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John Selden
John Selden (portrait by an unknown artist)
Born16 December 1584
Salvington, Sussex
Died30 November 1654(1654-11-30) (aged 69)
White Friars, London
Alma materHart Hall, Oxford
Era17th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolNatural law, social contract, humanism
Main interests
Political philosophy, legal history
Notable ideas
Proposed an egoistic theory of moral motivation, maintained that natural law was revealed historically through (esp. Hebrew) scripture, argued that civil law arises from contract

John Selden (16 December 1584 – 30 November 1654) was an English jurist, a scholar of England's ancient laws and constitution[1] and scholar of Jewish law.[2] He was known as a polymath; John Milton hailed Selden in 1644 as "the chief of learned men reputed in this land".[3][4]

Early life

He was born at Salvington, in the parish of West Tarring, West Sussex (now part of the town of Worthing), and was baptised at St Andrew's, the parish church. The cottage in which he was born survived until 1959 when it was destroyed by a fire caused by an electrical fault.[5]

His father, also named John Selden, had a small farm. It is said that his skill as a violin-player was what attracted his wife, Margaret, who was from a better family, being the only child of Thomas Baker of Rustington and descended from a knightly family of Kent. Selden was educated at the free grammar school at Chichester, The Prebendal School,[6] and in 1600 he went on to Hart Hall, Oxford. In 1603, he was admitted to Clifford's Inn, London; in 1604 he moved to the Inner Temple; and in 1612 he was called to the bar. His earliest patron was Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, the antiquary, who seems to have employed him to copy and summarise some of the parliamentary records then held at the Tower of London. For some reason, Selden very rarely practised in court, but his practice in barristers' chambers as a conveyancer and consulting counsel was large and apparently lucrative.

Legal scholar into politics

Portrait of Selden (drawn by Peter Lely; engraved by George Vertue) included in the 1726 edition of his works

In 1618, his History of Tithes appeared. Although it had passed censorship and licensing, this dissertation on the historical basis of the tithe system caused anxiety among the bishops and provoked the intervention of the king, James I. The author was summoned before the Privy Council and was compelled to retract his opinions.[7] Also, his work was suppressed, and he was forbidden to reply to anyone who might come forward to answer it.

This all seems to have caused Selden's entry into politics. Although he was not in the Parliament of England, he was the instigator and perhaps the draughtsman of the Protestation of 1621 on the rights and privileges of the House, affirmed by the House of Commons on 18 December 1621. He and several others were imprisoned, at first in the Tower and later under the charge of Sir Robert Ducie, sheriff of London. During his brief detention, he occupied himself in preparing an edition of medieval historian Eadmer's History from a manuscript lent to him by his host or jailor, which he published two years afterwards.


In 1623 he was returned to the House of Commons for the borough of Lancaster, and sat with John Coke, William Noy and John Pym on Sergeant Glanville's election committee. He was also nominated reader of Lyon's Inn, an office he declined to undertake. For this the benchers of the Inner Temple fined him £20 and disqualified him from being one of their number. Nevertheless, after a few years, he became a master of the bench. In the first parliament of Charles I (1625), it appears from the "returns of members" printed in 1878 that contrary to the assertion of all his biographers, he had no seat. In Charles's second parliament (1626), he was elected for Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire, and took a prominent part in the impeachment of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. In the following year, in Darnell's Case (the Five Knights' Case), he was counsel for Sir Edmund Hampden in the Court of King's Bench.

In 1628 he was returned to the third parliament of Charles for Ludgershall, Wiltshire, and was involved in drawing up and carrying the Petition of Right. In the session of 1629 he was one of the members responsible for the tumultuous passage in the House of Commons of the resolution against the illegal levy of tonnage and poundage, and, along with Sir John Eliot, Denzil Holles, Long, Valentine, William Strode, and the rest, he was sent back to the Tower. There he remained for eight months, deprived for a part of the time of the use of books and writing materials. He was then removed, under less rigorous conditions, to the Marshalsea, until Archbishop Laud arranged for him to be freed. Some years before, he had been appointed steward to Henry Grey, 8th Earl of Kent, to whose seat, Wrest in Bedfordshire, he now retired.

