ford Lecture in 1897 (later published as Township and Borough) and the Rede Lecture in 1901.

His most important work was The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, which appeared in 1895. Co-authored with his friend Frederick Pollock (who only wrote the chapter on Anglo-Saxon law), The History of English Law has been described as "the best book on English legal history ever published in the English language."[4]

Posthumous publications by his students, editing their lecture notes based on his lectures, include The Constitutional History of England, Equity, and The Forms of Action at Common Law. The latter publication has been repeatedly reprinted, and contains perhaps his most-quoted observation, which still appears in learned articles and superior court judgments: "The forms of action we have buried but still they rule us from their graves."

His written style was elegant and lively.[5] His historical method was distinguished by his thorough and sensitive use of historical sources, and by his determinedly historical perspective. Maitland taught his students, and all later historians, not to investigate the history of law purely or mostly by reference to the needs of the present, but rather to consider and seek to understand the past on its own terms. He died in 1906 at Gran Canaria[6] from tuberculosis and is buried in the English Cemetery in Las Palmas.


Maitland married Florence Henrietta Fisher, daughter of the historian Herbert William Fisher, in 1886[7] and they had two daughters, Ermengard (1887 - 1968) and Fredegond (1889 - 1949); after Maitland's death his widow married Sir Francis Darwin, a son of Charles Darwin. Florence Fisher's brother, the Liberal scholar and politician H. A. L. Fisher, edited Maitland's papers and lectures on English constitutional history after his death.


Maitland received honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow, Moscow and Cracow. He was one of the founding fellows of the British Academy, an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and honorary bencher of Lincoln's Inn. In 1902, the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, offered him the Regius Professorship of History at Cambridge in succession to Lord Acton, which he declined.[3]

Upon his death, the University of Oxford presented an address of condolence to Cambridge, described by Geoffrey Elton as an "unprecedented tribute."[8]

The Squire Law Library of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge contains the Maitland Legal History Room. The Maitland Historical Society of Downing College, Cambridge, is named in his honour. He is commemorated in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, the first professional historian to be so honoured.[9]

See also[edit]


His principal works include:[7]




  1. ^ Runciman, David (1997). Pluralism and the Personality of the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. xi. 
  2. ^ "Maitland, Frederic William (MTLT868FW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ a b Milsom, S. F. C. "Maitland, Frederic William (1850–1906)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34837.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Rabban, David M. (2013). Law’s History: American Legal Thought and the Transatlantic Turn to History. Cambridge University Press. p. 389. 
  5. ^ "Frederic William Maitland," The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two: Historians, Biographers and Political Orators, Putnam, 1907–1921.
  6. ^ Haskins, Charles H. (1916–1917). "Frederic William Maitland," Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 51, p. 904.
  7. ^ a b "Professor F. W. Maitland." Times [London, England] 22 December 1906: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 May 2012
  8. ^ Elton, G.R. (1985). F.W. Maitland. Yale University Press. p. 1. 
  9. ^ Imogen Levy and Duck Soup "Poets' Corner - Westminster Abbey". Archived from the original on 2009-03-25. Retrieved 2014-09-20. 
  10. ^ Greenslet, Ferris (1907). "Review: Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen by Frederic William Maitland". The North American Review. 184: 195–198. 


External links[edit]