Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dyer, James

DYER, Sir JAMES (1512–1582), judge, son of Richard Dyer of Wincanton, Somersetshire, was born at Roundhill in that county in 1512. He is said by Wood to have resided for some time at Oxford, probably at Broadgates Hall, where Pembroke College now stands, but he took no degree. He subsequently entered the Middle Temple, but the precise date is unknown, as is also the date of his call to the bar, which, however, could hardly have occurred much earlier than 1537. In 1547 he was returned to parliament for Cambridgeshire. In 1551 he was thought by Cecil eligible for the mastership of the rolls. He was called to the degree of serjeant-at-law on 17 Oct. 1552, when he gave a ring inscribed with the motto ‘plebs sine lege ruit,’ this being the first recorded instance of the ring bearing an inscription. He was elected reader at his inn the same autumn, taking for his subject the statute of wills. He was made king's serjeant in November and knighted in the same year. In the following year he was again returned for Cambridgeshire, and on 2 March was chosen speaker of the House of Commons, in which capacity he made ‘an ornate oration before the king's majesty.’ His patent of counsel to the crown was renewed by Mary on her accession. He also held the office of recorder of Cambridge, and acted as counsel to the university. In 1554 he was one of the counsel for the prosecution on the trial of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, for complicity in the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but took no prominent part in the proceedings. On 8 May 1556 he was raised to the bench of the common pleas, whence he was transferred to the queen's bench on 23 April 1557. He was retransferred to the common pleas by Elizabeth on 18 Nov. 1558, and on 22 Jan. 1559 superseded Sir Anthony Browne as president of that court. He attended in Westminster Hall on the trial of the Duke of Norfolk on the charge of conspiring with the Queen of Scots against Elizabeth, but, except to pronounce an opinion against the right of the defendant to the services of counsel, did not interfere in the case. He went the midland circuit, where his impartial administration of justice caused him some unpopularity with the country gentry. There is extant among the manuscripts of the Inner Temple a defence of his conduct, elicited by a frivolous petition presented by the justices of Warwickshire to the privy council complaining of certain alleged arbitrary acts. He died on 24 March 1582 at Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire. By his wife, Margaret, daughter of Sir Maurice à Barrow, and relict of Sir Thomas Elyot [q. v.], he had no issue. Dyer enjoyed a high reputation among his contemporaries for incorruptible integrity, learning, and acumen. His praises were sung in an obituary poem by George Whetstones (Frondes Caducæ, Auchinleck Press). Camden (Annals, ed. Hearne, ii. 392) speaks of him in terms of brief but emphatic eulogy. After his death appeared a collection of cases compiled by him both before and after his elevation to the bench. As it covers the period between 1573 and 1582, the earlier cases cannot have been reported by him, and the precise date when he began to report is uncertain. The reports are models of lucidity, none but the material facts being stated, and the arguments of counsel and the decision of the judge being compressed into as small a compass as is consistent with precision. They are interesting as constituting the transition from the year-book to the modern system. Coke (Rep. ed. 1826, pt. x. p. xxxiv) styles them ‘fruitful and summary collections,’ but adds that they were not intended for publication in their existing form. Written in Law French they passed through six folio editions in that peculiar dialect (1585, 1592, 1601, 1621, 1672, 1688). The edition of 1688 was annotated by Treby, afterwards chief justice of the common pleas. An abridgment in French appeared in 1609 (Lond. 12mo), and another in English in 1651 (Lond. 12mo), the work of Sir Thomas Ireland. A translation of the entire work, including Treby's annotations and some new cases taken from the original manuscripts, with a brief life of the author, by John Vaillant of the Inner Temple, was published in 1794 (London, 8vo). Dyer's reading on the statute of wills was also published as one of the ‘Three Learned Readings made upon three very useful Statutes,’ London, 1648, 4to.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), ii. 426; Lists of Members of Parliament (Official Return of); Strype's Mem. II. i. 524; Commons' Journal, i. 24; Wynne's Serj.-at-law; Dyer's Rep. p. 71 b; Dugdale's Chron. Ser. pp. 89, 90, Orig. p. 217; Machyn's Diary (Camd. Soc.), p. 26; Metcalfe's Book of Knights, p. 104; Cobbett's State Trials, i. 870, 965; Foss's Lives of the Judges; Campbell's Lives of the Chief Justices; Wallace's Reporters.]

J. M. R.