Sir John and Lady Sophie Laws in their own words

Sir John and Lady Sophie Laws attended the annual conferences of the Bar European Group for many years. We have reproduced an extract from one Sir John’s speeches – delivered as President of BEG in Rome in 2007, and Lady Sophie Laws’ candid insights into her role as “historical researcher”.

The Forum, Rome. Photo by Oleg Magni on

“The tradition of the historical researcher began with the Conference in Prague in 1994. John was giving a paper, and I suggested he included something about the links between mediaeval England and Bohemia, as it then was: the wool trade, Richard II’s wife Anne of Bohemia, the relationship between John Wycliffe and Jan Hus whose statue was in the main square. Most people remembered this for the comment on Shakespeare’s sea coast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale: “geography was not a strong subject at Stratford Grammar School”. The following year John became President – no connection, of course – and the tradition was established.

In Cracow in 1998 we dined at the Wierzynek Restaurant, and I researched the European kings who had dined there with Casimir the Great in 1364 – it was research then, before the days of Google. I always tried to supply John with some connection between the place we were meeting and where we were coming from: London, England, the Law. For example, Rhodes in 2000 gave me William Weston of the Knights Hospitaller who fought in the great siege against Suleiman the Magnificent and returned to London to face Henry VIII and the Dissolution of his Order – the Hospitallers had inherited the Templars’ property after the latter order was suppressed.

I tried to avoid the expected: e.g. in Athens in 2011 we had the young Byron rather than Pericles or Solon – and a firework display from a nearby baptism party during the speech. Some were contested by the listeners: there were objections to my linking Charlemagne to Paris, even by the device of the trade in “black stones” (Blackstones, get it…) between his realm and Offa’s Mercian London.”

Lady Sophie Laws (1944-2017)

An extract from Sir John Law’s speech as President of BEG given in Rome in 2007

“2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome which set up what is now the European Union; but it is another anniversary year as well.

In the middle of a June night in 1787, 220 years ago, in a summer house by the lake at Lausanne, a short, fat Englishman completed a great work.

He had presented the second volume of it to the Duke of Gloucester who was more struck by the greatness of its bulk than of its content, saying, Prince Philip style:

“Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?”

The seeds for the book had been sown 23 years ago when Edward Gibbon visited Rome for the first and only time. As a teenager he had read his way into Roman Catholicism, but his scandalized father had sent him to be re-programmed by a reliable Calvinist. So it was not the Rome of St Peter’s and the Vatican that impressed him. He was gob-smacked by an earlier Rome:

“My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect. But at the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke [a somewhat familiar reference to Marcus Tullius Cicero!], or Caesar fell was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.”

“It was at Rome…as I sat musing among the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter [now the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli], that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Gibbon toyed briefly with the idea of writing a History of the Liberation of the Swiss, but turned to a much larger canvas with his history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not identify the glory days of Rome as the republic of “Tully” and Caesar. He was, indeed, very specific:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus”

The best period in the whole history of the whole human race!

The great – irrepressible? – Boris Johnson in his recent television series on Rome, saw it as appropriate, even inevitable, that the treaty establishing the European Union should be the “Treaty of Rome”. The Roman Empire and the European Union share common features that promote their unity:

(i) the free movement of peoples and of goods (on Hadrian’s Wall, a grave monument commemorates the marriage of a Syrian trader to a native British tribeswoman);

(ii) the rule of law (allowing flexibility to respond to local issues, e.g. in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth for offences to Jewish religion);

(iii) a commonly accepted currency (cf. the euro);

(iv) a single political system: “the image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence” (cf. the vexed question of the constitution?).

What Rome had, and the European Union so far lacks, according to Boris, was a unifying symbol, in the image and person of the emperor. Even Jacques Delors did not provide that!

But what Gibbon – perhaps a better authority than Boris? – saw as an especial virtue of the Empire was its toleration of religious diversity. Because he had been, however briefly, a Catholic in 18th century England, and had to leave Oxford in consequence*, Gibbon had reason to attach a high value to the religious toleration of the Roman Empire, though he expresses it with characteristic cynicism:

“The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful”.

*(in fact Gibbon saw his exclusion from Oxford as a blessed relief: a “fortunate banishment” from “port and prejudice among the monks of Oxford”; from dons who “from the toil of reading or thinking ..had absolved their conscience … their dull and deep potations excused the intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the more lively loyalty to the House of Hanover”)

It is not surprising, then, though it is notorious, that Gibbon saw the triumph of Christianity as a factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This was an intolerant and exclusive religion. Not only did it preach “the doctrine of patience and pusillanimity” rather than “the active virtues of society”, but “the flame of theological discord” ignited “religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable” so that “the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods”. After the second century, the hero of his history is Julian the Apostate.