He was not elected to the Short Parliament of 1640; but to the Long Parliament, summoned in the autumn, he was returned without opposition for Oxford University. He opposed the resolution against episcopacy which led to the exclusion of the bishops from the House of Lords, and printed an answer to the arguments used by Sir Harbottle Grimston on that occasion. He joined in the protestation of the Commons for the maintenance of the Protestant religion according to the doctrines of the Church of England, the authority of the Crown, and the liberty of the subject. He was equally opposed to the court on the question of the commissions of lieutenancy of array and to the parliament on the question of the militia ordinance. In the end, he supported Parliament against King Charles, because, according to him, Charles was certainly acting illegally; but Selden was not certain if Parliament was doing the same.[8]

In 1643, he participated in the discussions of the Westminster Assembly, where his Erastian views were opposed by George Gillespie.[9] Selden's allies included Thomas Coleman, John Lightfoot, and Bulstrode Whitelocke.[10]

In October 1643, Selden was appointed by Commons to take control of the office of Clerk and Keeper of the Records in the Tower, which duty passed to the Master of the Rolls in 1651.[11] In 1645 he was named one of the parliamentary commissioners of the admiralty and was elected master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, an office that he declined to accept. In 1646, he subscribed to the Solemn League and Covenant and, in 1647, was voted £5000 by the parliament as compensation for his pains under the monarchy.

Last years

After the death of the Earl of Kent in 1639, Selden lived permanently under the same roof with the earl's widow, the former Elizabeth Talbot. It is believed that he married her, although their marriage does not seem to have ever been publicly acknowledged. He assembled a famous library which eventually became part of the Bodleian Library's collection in 1659. In addition to a wide range of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin works, it included the Codex Mendoza and the Selden Map of China.[12] He died at Friary House in Whitefriars, London on 30 November 1654, and was buried in the Temple Church, London. His tomb is today clearly visible through glass plates in the floor of this church. Furthermore, he is commemorated by a monumental inscription on the south side of the Temple Church. More than two centuries after his death, in 1880, a brass tablet was erected to his memory by the benchers of the Inner Temple in the parish church of St. Andrew's, West Tarring.


Plan of the Temple as Selden would probably have known it. Drawing by Ralph Agas (1563)
1899 edition of The Table Talk of John Selden by Robert Waters (1835 - 1910)

It was as a prolific scholar and writer that Selden won his reputation. The early books were on English history.

English history and antiquities

In 1610 three of his works came out: Jani Anglorum Facies Altera (The Back Face [or Two Faces] of the English Janus) and England's Epinomis,[13] which dealt with the progress of English law down to Henry II; and The Duello, or Single Combat, in which he traced the history of trial by battle in England from the Norman Conquest. In 1613 he supplied a series of notes, including quotations and references, to the first eighteen cantos of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion. In 1614 he published Titles of Honor, which, in spite of defects and omissions, remained a comprehensive work for centuries. It was republished in a larger and greatly revised edition in 1631 and earned for Selden the praise "monarch of letters" from his friend Ben Jonson.[14]

In 1615, the Analecton Anglobritannicon, an account of the civil administration of England before the Norman Conquest, written in 1607, was published; its title and argument imitated the Franco-Gallia of François Hotman.[15] In 1616 appeared notes on John Fortescue's De laudibus legum Angliae and Ralph de Hengham's Summae magna et parva.[16]

In 1618 his controversial History of Tithes was published. A first sign of the coming storm was the 1619 book controverting Selden, Sacrilege Sacredly Handled in two parts; with an Appendix, answering some objections by James Sempill.[17] Selden hit back, but was soon gagged. The churchmen Richard Tillesley (1582–1621) (Animadversions upon M. Seldens History of Tithes, 1619) and Richard Montagu (Diatribae upon the first part of the late History of Tithes, 1621) attacked the work.[18] There were further replies by William Sclater (The Quaestion of Tythes Revised, 1623), and by Stephen Nettles (Answer to the Jewish Part of Mr. Selden's History of Tithes 1625). In it Selden tried to demonstrate that tithing depended on the civil law, rather than canon law. He also made much of the complexities of the ancient Jewish customs on tithes.[19] The work was also a milestone in the history of English historical writing through its mixture of antiquarian-philological scholarship with historical narrative, two approaches to the study of the past previously seen as distinct.

In 1623 he produced an edition of Eadmer's Historia Novarum. It was notable for including in appendices information from the Domesday Book, which at the time had not been published and could only be consulted in the original at Westminster, on the payment of a fee.[20]

He published in 1642 Privileges of the Baronage of England when they sit in Parliament and Discourse concerning the Rights and Privileges of the Subject. In 1652 he wrote a preface and collated some of the manuscripts for Sir Roger Twysden's Historiae Anglicanae scriptores X.

Tracts, published posthumously in 1683, contained English translations

Literature and archaeology of the Near East

In 1617, his De dis Syris was issued, and immediately established his fame as an orientalist. It is remarkable for its early use of the comparative method, on Semitic mythology. Also, in 1642, he published a part of the Arabic chronicle of Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria, under the title Eutychii Aegyptii, Patriarchae Orthodoxorum Alexandrini, ... ecclesiae suae origines. Controversial was the discussion in it of the absence in Alexandria of the distinction between priests and bishops, a burning issue in the debate at the time in the Church of England.[21]

In 1628, at the suggestion of Sir Robert Cotton, Selden compiled, with the assistance of two other scholars, Patrick Young and Richard James, a catalogue of the Arundel marbles.

