Sir Edward Coke was one of the most renowned British politicians and jurists. He is famous for defending the supremacy of the law over the monarchy. His works had great influence on the development of the English constitution and the English law. He spent the first part of his career in the service of the Crown only to become a leading opposition politician later.
Sir Edward Coke was born in 1552 in Mileham, Norfolk, England. Robert Coke, his father, was a reputable barrister and a minor member of the gentry. Winifred Knightley, his mother, also came from a family that practiced law, being a daughter of a barrister herself. Edward used the connections his parents had during his life. As for the surname Coke, it can be traced back to 12th century. Some sources claim that it was descended from “Coc”, which means leader, while the others claim it to be the word that early Britons used for “river”.
Edward was the only male out of the eight children his parents had. His childhood was marked by the family tragedy. His father died when he was only 9 years old and his mother remarried two years later. Robert Bozoun, her second husband, in the end had an enormous influence on Edward, teaching him to work industriously, hate concealers and have faith in godly men.
Coke enrolled in the Norwich Free Grammar School in 1560. Among other stuff he learned Greek from studying the works of Virgil and Homer but the most important thing he learned in school was to value freedom of speech. According to some sources, Coke showed a great thirst for knowledge and was a good student.
He left Norwich in 1567 and entered Trinity College in Cambridge. He studied there until 1570 but he left without graduating. He was thrilled by Cambridge, as well as Oxford, claiming that they are the soul of the realm but not much is known about his studies, except that he studied dialectics and rhetoric.
Coke decided to move to London in 1571, where he learned the basics of jurisprudence in the Clifford’s Inn. He finished the needed legal education to be transferred to the Inns of Court, where he had the option to practice as a barrister and to be called to the Bar. Debates and arguments were used to educate the students and Coke loved this. He moved to the Inner Temple in 1572.
This is where he continued his education by participating in moots and reading various legal texts. He loved to spend time listening to the arguments of Serieants in the law courts in Westminster Hall. The six years he spent at the Inner Temple were more than enough for him to be called to the Bar in 1578, which was an incredible progress at the time.
After getting the permission to represent another party in court, Coke immediately started his practice as a barrister. His first case was in 1581 in the Court of King’s Bench and Coke managed to defend his client. However, it was determined that he used a mistranslated copy of the Latin statute so the case was restarted. During the second trial, Coke managed to pursue a settlement.
In 1581, Coke was also a part of the infamous Shelley’s case. This case is important since it led to creating a rule in real property that is still being used in some common law jurisdictions. Aside from that, he participated in many major cases which led to improving the English Law. Coke’s reputation was growing with every minute.
In 1582, he was chosen to be the Reader of Lyon’s Inn. This was another honor him, especially if you have in mind his young age at the time. Great quality of the readings he chose for the students during the next three years as the Reader made him even more reputable. During these years, he became close with the Howard Family, the Earls of Arundel and the Dukes of Norfolk. The Howards employed him to defend their land from the lawyers of the Crown, who wanted to seize it. The Dukes of Norfolk owed Coke a favor after the amazing work he has done for them, which they returned by giving him support to become a Member of the Parliament in 1589.
At the time when Coke started as a Member of Parliament, a lot began to change. Due to the death of Lord Chief Justice in 1592, the Attorney General was promoted to that post, and the Solicitor General succeeded the Attorney General. Coke used his political ally Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, and his influence to become a Solicitor General. Coke was chosen to another post in 1593 when he was elected as the Speaker of the House of Commons by the Privy Council.
Coke was one of the strongest defenders of the Government in the Parliament at the time, along with Cecil. When a Puritan Member of Parliament, James Morice, proposed a couple of new bills that had to do with religion in 1593, he was put under the house arrest. However, the bills remained so it was up to Coke to think of the ways to delay dealing with the issue. Using his incredible debating skills, Coke managed to get another day for the government. Queen Elizabeth, I summoned him right after the Parliamentary day and warned that any action concerning the religious bills will be treated as disloyalty. The Commons accepted this warning and the bills were stopped.
Coke made some important partnership during his career and the one with the Cecil family brought him the position of the Attorney General in 1594. However, despite the fact that he enjoyed the Queen’s trust, it was an extremely hard time to be the main prosecutor. He was expected to dismiss all charges against the Crown and offer legal advisory at any time, which was particularly tough at the time of famine, the war that had broken out in Ireland and the conflict with Spain.
Coke dealt with religious incidents and the matter of treason but his biggest victory was the one over Robert Devereux. He was Cecil’s main political rival at the Parliament, furious that his protégé Francis Bacon hadn’t been chosen as the Attorney General instead of Coke. Devereux plotted rebellion but didn’t have sympathies from the population of London. In the end, he was tried for treason and executed in 1601. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James VI of Scotland claimed the English throne. He took the title James I and soon after confirmed his position as the Attorney General. James I also knighted Coke. He dealt with numerous cases concerning during the following couple of years but he left the position of the Attorney General in 1606.
