Law Hall of Fame logoAlso spelled Rastal.

John and his son William Rastell's role in the development of the common law has never been properly recognized. Their contributions are on a par with William BlackstoneEdward Coke and Francis Bacon.

William's father was John Rastell (died 1536) who, as a lawyer and book printer, printed a Latin book Exposiciones Terminorum Legum Anglorum, in 1527. This book would become one of the most influential law books in the history of law, as well as the first English law dictionary, later to be well-known as Termes de la Ley

John Rastell also published Magnum Abbreviamentum, an abridgment of English statutes in 1528.

William's mother, John's wife was Elizabeth More, sister of Thomas More. John Rastell hardly fared better than his brother-in-law, dying insolvent and in prison.

Born a printer's son, William also chose the practise of law. In 1533, he translated his father's Magnum Abbreviamentum into English and gave it an English title: The Great Abridgment of the Statutes of England until the 22nd Year of King Henry VIII.

In 1539, William Rastell was called to the bar through Lincoln's Inn.

When Edward IV ascended to the British throne, Rastell, like his father, left England and lived in exile at Louvain, France, returning only when Queen Mary was crowned.

In 1557, another collosal law book; this time, a collection of English statutes from the Magna Carta to 1557. This work went through many re-editions and with time, was adopted by succession of subsequent editors.

Queen Mary appointed William Rastell a judge of the Queen's Bench, a position he held until 1563, his appointment renewed by Elizabeth I when she became Queen of England in 1558.

He soon ran afoul of Queen Elizabeth by visiting France without Royal permission. She punished him by having his belongings in England subjected to public aduit before the Court of Exchequer.

William Rastell died at Louvain, France on August 27, 1565.

In his later years, he had translated and re-edited his father's Exposiciones Terminorum Legum Anglorum. The 8-volume English-language booklet set was called: An Exposition of Certain Difficult and Obscure Words and Terms of the Law. But it was not published until 1567, some two years after William Rastell's death, and by the London publisher Tottell. It was very popular and was reprinted in 1579 and 1602. Starting with the 1641 re-print, a new title: Termes de la Ley, a title which continued with the 1667 and until the final 1712 edition.

A sample:

"Parco fracto: Parco fracto is a writ that lies against him that breaks any pound, and takes out the beasts which are there lawfully impounded."

Termes de la Ley can still be found on the bookshelves of many law libraries including a very popular 1812 American edition.

But he was not named as the author and for decades the law docitinary was routinely referred to in legal proceedigns wothout attribution. This ended when Edward Coke identifed William Rastell as the author omitting, though, the role of his father John in the original work.


  • Holdsworth, William, A History of English Law, Vols. 4 and 5 (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1952).
  • Smith, George, Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922)