The Middle Temple has accumulated a large collection of silver over several centuries, consisting of hundreds of items. A major archive project has involved researching the origin of the items within the silver collection. This focus has revealed some of the interesting history behind these objects as well as the Inn's collecting in general.
It is likely that the Inn's tradition of collecting silver began early on in its history as part of its financial strategy and as a method of displaying its importance and wealth. Before the widespread use of banks, buying precious metals and items of plate was the primary method of storing financial surpluses. Silver plate functioned both as a lavish display of prosperity and prestige, and as an important monetary reserve that could be used during times of financial strife.
Part of account of a feast for the Serjeants-at-Law, mentioning a cupboard, Minutes of Parliament 9 November 1503 (MT.1/MPA/1)
The earliest evidence for the existence of the Inn's silver plate can be found in the Minutes of Parliament of 9 November 1503. These minutes provide an account of the occasion that a feast was held for the Serjeants-at-Law at Lambeth. Prior to the feast, all the members of the Inn in London at the time assembled in Hall around "le cubbord" and the Serjeants were brought up to "le Cuppeborde" for a ceremony, before proceeding to Lambeth. Although the silver is not mentioned outright, the reference to a 'cupboard' is key, as at this time a cupboard was used for displaying expensive plate during banquets and ceremonial occasions. Although the exact nature of the items on display is lost to time, there is here a clear implication that the Inn had accumulated a collection of plate by the early 16th century.
Print of Belshazzar's Feast, with a cupboard of gold and silver plate taken from the Temple of Jerusalem, 1590-1600 © The Trustees of the British Museum
From the late 16th century, much of the plate of the Society was acquired through the means of an Order of Parliament dated 12 May 1585. This stated that all members Called as Associate Benchers, who were Called to the Bench without having served as Reader, and had no voice in the governance of the Inn, had to give either £10, plate or some provision for the table - this was to provide some parity with the great expense incurred by Readers during the course of their duties. Elections of Associate Benchers were very rarely made, except during the Civil War (1642-1651), when there were no Readings given for a period of three years, and ceased altogether after 1730. Many donations of plate were made because of this order, including many items of 17th and early 18th century plate currently in the Middle Temple's collection.