Coke, Sir Edward

Coke, Sir Edward
born Feb. 1, 1552, Mileham, Norfolk, Eng.
died Sept. 3, 1634, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

British jurist and politician.

He became a lawyer in 1578 and was made solicitor general in 1592. His advance to the position of attorney general (1594) frustrated his great rival, Francis Bacon. As attorney general, he conducted several famous treason trials, prosecuting Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton (1600–01); Sir Walter Raleigh (1603); and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (1605). Named chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1606, Coke earned the ire of James I by declaring that the king's proclamation could not change the law (1610). He upset church leaders by limiting the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. Appointed chief justice of the King's Bench by James I (1613), he remained unswayed; he hinted at scandal in high places and defied a royal injunction in a case involving ecclesiastical privileges. He was dismissed in 1616, partly through Bacon's efforts. In 1620 he reentered Parliament (he had served in 1589), where he denounced interference with Parliament's liberties (1621) until he was imprisoned. In 1628 he helped frame the Petition of Right, a charter of liberties; this defense of the supremacy of the common law over royal prerogative had a profound influence on the English law and constitution. On his death his papers were seized by Charles I. His Reports (1600–15), taken together, are a monumental compendium of English common law, and his Institutes of the Lawes of England (4 vol., 1628–44) is an important treatise.

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▪ English jurist
born February 1, 1552, Mileham, Norfolk, England
died September 3, 1634, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
 British jurist and politician whose defense of the supremacy of the common law against Stuart (Stuart, House of) claims of royal prerogative had a profound influence on the development of English law (legal profession) and the English constitution.

Early life and public service
      Coke was educated at Norwich Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, and entered the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court that constituted “colleges in the university of law,” in 1572. Called to the bar in 1578, he soon acquired a reputation. His early cases included Shelley's case, a seminal decision in the history of English land law that established inheritance precedents. Under the patronage of William Cecil (Cecil, William, 1st Baron Burghley), Lord Burghley, the first minister of Queen Elizabeth I, Coke entered public service and rose rapidly, becoming a member of Parliament for Aldeburgh in 1589 and solicitor general and recorder of London in 1592. A year later he was elected speaker of the House of Commons (Commons, House of) and showed considerable skill in carrying out Elizabeth's policy of curbing the Commons' passion for discussing ecclesiastical matters. When the attorney generalship fell vacant in 1593, Coke and Francis Bacon (Bacon, Francis, Viscount Saint Alban (or Albans), Baron of Verulam), who was supported by the Earl of Essex, became rivals for the post. Coke won the appointment in 1594 and later prevented Bacon from becoming solicitor general, or so Bacon thought. Coke's first wife, Bridget Paston, died in 1598, and four months later Bacon was his unsuccessful rival in courtship when Coke married Lady Elizabeth Hatton.

      As attorney general, Coke was the champion of the crown and its prerogative powers. He started a series of state prosecutions for libel and conducted several great treason trials of the day, prosecuting the earls of Essex and Southampton (1600–01), Sir Walter Raleigh (Raleigh, Sir Walter) (1603), and the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot (1605). His methods in these trials, especially in that of Raleigh, were brutal even by 17th-century standards.

Career as chief justice
      In 1606 Coke was made chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas (Common Pleas, Court of), and it was there that a series of conflicts (church and state) took place that eventually broke his judicial career. At the time of Coke's appointment, Archbishop Richard Bancroft had already started his attempt to shake off the control of the common-law courts over the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. This matter came to a head in Fuller's case (1607–08), when Coke, summoned to a disputation on the king's power to withdraw a case from the courts, earned the fury of King James I by asserting that the common law was the supreme law and that “the king in his own person cannot adjudge any case.” In 1610 Coke again defied James in a celebrated opinion on proclamations before the royal council, in which he stated that the king cannot change any part of the common law nor create any offense by proclamation that was not an offense before. In a dispute with the Court of High Commission later that year, he argued that the court did not have the power to imprison for adultery, and when James attempted to appoint Coke to the court in 1611, he refused.

      Coke's position was strong. Incorruptible and respected, he was the embodiment of the common law. A last attempt was made to “buy” him in August 1613, when James—on Bacon's advice—appointed him chief justice of the Court of King's (Queen's) Bench (Queen's Bench, Court of), where it was hoped he would look after the royal interests. He was also made a member of the Privy Council and was the first to be called lord chief justice of England. At the King's Bench he retained his predominance and continued to maintain the supremacy of the common law over all persons and institutions except Parliament. In the case of Edmond Peacham, a clergyman charged with treason for writing a treatise justifying rebellion against oppression, he protested against consulting judges individually and separately, a practice that James—abetted by Bacon—was more or less driven to follow when the entire bench, consulted together, merely echoed Coke. In 1615, however, Coke overreached himself when the Court of King's Bench initiated an unsuccessful dispute with Lord Chancellor Baron Ellesmere (Brackley, Thomas Egerton, Viscount, Baron Ellesmere) of the Court of Chancery (Chancery, Court of) over that court's right to interfere with—and indirectly nullify—a common-law decision. Coke was also believed to be at the bottom of an abortive effort to make some suitors liable to the penalties of a praemunire (an offense against the king and his government) for their attempt to invoke the Court of Chancery's assistance in defiance of a King's Bench decree. Meanwhile, he had further endangered his position during trials held for the murder of the poet Sir Thomas Overbury (Overbury, Sir Thomas) by throwing out dark hints of scandal in high places. (Referring to the death of the king's first child in 1612, Coke said, “God knows what became of that sweet babe, Prince Henry, but I know somewhat.”) Finally, he came into collision with James over the king's right to grant permission to hold several ecclesiastical benefices at the same time. After Coke and the other judges ignored a royal injunction that they should take no action on a case involving this right until the king's pleasure was known, they were called before the king and council and ordered to obey the injunction. Although the other judges submitted, Coke merely said that he would do what an honest and just judge ought to do.

