COKE, Edward (1552-1634), of Burghwood in Mileham, Norf., Huntingfield, Suff., Castle Yard, London and Stoke Poges, Bucks.
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Family and Education
b. 1 Feb. 1552, s. of Robert Coke, barrister, of Mileham, by Winifred, da. of William Knightley, attorney, of Norwich. educ. Norwich g.s.; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1567, MA 1571; Clifford’s Inn 1571; I. Temple 1572, called Apr. 1578, bencher May 1590. m. (1) Aug. 1582 (with £30,000), Bridget (d.1598), da. of John Paston of Norf., 7s. 3da.; (2) Nov. 1598, Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Cecil, wid. of Sir William Hatton, 2da. suc. fa. 1561. Kntd. 22 May 1603.1
J.p. Norf. 1586, Suff. and Mdx. by 1593; reader, Lyon’s Inn 1579-82; recorder, Coventry 1585, Norwich 1586, London 1591-2, Orford 1593 Harwich by 1604; reader, I. Temple 1592; solicitor-gen. June 1592; attorney-gen. Apr. 1594-June 1606; treasurer, I. Temple 1596; commr. to exercise office of chancellor of duchy of Lancaster 1601; serjeant-at-law June 1606; c.j. of common pleas June 1606-Oct. 1613, of King’s bench Oct. 1613, discharged Nov. 1616; PC Nov. 1613, sequestered June 1616, rest. Sept. 1617, dismissed 1622; high steward, Camb. Univ. June 1614.2
Speaker of House of Commons 1593.
Coke, ‘a Speaker once and a parliamentary antiquarian always’, was born into the tradition of the English common law. Soon after completing his education at the Inner Temple he took on a case which brought him wide recognition. The plaintiff, Lord Cromwell, and Coke’s client, Denny, vicar of North Elmham church, which stood on Cromwell’s land in Norfolk, had exchanged heated words in the hearing of the congregation. As a result Cromwell brought an action for scandalum magnatum against the vicar, but Coke, accepting his first brief in the Queen’s bench, secured Denny’s acquittal by establishing that the words complained of could have another meaning.
In 1579 Coke was chosen reader of Lyon’s Inn, an office which he held for three years. His lectures were well received and added to the reputation which was bringing him a steady stream of clients and increasing fees. In 1582 he improved his prospects by marrying the 18 year-old daughter and co-heir of a Norfolk neighbour, as beautiful as she was rich. The young couple set up home at Huntingfield, whence Coke continued to enlarge his practice, travelling to Coventry, London, Essex and back to East Anglia. In the 13 years after his marriage he purchased property worth £10,000. In 1592 he was elected reader of the Inner Temple, and in the same year he was nominated to succeed Thomas Egerton I as solicitor-general.3
By that time Coke had had experience as a Member of Parliament. He entered the Commons in 1589 for his local borough of Aldeburgh. In 1593 he was elected knight of the shire for Norfolk, apparently without opposition, though according to a comment he made in the 1628 Parliament, he thought it worth while to ensure a seat by being returned also for a Cornish borough.4 In the 1589 Parliament he sat on committees concerning privilege (12 Feb.), disorders in common inns (13 Feb.), a private bill and Tonbridge grammar school (22 Feb.), and legal matters (25 Feb.). He was involved in the conflict which arose after the House had passed bills about purveyance and abuses in the Exchequer. Elizabeth greatly ‘misliked’ this and made her displeasure known. The House then set up a committee on 27 Feb. to ‘search such precedents as might best serve’ their purpose and to recommend further action. On 4 Mar. Coke reported to the House, ‘setting down at large the whole travail of their search and conference’, and recommending that the Commons should explain to the Queen ‘the causes and reasons moving this House to proceed in the two said bills in such sort as they had done’. The House approved, and on 6 Mar. a committee consisting of the Speaker, Coke and nine others received the Queen’s promise that she would take action against the abuses in question. On 8 Mar. Coke obtained leave of absence ‘for his necessary affairs’.5
In the Parliament of 1593 Coke was Speaker. The Queen chose him on 28 Jan. and the Commons ‘elected’ him on 19 Feb. Three days later, Coke, in his oration to the Queen, praised the blessings of the reign and recalled England’s delivery from the Pope and King of Spain in 1588. He then treated his audience to a mixture of antiquarian learning and bad history, showing ‘how the kings of England, ever since Henry III’s time, have maintained themselves to be supreme head over all causes within their own dominions’, and concluded with the customary plea for the Commons’ privileges, a request which brought a warning from the lord keeper against abuse of the right of free speech. That privilege, Puckering reminded the Commons, was to say ‘yes or no to bills ... not ... to speak ... of all causes ... [or] to frame a form of religion or a state of government’. The Commons were reminded of these words later in the session.6
Coke stands out among the Elizabethan Speakers as one who tightened procedure and discipline. He seems to have regarded himself as the schoolmaster of the House. On 3 Mar. 1593, ‘perceiving some men to whisper together’, he rebuked them sternly, saying ‘that it was not the manner of the House that any should whisper or talk secretly, for here only public speeches are to be used’. When Members who wished to speak rose at the same time, usually at moments of emotion, he
propounded it as an order of the House in such a case for him to ask the parties ... on which side they would speak ... and the party who speaks against the last speaker is to be heard first.