Coke became a Serjeant-at-Law in 1606 but was promoted to the position of the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas just days later. This was a major change for Coke, as his judicial appointment enabled him to attack the institutions he supported in the past. The Court of High Commission was chosen as the target, as it was the institution that had virtually unlimited power, being the ecclesiastical court that the monarch established. This led to Coke starting to issue writs of prohibition against the Court, which in turn led to coming into a conflict with the King. He claimed that the law protects the King but instead, the King should be subject to the law. Cecil somehow managed to save Coke from imprisonment but King James I decided to transfer him from the Common Pleas to the Court of King’s Bench in 1613.
The reason of Coke’s transfer was probably the wish to put him in the post where he could do no harm, so the position at the court that protects the rights of the king was ideal. However, Coke continued to do things in a way that judge should do them, and was finally suspended from the Privy Council in 1616. King James, I also dismissed him as the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench which was seen by the population as a way of the King to play with justice, especially since the reasons for his dismissal were deemed inadequate.
Coke was re-elected as a Member of the Parliament in 1620 to become an opposition politician. He attacked patents, which were at the time administered by the Crown, to ensure revenue and high production of the industry. This lead to monopolies, which Coke claimed to have been growing like hydras’ heads. After years of fighting for the issue, the Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies written by Coke in 1624. During this time, King James even adjourned the parliament and imprisoned Coke for nine months but wasn’t able to stop the Statute from passing.
When Charles I of England succeeded James in 1625, he made Coke High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire to prevent him from sitting in the Parliament. He continued to do illegal stuff like his father, ignoring the Court of Common Pleas and other judges, including the Chief Justice Sir Ranulph Crewe who was dropped from his position. The rage with King Charles was so big that martial law was declared.
This inspired Coke to start preparing the Petition of Right, the document that will guarantee rights of the Commons. According to the Petition of Rights, free Englishmen had various liberties and rights, including the right not to pay taxes unless the Parliament approved it, the right for soldiers not to enter their houses without the owner’s consent and many others. The Petition was passed into a formal law in 1641 and became an official constitutional document of English Civil Liberties.
In the meantime, Charles decided to dissolve the Parliament in 1629, forcing Coke to retire to his estate at Buckinghamshire. He worked on completing his writings and had no desire to return to politics, satisfied that the Petition of Right will be his most important inheritance. Coke died in 1634 from old age. The inscription on his monument states: “Father of twelve children and thirteen books”.
(This book presented a treatise that covered various areas...)
When Coke was born, the majority of the English nation was Catholic but, by the time of his death, the majority were Protestants. Coke had convetional religious beliefs but he knew that religious toleration is important and presents one of the freedoms an ordinary man must have.
Coke had two completely different periods of his politics career. When he was first elected as the Member of Parliament, he was one of the strongest defendants of the Queen Elizabeth I. However, when King James I succeeded her and after Coke finished his judicial career, he was re-elected to the Parliament to become the leader of the opposition.
Although Coke was in the service of the Crown for years and he did some things that were not entirely in accordance with it, especially during his early career, his contribution to the common law was enormous. He understood the significance of law and often fought for it when everyone else was too frightened to do it.
Coke’s view of jurisprudence was in favour of the common law. He believed that the judges are most suited to making law, with the Parliament to follow, and King had to be subject to law. Coke stated that judges possess the extensive knowledge and wisdom needed to understand the complexity of law.
When King James I claimed that the King has the freedom to decide in any case which is not an express authority of law and that the Judges are simply his delegates, Coke knew he had to offer his stance. He stated that the common law protects the King and that he shouldn’t be able to adjudge any case but it should be adjudged in a court of justice. Coke also noted that the King must be subject to the law despite the fact he is not subject to any individual. He was threatened with imprisonment but was somehow saved by his ally Cecil.
The desire to defend the law and claim the supremacy of the law over the monarchy were what caused Coke to turn from the jurist that serves the Crown into a leader of the opposition politicians. After being re-elected to the Parliament in 1620, he strongly advocated for freedoms and rights of the Commons, which led to him writing the Petition of Right.
Coke enjoyed practicing law and working hard but records don’t show if he enjoyed much else. It is known that he had a sizeable estate where he enjoyed reading Latin classics but much more is known about him as a barrister.
He was a lawyer with a great reputation, described as effective and eloquent, something that most of the lawyers of the time weren’t. Coke didn’t hesitate of using insults and disrespect to other parties to win his cases.
Philosophers & Thinkers
Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Cecil
Coke was married twice, the first time in 1582 to Bridget Paston, daughter of a Counsellor. She was only eighteen at the time (Coke was 31). They had seven sons and three daughters together. Unfortunately, Bridget passed away in 1598.
Coke then married Elizabeth Hatton with who he had two daughters. However, their marriage had broken down in 1604, leading to Hatton becoming a thorn in Coke’s side. He was buried beside his “first and best wife”, which were the words that Coke’s daughter Anne used to describe her.