Studies on Judaism

He employed his leisure at Wrest in writing De successionibus in bona defuncti secundum leges Ebraeorum and De successione in pontificatum Ebraeorum, published in 1631.

During the progress of the constitutional conflict, he was absorbed in research, publishing De jure naturali et gentium juxta disciplinam Ebraeorum in 1640. It was a contribution to the theorising of the period on natural law. In the words of John Milton, this "volume of naturall & national laws proves, not only by great authorities brought together, but by exquisite reasons and theorems almost mathematically demonstrative, that all opinions, yea errors, known, read, and collated, are of main service & assistance toward the speedy attainment of what is truest."[4][22] It develops into a theory of international law, taking as its basis the Seven Laws of Noah.[23]

In 1644, he published Dissertatio de anno civili et calendario reipublicae Judaicae, in 1646 his treatise on marriage and divorce among the Jews entitled Uxor Ebraica, and in 1647 the earliest printed edition of the old English law-book Fleta. In 1650 Selden began to print the trilogy he planned on the Sanhedrin, as the first part of De synedriis et prefecturis juridicis veterum Ebraeorum through the press, the second and third parts being severally published in 1653 and 1655. The aim of this work was to counter the use by the Presbyterians, in particular, of arguments and precedents drawn from Jewish tradition; it was a very detailed study aimed at refuting such arguments, and pointing out the inherent flexibility of the tradition that was being cited.[24]

International law

A portrait of John Selden held by the National Portrait Gallery, London

His Mare clausum was written to dismantle the pretensions advanced by Grotius in The Free Sea (Mare liberum), on behalf of the Dutch fishermen, to poach in the waters off the English coasts.

The circumstances of its delayed publication, in 1635, suggest that during the early 1630s Selden inclined towards the court rather than the popular party and even secured the personal favour of the king, Charles I. It had been written sixteen or seventeen years earlier, but for political reasons Charles's predecessor, James I, had prohibited its publication. When it eventually appeared, a quarter of a century after Mare liberum, it was under Charles's royal patronage, as a kind of state paper, and with a dedication to him. The fact that Selden was not retained in the great case of ship money in 1637 by John Hampden, the cousin of Sir Edmund, his former client in the Five Knights' Case, may be taken as additional evidence that his zeal for the popular cause was neither so warm nor so unquestioned as it had once been.

His last publication was a vindication of himself from certain charges advanced against him and his Mare clausum around 1653 by Theodore Graswinckel, a Dutch jurist.

Posthumous publications

Several of Selden's minor works were printed for the first time after his death, including a tract in defence of the 25 December birth of Christ written during the Puritan Commonwealth (1649–1660) when celebration of Christmas was prohibited.[25] A collective edition of his writings was published by David Wilkins in 3 volumes folio in 1725, and again in 1726. Table Talk, for which he is perhaps best known, did not appear until 1689. It was edited by his amanuensis, Richard Milward, who affirms that "the sense and notion is wholly Selden's" and that "most of the words" are his also. Its genuineness has sometimes been questioned.


Selden arrived at an Erastian position in church politics. He also believed in free will, which was inconsistent with Calvinism.[26]

He was sceptical of the legend of King Arthur as it had grown up, but believed Arthur had existed.[27] The Druids, he suggested in comments on Poly-Olbion, were ancient and presumed esoteric thinkers.[28] The popular image of a Druid descends via a masque of Inigo Jones from a reconstruction by Selden, based (without good foundations) on ancient German statuary.[29]


Volumes published by the Selden Society

Selden is commemorated in the name of the Selden Society, a learned society concerned with the study of English legal history, founded in 1887.

He is also commemorated in place-names in Salvington, including "The John Selden Inn", which purports to be on the site of his dwelling; Selden Road; and the Selden medical centre. Also The Selden Arms on Lyndhurst Road in Worthing.