Gibbon would certainly not have sympathized with the idea of the European Union, the “new Roman Empire” as a Christian club, nor have supported proposals to write this into its Constitution.”

An extract from Sir John Law’s speech as President of BEG given in Istanbul in 2008

“Look at the moon tonight, 25th May 2008, it is waning over Istanbul. The moon was waning over Constantinople on the night of 28th May 1453, 555 years ago. The next day the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos led a last sally through the Romanus Gate. He threw off his imperial regalia and fought to the death among his troops. His body was never found. In the great church of Ayia Sophia a last liturgy was sung by the priests. They gathered up the sacred vessels and, as tradition has it, vanished through the walls which opened and closed behind them. In the late afternoon the Ottoman emperor, Mehmet II “the Conqueror” entered the city. He came into Ayia Sophia and ordered one of his ulema to proclaim from the pulpit his confession of faith: “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet”.

The great powers of Western Europe stood by, and watched the city fall. They had indeed fatally weakened it with the infamous sack of Constantinople in the course of the fourth crusade. For more than a millennium the city had provided a continuous and living link between mediaeval Europe and the classical world: through the Christian Empire of Constantine to the Empire of Augustus and to the civilization of Greece which that Empire inherited and embraced. Now that link was broken.

But a different link had been forged from Constantinople between the classical world and the emerging Europe.  The great church of Ayia Sophia had been commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, and Justinian was a man, like many others, with a dream. His dream was to recreate the former Roman Empire, by reuniting the fallen West from the patchwork of Germanic kingdoms into which it had disintegrated. His great general Belisarius achieved the reconquest of Italy and North Africa, but Justinian knew that reconquest could not be through military means alone. There must be a re-establishment of the rule of law. But Roman law had fallen into disarray over centuries of social and political upheaval. The law itself needed to be recreated. Justinian appointed a sort of Law Commission under the chairmanship of one Tribonian. It included scholars from Constantinople and also from the law school of Beirut. They produced a definitive Code of Law, accompanied by a fifty volume work called the Digest, which collected the opinions of the jurists, reaching back into the time of the Roman republic. This was to ensure that the law was clearly stated without repetition or contradiction, and all obsolete matter was to be removed. In case of conflict, the Commission was free to give what they regarded as the best, rather than the majority, view.

This Law was promulgated, with the resounding opening preamble:

“In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, The Emperor Caesar Flavius Justinianus, Conqueror of the Alamanni, Goths, Franks, Germans, Antes, Alani, Vandals and Africans, Pious, Happy and Glorious Conqueror and Vanquisher, to young men desirous of learning the law, Greeting.”

Because Justinian’s territories at that time included the recaptured areas of the West, it was possible for the Code to be promulgated there as well.

Justinian’s reconquest could not be sustained: in Italy the Lombards broke through in a new barbarian invasion; but in a brief “window of opportunity” the Law of Rome had been reintroduced into the West. For some time it lay dormant, as Europe emerged. Then, in the 11th century, a copy of the Digest, “beautiful as a star”, was rediscovered, and Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis became the ancestor of the modern European Civil Law system.

Behind every great man is a strong woman. In 532, at the beginning of Justinian’s reign, the city of Constantinople had been in uproar. The rivalry of the supporters of the Blues and Greens teams of charioteers – the Liverpool and Everton, or Rangers and Celtic, of their day – had erupted into violence. Churches were burned, including the original church of Holy Wisdom, and police officials attacked. Justinian prepared to flee the city. But his wife Theodora was made of sterner stuff. Her image is immortalized in the apse of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, built during the period of reconquest. It shows her in the jewels and silks of her imperial dignity. But Theodora was a bear-keeper’s daughter and herself no stranger to the public arena and the roar of the crowd. Should a woman give an example of courage to a man, she enquired, “If you wish safety, my lord, that is an easy matter. We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships. But consider if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death. As for me, I like the old saying, that purple is the noblest shroud.” She won; he stayed; and stayed to make his Law.

Maybe without Theodora, there would have been no Civil Law system for Europe.

Constantinople – Byzantium – Istanbul. This city has always been at the boundaries, at a point of contact and of connection. For Constantine the Great, who founded it, it was the bridge between his provinces of Europe and Asia; after Constantine XI it was the boundary between Christendom and the Ottoman Empire – each in their immense variety. Now it stands at another boundary – with the European Union.”

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