Of the Inner Temple before 1500 little is known though much has been conjectured, for the records of the Inn prior to 1505 have been either lost or destroyed, whilst the earliest recorded mention of the Society itself occurs in a Paston letter of 1440. The date of its foundation therefore must remain a subject for speculation alone. But whilst it is tempting to believe that the Inn must have possessed a Library in the Middle Ages, surviving evidence suggests strongly that if nothing is known of the Library before 1506 it is because there is indeed nothing to know. One thing is certain: if the Library existed before the time of Caxton it would have held legal manuscripts. Yet none are recorded in the earliest surviving catalogue dating from the early eighteenth century. The manuscripts there recorded were all gifts, presented in the age of printing. It is unlikely that the former would have been sold if they existed, nor is there any hint that they were destroyed.
The Library in 1506 consisted of a single room (on the east side of the Hall, probably where the Bench Luncheon Room is at present) set aside for the reading of books and used at a later date as an annexe for dining in when the Hall became overcrowded; and though this practice was stopped in 1606 it was still to be used for moots, for the reception of distinguished visitors at the feasts, and for meetings of the Benchers (senior members of the Inn). A legal collection at that time could have been contained in a handful of close presses, so that its use for social and other functions was not so unreasonable as it might seem to the modern librarian. The sixteenth century records are meagre: they contain no direct reference to any books being bought or presented, and there is no mention of any library custodian or cleaner. By 1607 however, a second room had been added, there are records of library books being repaired (the repair of two of them cost 3s. 4d.) and a first reference to a gift when Sir Edward Coke presented his Reports in 1608. The rooms had rushes on the floors, shelves for the books which, by 1609, were padlocked upon iron rods, tin candlesticks upon the tables (though these would only have been lit when the upper library, which had a special leather chair for the Treasurer, was used for the meetings of parliament) plaster walls and windows frugally fitted with old glass taken from the Temple Church. During the first half of the seventeenth century steady improvements were made to these rooms. The flooring, probably, was tiled, the plaster work renewed, and the leaded windows of the upper Library ornamented by two large curtains.
The physical arrangement of the books is hard to determine. It is unlikely, on the known evidence relating to other libraries, that all the books were chained; probably only a minority and the most valuable at that. The less valuable titles were probably shelved in close presses, the doors being locked and with labels fixed to them describing the contents. As the books increased new shelves were erected upwards, either on the lectern or in the press, to accommodate them; and thus arose the (apparently) curious habit still followed at a number of university libraries (and in use at the Inner Temple until 1950) of numbering or lettering the shelves from the bottom shelf upwards, for as is the practice with much current material at the British Museum, the books were shelved at first in accession order.
In 1654 “the greatest loss which the Library of the Inner Temple ever sustained, or can sustain, was the failure of the Bench to accept the manuscripts and printed books of John Selden”. But it is perhaps fair to add that its very size was perhaps an embarrassment to the intended recipients, for its reception would have necessitated the building of a new Library to house the entire collection and this would have involved great expense. Be that as it may it must remain a source of constant regret that the Inn does not possess a single book that once belonged to one of the most distinguished lawyers in its entire history.
In 1662, Mrs Anne Sadleir, the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Coke, gave to the Inn a number of manuscripts, mainly of sermons or of a devotional nature, together with a collection of printed books whose original number is now unknown. At some time in the nineteenth century it was decided to mark these books by a small red printed label bearing the words `E Lib. Coke’. Why this was done and for how long the belief had persisted that these were from Sir Edward’s Library may never be known, but the belief persisted until the middle 1960s when a close examination of those that still survived showed it to be quite untrue. More than half the books bear printing dates long after his death, some bear dates of the early eighteenth century. Few have any association with Coke, the majority are works of devotion, of theology, of sermons, and came from his daughter’s library. They are in general her books, not his.
On Sunday 2nd October 1666 the Great Fire broke out; the wind blew from the east and the City was engulfed. On Tuesday the 4th it reached Whitefriars on the eastern boundary of the Inner Temple. The damage was considerable and the Library wholly destroyed. It is not clear, however, whether the books it housed were saved or not. Rebuilding followed swiftly and by 1668 the Library was in use again. It was wainscotted now and another room added. It would seem from this that the intake of books was now on the increase and this may be supported by the known expansion of law publishing during this half century. Improvements continued. By 1670 the Library was graced by the additional decoration of the Readers’ coats of arms while in 1677 a handsome Spanish table was added to the furniture. The Library, however, still served other purposes, and the upper room was used on occasion for recreation, one table alone being reserved for hazard, a popular game of chance at that period. But a greater hazard lay outside, for in 1679 a disastrous fire broke out in the Middle Temple and destroyed a number of residences. This was in winter, the Thames was frozen and water hard to obtain. It is said that the beer from the Temple cellars was used by the fire engines available but this soon ran out and, in what proved an unnecessary effort to prevent it spreading, the small library of one storey was blown up by gunpowder after its contents had been removed.