Dismissal from office
      In June 1616 the Privy Council, with Bacon behind it, formulated three charges against Coke. One was a trivial matter, never proved, about a bond that had passed through his hands. The other two were charges of interference with the Court of Chancery and of disrespect to the king in the matter of plural benefices. Coke was forbidden to go on circuit and ordered to revise the “errors” in his Reports, and on November 14, 1616, he was dismissed. Thereupon, presumably in search of an influential friend, he offered his daughter in marriage to Sir John Villiers, brother of George Villiers (Buckingham, George Villiers, 1st Duke of), the Duke of Buckingham. Coke's wife objected and hid the child, who was then only 14, but Coke abducted her violently and had her married, strongly against her will, to Villiers. Coke then made a gradual return to public life and by 1617 was once again a member of the Privy Council as well as a judge on the Court of Star Chamber (Star Chamber, Court of).

      In 1620 Coke entered Parliament again, in theory as a supporter of the king. Yet for the rest of his career he was a leading member of the opposition. He was against the proposed Spanish marriage of Prince Charles (Charles I); took part in charging Bacon, who was then lord chancellor, with bribery for accepting gifts from suitors, some of whom had cases pending before his court; and spoke in major debates on the liberties of Parliament and the corruption of the government until James ordered his arrest in 1622. He spent nine months in the Tower of London and was tried several times, but no incriminating evidence was found against him. Coke's greatest parlimentary hour came in 1628, when his bill of liberties against royal prerogative—which he had fashioned from ancient precursors, including the Magna Carta—was presented to King Charles I as the Petition of Right (right, petition of). He retired at the end of the session. After Coke's death, his papers were instantly seized, and some—including his will—were never recovered.

      It is true that Coke was inclined to be overbearing and impatient both at the bar and on the bench, that he was undoubtedly rather narrow, and that he was not always logical. His knowledge of law, however, was unequaled, though he “read the Year Books [the old Law Reports] as a Tudor, not as a medieval lawyer.” Coke manipulated medieval “precedents” and used them to support his 17th-century view of the common law. He successfully upheld this common law in the courts and in Parliament, against the church, the admiralty, and the dangerous claims of royal prerogative. He failed only in trying to uphold it against the Court of Chancery, which was too strong for him.

      Between 1600 and 1615 he issued 11 volumes of his Reports, in which he systematized the principles of English law by relating and commenting on decisions; no other jurists published theirs. (Two additional volumes of the Reports were published posthumously, though they were held in less esteem than the other volumes.) They are not so much reports in the modern sense as compendiums of the law bearing on a particular case, with personal comments on points raised or general remarks, and they were enormously influential. A balanced estimate of his importance as a legal authority was given by Chief Justice William Best in 1824:

The fact is, Lord Coke had [often] no authority for what he states, but I am afraid we should get rid of a great deal of what is considered law in Westminster hall, if what Lord Coke says without authority is not law. He was one of the most eminent lawyers that ever presided as a judge in any court of justice.

Gareth H. Jones

Additional Reading
Works examining the importance of Sir Edward Coke include Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion and the Throne (1957, reprinted 1990); Stephen D. White, Sir Edward Coke and “The Grievances of the Commonwealth” (1979); and John Hostettler, Sir Edward Coke: A Force for Freedom (1997).

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • Coke,Sir Edward — Coke (ko͝ok, kōk), Sir Edward. 1552 1634. English jurist who as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas (1606 1616) ruled that the common law is supreme law, even when the Crown disagrees. * * * …   Universalium

  • Coke, Sir Edward — (1 feb. 1552, Mileham, Norfolk, Inglaterra–3 sep. 1634, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire). Jurista y político británico. Se recibió de abogado en 1578 y fue nombrado adjunto del procurador general en 1592. Su ascenso al cargo de procurador general… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • COKE, SIR EDWARD —    Lord Chief Justice of England, born at Milcham, Norfolk; being a learned lawyer, rose rapidly at the bar and in offices connected therewith; became Lord Chief Justice in 1613; was deposed in 1617 for opposing the king s wishes; sat in his… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

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  • Edward — /ed weuhrd/, n. 1. Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall ( The Black Prince ), 1330 76, English military leader (son of Edward III). 2. Lake, a lake in central Africa, between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo: a source of the Nile.… …   Universalium

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  • sir — (Voz inglesa.) ► sustantivo masculino Tratamiento honorífico empleado por los británicos. * * * sir (ingl.; pronunc. [ser]) m. *Tratamiento de respeto usado en Inglaterra delante de un nombre de hombre o para dirigirse a la persona de que se… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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