According to the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, he "played a role of fundamental importance in the transition of English historical writing from a medieval antiquarianism to a more modern understanding of the scope and function of history than had ever before been expressed in Renaissance England".[30] His reputation lasted well, with Mark Pattison calling him "the most learned man, not only of his party, but of Englishmen".[31]

By about 1640, Selden's views (with those of Grotius) had a large impact on the Great Tew circle around Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland: William Chillingworth, Dudley Digges, Henry Hammond.[32] It was in this milieu that Selden met and befriended Thomas Hobbes. They had much in common, in political thought, but the precise connections have not been clarified.[33]

Richard Cumberland followed Selden over both Grotius and Hobbes on natural law. Selden contested the scholastic position, after Cicero, that "right reason" could by its dictates alone generate obligation, by claiming that a formal obligation required a superior in authority. In his De legibus Cumberland rejects Selden's solution by means of the Noahide laws, in De jure naturali, in favour of Selden's less developed alternate solution. The latter is more orthodox for a Thomist, an intellectus agens as a natural faculty in the rational soul, by the mediation of which divine intellect can intervene directly with individuals.[34] Matthew Hale tried to merge the theory of Grotius on property with Selden's view on obligation.[35] Cumberland and Hale both belonged to a larger group, followers in a broad sense of Selden, with backgrounds mostly of Cambridge and the law, comprising also Orlando Bridgeman, Hezekiah Burton, John Hollings, Richard Kidder, Edward Stillingfleet, John Tillotson, and John Wilkins.[36]

Giambattista Vico called Grotius, Selden and Samuel Pufendorf the "three princes" of the "natural right of the gentes". He went on to criticise their approach foundationally.[37] In his Autobiography he specifies that they had conflated the natural law of the "nations", based on custom, with that of the philosophers, based on human abstractions.[38] Isaiah Berlin comments on Vico's admiration for Grotius and Selden.[39]

Library collections

Title page for John Selden's copy of Sanctos no gosagues no uchi nuqigaqi quan dai ichi (1591). This was the first book printed with moveable type in Japan. Oxford, Bodleian Library Arch. B f.69:

By the time of his death in 1654, Selden had accumulated a library of several thousand manuscripts and printed books. Selden's will left his intentions for this library somewhat ambiguous, although the will and codicil seem to suggest that he intended to bequeath most of his Oriental manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, a Latin manuscript, and his printed Talmudic and Rabbinical books to the Bodleian Library, Oxford.[40] There is some evidence to suggest that Selden intended to leave his printed books and historical manuscripts to the Inner Temple but that this transaction did not occur because the Temple did not possess a large enough library.[41] By 1656, two years after Selden's death, his executors (Edward Heyward, John Vaughan, Matthew Hale, and Rowland Jewks) were in negotiation with the Bodleian library to transfer Selden's entire collection.[42] In 1659, the executors stipulated that Selden's manuscripts "bee forever heerafter kepte together in one distincte pile and body under the name of Mr. Selden’s Library." The Bodleian agreed, and the library received Selden's collection in June 1659.[43]

Cover of John Selden's copy of Boccaccio's Decamerone. The design on the cover is similar to the Plantagenet crest. Holes from clasps are also visible. Oxford, Bodleian Library S. Seld. c.2:

Selden's collection was the largest received by the Bodleian in the seventeenth century, comprising around 8,000 items.[44] Even this massive collection did not represent the extent of Selden's library. Duplicates, meaning books the library already owned, were given to Gloucester Cathedral library.[42] A rumor also circulated in the decades after Selden's death that part of his library had remained in London and was destroyed by a fire. The 1704 edition of Edward Chamberlayne's The Present State of England claimed that a fire at the Inner Temple destroyed "8 Chests full" of Selden's manuscripts.[45] Still, the collection the Bodleian received was large enough that it required several years and multiple librarians to fully catalogue.[46] Since then, the original collection has been enhanced by further acquisitions, most notably by a group of forty Selden manuscripts purchased by the Bodleian from James Fairhurst in 1947.[47][44] The Selden collection at the Bodleian houses more than 400 manuscript volumes taking up more than 40 meters (approx. 130 feet) of shelf space.[48][49] The linguistic range of these manuscripts reflects Selden's interest in eastern and other languages. The languages represented include

  • Russian
    • An incomplete Russian-English vocabulary (MS. Selden Supra 61)
    • Samples of Russian calligraphy (MS. Arch. Selden A. 72 (5))
  • Greek
    • Astronomical and musical treatises (MS. Arch. Selden B. 17)
    • Several Greek versions of the New Testament Gospels (MS. Selden Supra 2, 3, 6, 28–9)
  • Arabic
    • Prayers, meditations, and Quranic praises (MS. Selden Superius 3)
    • Works on astrology and medicine (MS. Selden Superius 15)
    • Works on Algebra and mathematics (MS. Selden Superius 65)
  • Hebrew
    • Hebrew and Arabic grammar and vocabulary (MS. Selden Supra 107)
    • Kabbalah and Kabbalistic collections (MS. Arch. Selden A. 56; MS. Selden Superius 107)
  • New World languages
    • A treatise on Mexican hieroglyphics (MS. Arch. Selden A. 2)

