Spring Custom XML Namespaces

Oct 15, 2013

Including custom XML in Spring configuration


One of the nice recent features of Spring (2.x era) is support for custom XML. This is the way that Spring itself has added all kinds of new tags such as <util:list> and <mvc:annotation-driven>. The way this works is pretty elegant, to the point that it makes an interesting alternative for configuring Java using XML, particularly if the application already uses Spring.

I’ve written an example application to try to give an easily-copied example of how it’s done. The example uses Spring and a custom XML parser to build dynamic Swing menus. It makes a nice comparison to doing dynamic Swing menus using the Digester version I posted a while back.

Of course, this is not a good way to make Java menus in general! In most applications, this would be an example of Soft Coding. This would really only make sense in an application where it was really important to be able to add or remove menus without changing Java code. So treat it as a nice example, but please don’t start making your GUIs this way.

Spring Custom XML

Custom XML works in a Spring configuration file because Spring can dynamically validate and parse XML. To do this, Spring first has to be able to validate the XML it parses against a schema. It does this by looking for all files on the classpath called META-INF/spring.schemas. These files provide a location on the classpath for the XML schema that goes with a given namespace. For example, the “core” XML for Spring is defined in the beans namespace. The META-INF/spring.schemas file in the spring-beans JAR has entries like this one:


So when we use the beans schema in our Spring XML, it knows where on the classpath to hunt down the schema so it can validate that XML.

Once the schema is validated, Spring needs to find a “handler” that knows how to make Spring beans based on the XML. Spring finds handlers by looking through all the files on the classpath called META-INF/spring.handlers. The spring.handlers file in the spring-beans JAR has entries like this one:


It’s really the job of the handler to make bean definitions, not the regular Java objects that will live as beans in the Spring application context. This is because Spring still has to manage things like beans depending on other beans, which means Spring has to parse all the XML to figure out the dependency graph before any objects can be instantiated.

Example Application

Our example application has several parts:

  1. The spring.schemas and spring.handlers files in META-INF.
  2. An XML schema defining what is valid in our custom namespace.
  3. MenuNamespaceHandler, the entry class that allows us to register what XML elements go with what parser classes.
  4. MenuDefinitionParser, the actual XML parser for our custom XML namespace.
  5. A regular Spring XML configuration file that also includes our custom XML.
  6. A main class to get the whole thing kicked off.

There’s also a Java class called MenuItem that we use to store the ID, the title, and any children of the menu item. It doesn’t know anything about Spring or XML; it’s just a POJO.

Defining the custom XML

The spring.schemas file is pretty simple. Note that it’s matching to a file on the classpath; Spring is not going to be looking out on the Internet for your XML schema at runtime.


The spring.handlers file is also pretty simple. It just points to the right handler class:


The XML schema is omitted here; it’s an XML schema and not much need be said. Of note is that it allows for arbitrary nesting of <menu> elements inside other <menu> elements.

One more piece of boilerplate; the namespace handler. Since our namespace is really simple and only contains one top-level element (menu), it’s a one-liner:

public void init() {
	registerBeanDefinitionParser("menu", new MenuDefinitionParser());

The parser is where it gets interesting. The parser will get called while Spring is reading the XML file, whenever it comes across an element that belongs to the matching namespace. However, it will only be called for the top-level element; it’s up to us to handle any nested elements as required.

protected AbstractBeanDefinition parseInternal(Element element,
		ParserContext context) {

	BeanDefinitionBuilder builder = parseItem(element);

	List<Element> childElements = DomUtils.getChildElementsByTagName(
			element, "menu");

	if (null != childElements && childElements.size() > 0) {
		ManagedList<AbstractBeanDefinition> children = new ManagedList<>(

		for (Element child : childElements) {
			children.add(parseInternal(child, context));
		builder.addPropertyValue("children", children);

	return builder.getBeanDefinition();

private BeanDefinitionBuilder parseItem(Element element) {
	BeanDefinitionBuilder builder = BeanDefinitionBuilder

	String id = element.getAttribute("id");
	if (StringUtils.hasText(id)) {
		builder.addPropertyValue("id", id);

	String title = element.getAttribute("title");
	if (StringUtils.hasText(title)) {
		builder.addPropertyValue("title", title);

	String listener = element.getAttribute("listener");
	if (StringUtils.hasText(listener)) {
		builder.addPropertyReference("listener", listener);

	return builder;

In this case, because we allowed for the idea that a menu could contain child menus, we have to handle that here with some recursion. Note that for every <menu> element at whatever level, we are creating a separate Spring bean definition (that’s one purpose of the rootBeanDefinition() static method call). The really important thing to notice is that as we build the bean definition, we are not creating a MenuItem object directly, nor are we setting any properties directly. In fact, in the case of the children property, we are not even building a list of the correct type, as the MenuItem class expects to receive a list of MenuItem children, but we are building a list of AbstractBeanDefinition. Spring handles all of the necessary wiring when it actually instantiates our MenuList objects, including looking up each of the references in the list and populating a new list with the real objects.

One other thing that’s slightly confusing is that a reference to a single other Spring bean uses addPropertyReference(), while a managed list of Spring bean definitions uses addPropertyValue().

Using the custom XML

Now that these items are in place, we can use the custom XML just the same as any other XML in a Spring configuration file. For example:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<bean:beans xmlns="http://anvard.org/springxml/menu"

	<bean:bean id="simpleListener" class="org.anvard.springxml.SimpleMenuItemListener" />

	<menu id="menu1" title="Parent 1">
		<menu id="menu2" title="Child 1" listener="simpleListener" />
		<menu id="menu3" title="Child 2" listener="simpleListener" />
		<menu id="menu4" title="Child 3" listener="simpleListener" />
		<menu id="menu5" title="Child 4" listener="simpleListener" />

	<menu id="menu6" title="Item 1" listener="simpleListener" />

	<menu id="menu7" title="Grand Parent 1">
		<menu id="menu8" title="Parent 2">
			<menu id="menu9" title="Child 5" listener="simpleListener" />
	<util:list id="toplevel">
		<bean:ref bean="menu1" />
		<bean:ref bean="menu6" />
		<bean:ref bean="menu7" />


Note that we can make our custom XML the default namespace so we don’t have to prefix our XML elements; we can also make the bean namespace the default as is more typical in a Spring XML configuration file. We can mix our custom XML freely with standard Spring XML.

Also note that our custom XML can make references back to ordinary Spring beans as long as we do the right thing in our parser to make this work.

We use a list called toplevel as a handy way of finding the outermost menu items for our menu bar. Once the XML is parsed, the beans are all loaded into the Spring application context and the structure of the XML no longer really applies.

Using this file from our main class looks just the same as any Spring code:

ClassPathXmlApplicationContext ctx = new ClassPathXmlApplicationContext("/menuDefinition.xml");

All of our menu items are available in the Spring application context, so we could do ctx.getBean("menu9") and get back the menu item with the title “Child 5”.


Even though many Spring users are shifting toward annotation-driven configuration, there are still things that are easier to do in XML, like creating many instances of a class with different properties. A custom XML namespace is a way to make Spring XML configuration more compact and more readable.