Many manuscripts relate to Selden's study of the law both in England and internationally. These include

  • A fragment on Islamic law (MS. Selden Superius 42)
  • Canon law (MS. Arch. Selden A. 63)
  • An account of the laws of Ivan the Terrible (MS. Selden Supra. 59)
  • Various legal topics, such as maritime law and a Latin treatise on procedure in Civil Courts (MS. Arch. Selden B. 27)
A heavily annotated page in John Selden's copy of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Leonardus Brunus Aretinus (1479). The page includes a space left for an initial (also called a drop cap). Oxford, Bodleian Library S. Seld. e.2:

Some manuscripts touch on contemporary events. For instance MS. Arch. Selden B. 8 includes a Latin speech given in Oxford on the return of Prince Charles from Spain in 1623. Still others contain classical works of philosophy and literature, such as

  • Treatises of Aristotle (MS. Selden Supra 24)
  • Aeschylus and Lycophron (MS. Selden Supra 18)

Beyond manuscripts, the Selden collection contains several notable printed works. Among them is the first book ever printed in Japan using moveable type, Sanctos no gosagueo no uchi nuqigaqi (Arch.b.f.69).[44] The printed books included in the Selden collection contain many that are significant in part because they originated in the libraries of other famous figures, including Sir Robert Cotton, John Donne, and John Dee.[44] According to Geoffrey Keynes, several of the books Selden received from John Donne's library include inscriptions from both men. One such book is Theodorus Beza's Tractatio de polygamia, which includes Donne's signature and motto ("Per Rachel ho servitor, & non per Lea"), as well as Selden's motto ("περί παντός τήν έλευθερίαν", "Freedom above all things").[50][51]


  1. ^ Pocock, John (1957), The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Herzog, Isaac (1931), "John Selden and Jewish Law", Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, 3, 13 (4): 236–45.
  3. ^ Milton, John (1644). Areopagitica, A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing to the Parliament of England (1 ed.). London. p. 11. Retrieved 6 January 2017 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b "Milton's Areopagitica". Archived from the original on 24 January 2021. Retrieved 20 December 2007.
  5. ^ Elleray 1977, §168.
  6. ^ Haivry, Ofir (29 June 2017). John Selden and the Western Political Tradition. Cambridge University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-107-01134-2.
  7. ^ Berkowitz, p. 36.
  8. ^ Glen Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution (1992), p. 95.
  9. ^ Francis J. Bremer, Tom Webster. Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia (2006), p. 105.
  10. ^ Sommerville, Johann. "The English Revolution, 1647–1649". University of Wisconsin. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  11. ^ Thomas, Francis Sheppard (1843). Notes of Materials for the History of Public Departments. W. Clowes & Sons.
  12. ^ Robert Batchelor, London: The Selden Map and the Making of a Global City, 1549–1689 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 128–151
  13. ^ The Epinomis (Greek Ἐπινομίς) is the name of one of Plato's dialogues, which was an appendix to his Laws (Greek Νόμοι, Nomoi). Thus, the title England's Epinomis indicates that the work is an appendix to Selden's Jani Anglorum Facies Altera.
  14. ^ James Loxley, The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson (2002), p. 100.
  15. ^ Colin Kidd, British Identities Before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600–1800 (1999), p. 85.
  16. ^ Michael Lapidge, Malcolm R. Godden, Simon Keynes, Anglo-Saxon England (2000), p. 250.
  17. ^ "The Scottish Nation, Semple". Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  18. ^ Charles John Sommerville, The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith (1992), p. 100.
  19. ^ Adam Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment (2005), p. 47.
  20. ^ David C. Douglas, English Scholars (1939), p. 171.
  21. ^ David Armitage, British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500–1800 (2006), p. 57.
  22. ^ Milton, John (1644). Areopagitica, A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing to the Parliament of England (1 ed.). London. p. 11. Retrieved 6 January 2017. via Google Books
  23. ^ Mark W. Janis, Religion and International Law (1999), pp. 68–9.
  24. ^ Johann Somerville, Hobbes, Selden, Erastianism and the history of the Jews, pp. 168–9, in Graham Alan John Rogers, Tom Sorell, Hobbes and History (2000).
  25. ^ Theanthropos: God Made Man, a Tract Proving the Nativity of our Saviour to be on the 25 December
  26. ^ Steven Matthews, Theology and Science in the Thought of Francis Bacon, pp. 125–8.
  27. ^ Rodney Castleden, King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003), p. 49.
  28. ^ Haycock, David Boyd (2013). "Chapter 7: 'Much Greater, Than Commonly Imagined.'". The Newton Project, University of Sussex. Archived from the original on 26 February 2009. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  29. ^ Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood & Mistletoe. pp. 62–4.
  30. ^ Kelly Boyd, Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (1999), p. 1082.
  31. ^ Pattison, Mark (1879). English Men of Letters, Ch. 8.
  32. ^ Richard Tuck, Philosophy and Government 1572–1651 (1993), pp. 272–4.
  33. ^ A. P. Martinich, The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics (2003), p. 381.
  34. ^ Jon Parkin, Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England: Richard Cumberland's De Legibus Naturae (1999), pp. 61–4.
  35. ^ Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (1981), p. 162.
  36. ^ Jon Parkin, Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England: Richard Cumberland's De Legibus Naturae (1999), pp. 26–8.
  37. ^ Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (translators), The New Science of Giambattista Vico (1970 edition), section 493 at p. 123; translation revised by replacing "law" with a faithful rendering of "diritto" as "right".
  38. ^ Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (translators), The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico (1975 edition), p. 172.
  39. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current (1997 edition), p. 118.
  40. ^ Barratt, D. M. (1950–1951). "The Library of John Selden and its later history". The Bodleian Library Record. 3: 129.
  41. ^ Barratt, D. M. (1950–51). "The Library of John Selden and its later history". The Bodleian Library Record. 3: 130–31.
  42. ^ a b Barratt, D. M. (1950–51). "The Library of John Selden and its later history". The Bodleian Library Record. 3: 131.
  43. ^ Barratt, D. M. (1950–51). "The Library of John Selden and its later history". The Bodleian Library Record. 3: 132.
  44. ^ a b c d The Bodleian Library. "Rare Books Named Collection Descriptions". Weston Library.
  45. ^ Chamberlayne, Edward (1704). Angliae Notitia: Or The Present State of England (21 ed.). London. p. 465.
  46. ^ Barratt, D. M. (1950–51). "The Library of John Selden and its later history". The Bodleian Library Record. 3: 133.
  47. ^ Barratt, D. M. (1950–51). "The Library of John Selden and its later history". The Bodleian Library Record. 3: 128.
  48. ^ Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts. "Manuscripts of John Selden".
  49. ^ All information about Selden's manuscripts taken from the Bodleian Library's Summary Catalogues: Madan, Falconer and H. H. E. Craster. 1922. A Summary Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press. Also Clapinson, Mary and T. D. Rogers, Summary Catalogue of Post-Medieval Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library Oxford. Vol. 2. Oxford: 1991.
  50. ^ Keynes, Geoffrey (1958). A Bibliography of John Donne. Cambridge University Press. p. 210.
  51. ^ Bodleian Library (24 June 2010). "'Freedom above all things': A display of John Selden's books at the Bodleian Library".


  • Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Bliss (London; 1817, 4 vols.)
  • John Aikin, Lives of John Selden and Archbishop Usher (London, 1812)
  • Robert Batchelor, London: The Selden Map and the Making of a Global City, 1549–1689 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) ISBN 9780226080659
  • David Sandler Berkowitz, John Selden's Formative Years: Politics and Society in Early Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1988)
  • Sergio Caruso, La miglior legge del regno. Consuetudine, diritto naturale e contratto nel pensiero e nell’epoca di John Selden (1584–1654), Giuffrè: Milano 2001, two vols.
  • Paul Christianson, "Selden, John (1584–1654)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Elleray, D. Robert (1977). Worthing: a Pictorial History. Chichester: Phillimore & Co. ISBN 0-85033-263-X.
  • Gabor Hamza, Comparative law and Antiquity (Budapest, 1991)
  • George William Johnson, Memoirs of John Selden, etc. (London, 1835)
  • Jason P. Rosenblatt, Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden, Oxford University Press, 2006
  • S. W. Singer (preface and notes), The Table-Talk of John Selden. (London, 1856)
  • G. J. Toomer, John Selden: A Life in Scholarship (Oxford, OUP, 2009) (Oxford-Warburg Studies).
  • Archdeacon David Wilkins (editor), Johannis Seldeni Opera Omnia, etc. (London, 1725)
  • Daniel Woolf, "The Idea of History in Early Stuart England" (Toronto, 1990)
  • John Milton, Areopagitica. (London, 1644)

Further reading

  • Daniel Woolf (1990), The Idea of History in Early Stuart England
  • Paul Christianson (1996), Discourse in History, Law and Governance in the Public Career of John Selden, 1610–1635
  • Reid Barbour (2003), John Selden: Measures of the Holy Commonwealth in Seventeenth-century England
  • Ofir Haivry (2017), John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge University Press)

External links

12 Annotations

First Reading

dirk  •  Link

Selden: Mare Clausum vs. Mare Liberum

The historic controversy which arose out of demands on the part of different states to assert exclusive dominion over areas of the open or high sea. Thus Spain laid claim to exclusive dominion over whole oceans, Great Britain to all her environing narrow seas and so on. These claims gave rise to vigorous opposition by other powers and led to the publication of Grotius

Wim van der Meij  •  Link

The Grotius of 'Mare Liberum' is Dutchman Hugo de Groot, who is well-known for the fact that he escaped from the castle where he was kept prisoner by hiding himself in a book-chest, and which was carried outside by friends of his.
After that he fled to Sweden.

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

SELDEN, JOHN (1584-1654), jurist; educated at Chichester under Hugh Barker and at Hart Hall, Oxford; entered Clifford Inn, 1602, and Inner Temple, 1604; barrister, Inner Temple, 1612; bencher, 1633; steward to Henry Grey, ninth earl of Kent; published, 1617, 'History of Tythes,' many passages in which, and in the preface, gave offence to the clergy; his 'History of Tythes' suppressed by public authority; took active part in preparation of the protestation of the Commons, 1621, and was temporarily placed in private custody; returned to parliament as burgess for Lancaster. 1623; M.P., Great Bedwin, 1626; took prominent part (1626) in impeachment of Buckingham; counsel for Sir Edmund Hampden, who had been committed to prison for refusing to lend money to Charles I on his sole demand, and disputed legality of detention on warrant which did not specify the offences, 1627; M.P., Ludgershall, 1628; chairman of committee to consider precedents as to imprisonment without cause assigned; supported (1629) petition of printers and booksellers against Laud's interference with their trade, and took active part in discussion on tonnage and poundage; imprisoned in consequence of his action in the house; liberated, 1631; M.P. for Oxford University in Long parliament; opposed crown on question of ship-money; on committees to draw up articles of impeachment of Laud, 1641, and to examine Charles I's violation of privileges of parliament, 1642; sat in Assembly of Divines at Westminster, 1643; received office of clerk and keeper of records of the Tower of London, 1643; member of committee to manage the admiralty, 1645; member of committee to hear appeals from parliamentary visitors to Oxford University, 1647; after 1649 took no further part in public affairs and abstained from expressing any opinion. He won fame as an orientalist by his treatise 'De Diis Syris,' 1617, and subsequently made a valuable collection of oriental manuscripts, most of which passed at his death into the Bodleian Library. His work in this direction consisted chiefly in the exposition of rabbinical law. His 'Table Talk,' containing reports of his utterances from time to time during the last twenty years of his life, composed by his secretary, Richard Milward, appeared in 1689. His works include 'Titles of Honour,' 1614, an edition of Eadmer, 1623, 'Marmora Arundelliana,' 1624, 'De Successionibus,' 1631, 'Mare Clausum,' 1635, 'De Jure Naturali,' 1640, 'Judicature in Parliament,' 1640, 'Privileges of Baronage,' 1642, 'Fleta,' 1647, and 'On the Nativity of Christ,' 1661. His works were collected by Dr. David Wilkins, 1726.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

Bill  •  Link

SELDEN, John, a learned Englishman, born at Salvinton, Sussex, 1584. He was educated at Chichester school, and Hart hall, Oxford after which he entered at Clifford's Inn, and two years after removed to the Inner Temple. He early distinguish himself as an antiquarian, and in 1610, published Jani Anglorum Facis Altera, & Duello, or the Origin of Single Combat. Besides other pieces he published Titles of Honor, 1614, a work of great merit and in 1618, appeared his History of Tithes, which as it censored the ignorance and laziness of the clergy gave great offence to that body. The work was attacked by several writers, especially Montague afterwards bishop of Norwich, and the author at last was obliged to make submission before the lords of the privy council for this offensive publication. His opinions in favor of the privileges of the house of commons, and his opposition to the measures of the court, drew upon him in 1621 the displeasure of king James, who committed him to the custody of the sheriff of London, from which he was liberated by the interference of his friend bishop Andrews. In 1623, he was chosen member of parliament for Lancaster and two years after for Great Bedwin, and in the house he distinguished himself by his attack on the character of Buckingham, and became one of the managers of his impeachment. His opposition to the measures of the court continued and for the freedom of his sentiments he was, in 1629, arrested with several other members, and upon refusing to make submission to the court he was sent to the king's bench prison. He was again sent into confinement the following year; but his sufferings in the cause of public liberty were rewarded by the parliament of 1646, who voted him 5000l. for his losses. Though apparently much engaged in politics, Selden was laboriously employed in literary pursuits. In 1634, he defended, in his Mare Clausum, the privileges of the English, and their rights in the herring fishery, against Grotius's work, called Mare Liberum. He was in 1640, elected member for Oxford university, and in 1642, it was intended by the king's ministers to remove lord Lyttelton from the seals, and to give them to him, as though he opposed the measures of the court, he was a sincere friend to the just prerogatives of the crown, but the offer was not made, as his delicate constitution, and his great love of ease prevented his exertions, and would have induced him to decline the honorable office. In 1643, he became one of the lay members of Westminster assembly of divines, and he about this time took the covenant, and was made by the parliament keeper of the records of the Tower.

Bill  •  Link

[continued] But, however, though he continued member of the house, and was in 1644, one of the 12 commissioners of the admiralty, he did not concur in the violent measures of the parliament and when the Icon Basilice appeared, Cromwell in vain solicited him to employ his talents to write against it. He died 30th Nov 1654, at White Friars at the house of the countess of Kent, with whom he lived in habits of friendship, and with some report of criminal intimacy. He was buried in the Temple church, and Usher preached a sermon in honor of his memory. His valuable library was given by his executors to the university of Oxford. As a scholar Selden ranks very high. He was not only skilled in the Hebrew and oriental languages, but he was acquainted with all laws, divine and human, and in the stores of a most retentive memory he had treasured up whatever is valuable, interesting, and important, in ancient and modern literature. He was, as Grotius states him, the glory of the English nation and as Whitelock says, his mind was as great as his learning, and he was as hospitable and as generous as any man. He was a person, as Clarendon has observed, whom no character can flatter, or transmit in any expressions equal to his merit and virtue. His learning was stupendous, and if he had some infirmities they were weighed down with wonderful and prodigious abilities, and excellences, in the other scale. The works of this great character were collected by Dr. Wilkins, 3 vols. fol. generally bound in six, 1726, of which the two first contain his Latin pieces, and the third his English, with a long life prefixed.
---Universal Biography. J. Lemprière, 1810.

Bill  •  Link

John Selden, sometimes styled "The great dictator of learning of the English nation," and pronounced by Grotius, his antagonist, to be the glory of it, was a man of as extensive and profound knowledge as any of his age. He was thoroughly skilled in every thing that related to his own profession; but the general bent of his studies was to sacred and profane antiquity. The greater part of his works are on uncommon subjects. Like a man of genius, he was not content with walking in the beaten track of learning, but was for striking out new paths, and enlarging the territories of science. His "History of Tithes" gained him more enemies than any of his works, and his "Mare clausum usum" did him the most honour. Towards the close of his life, he saw the emptiness of all human learning; and owned, that out of the numberless volumes he had read and digested, nothing stuck so close to his heart, or gave him such solid satisfaction, as a single passage out of St. Paul's Epistles. [Titus 2:11-14] Ob. 30 Nov. 1654, and was buried on the south side of the round walk in the Temple church. His works were published in three volumes, folio, by Dr. David Wilkins, 1725.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1824.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

The study of Hebrew at the universities was considered very important during the 17th century. It led to a change in attitude towards the Bible and religion in the 18th century, which in turn influenced the French Revolution and the American Constitution, amongst other things.

The introduction to The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom by Fania Oz-Salzberger explains it this way:

"Seventeenth-century political and juridical thinkers mined the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic literature for ideas, examples and full-fledged political systems, aiming to apply them to modern Europe.

"This essay examines several political Hebraists of the 17th century, notably Petrus Cuneaus, John Selden, James Harrington and his fellow English republicans, and John Locke.

"The 'Hebrew republic,' the polity idealized by early modern Hebraists, is significant above all as a political and juridical model. The essay discerns three clusters of ideas reaped exclusively, or mainly, from Hebraic sources, and interwoven into modern political thought:
(1)The importance of the rule of law within fixed borders: a concept of international borders underpinning a novel, natural-law-based theory of the state, law, and rights;
(2) the idea of a federal republic, transformed from the tribal Israelite society to Dutch political thinking; and
(3) the moral economy of republican social justice.

"Finally, the essay explains why jurists and political thinkers ceased to read the Bible as a historical and political text in the 18th century, and why the earlier legacy of political Hebraism could become valuable again today, both historically and politically."…
You may need to subscribe to Academia, which I find to be a fount of information and well worth it.

Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today updated its lengthy entry for John Selden MP.
You can read it, free, for 7 days before it disappears behind their paywall.…

He also has one of the longest House of Commons biographies I've seen. Since he died in 1654 and Pepys didn't know him, I'm not excerpting it, but encourage you to read it anyways at

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today updated its lengthy entry for John Selden MP.
You can read it, free, for 7 days before it disappears behind their paywall.…

He also has one of the longest House of Commons biographies I've seen. Since he died in 1654 and Pepys didn't know him, I'm not excerpting it, but encourage you to read it anyways at

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.



  • Jan