Another question of procedure arose during the second reading of a bill for the better expediting of justice in the court of Star Chamber on 20 Mar. 1593. Coke was unable to determine whether the ‘ayes’ or ‘noes’ were in the majority. Before he asked for a formal division he explained the principle behind the rule that those in favour of a bill left the chamber, while those against it remained in their seats:
the inventor that will have a new law is to go out and bring it in; and they that are for the law in possession must keep the House, for they sit to continue it.
Such displays of erudition doubtless gave Coke much satisfaction. It was more important from the Crown’s point of view that he turned his energies to the task of supporting the government in the House. On at least one occasion when the ‘court party’ was against a bill, Coke’s ‘subtlety in propounding the question’ secured its rejection.7
Coke intervened twice in a privilege case. The MP concerned was Thomas Fitzherbert, who had been arrested for debt on the morning of his election. On 2 Mar. the Commons agreed to Coke’s suggestion the Fitzherbert should be brought before them by a writ of habeas corpus. On 3 Apr., in another speech, he produced an array of precedents which delighted his audience but left them little clearer about the case at issue.8
Parliament ended on 10 Apr. Coke’s oration before the Queen was perfectly in character, consisting largely of a commentary on early medieval history. He finished with a conventional plea to the Queen to excuse the ‘ignorance and insufficiency’ which he had shown during the session. In fact, he had handled the House well, though he may have owed much of his success to the advice of Burghley, whom he thanked in October for the ‘care and pains your lordship took for my instruction in the last Parliament’. Coke was doubtless remembering some of his own experiences when in later days he wrote that ‘every Member of Parliament should have three properties of the elephant: first that he hath no gall; secondly that he is inflexible and cannot bow; thirdly that he [is] of a most ripe and perfect memory’.9
The Queen soon showed her appreciation of Coke’s services. The death of Sir Gilbert Gerard, master of the rolls, early in 1593 caused jostling for promotion involving more than one appointment. If Egerton were to occupy Gerard’s place, the attorney-generalship would be vacant. The Earl of Essex pressed the claims of Francis Bacon, whose experience was inferior to Coke’s. After a year’s delay the Queen made Egerton master of the rolls and Coke attorney-general on the same day, 10 Apr. 1594. Shortly afterwards Coke was presented to the Queen by Burghley: ‘Madam, here is your attorney-general ... qui pro domina regina sequitur’. Elizabeth said that she wanted the form of words altered, ‘for it should be attornatus generalis qui pro domina veritate sequitur’.10
In court, Coke was an aggressive prosecutor. It is doubtful if Dr. Roderigo Lopez planned to murder Elizabeth, but his guilt was generally accepted and Coke assailed him bitterly as a ‘perjured and murdering traitor ... worse than Judas himself’. During these years Coke examined dozens of Catholic suspects, one of the most famous being John Gerard, who infuriated his examiners by refusing to answer their questions directly: this was the notorious Jesuit equivocation, that ‘desperate and damnable doctrine’, as Coke called it. In 1601 he conducted the case against the Earl of Essex as aggressively as he was to conduct the prosecution of Ralegh in the next reign. He began moderately, but soon launched into a tirade against Essex, charging him with the intention to call a Parliament and decide all important matters of state himself. ‘A bloody Parliament that would have been’, Coke said,
where my lord of Essex ... would have worn a bloody robe. But now, in God’s judgment, he of his earldom shall be Robert the last, that of a kingdom thought to be Robert the first.11
In November 1598, five months after the death of his first wife, and in the face of competition from Francis Bacon, he married the widowed Elizabeth Hatton, 26 years his junior, with whom he thenceforth quarrelled constantly. John Chamberlain was surprised that Lady Hatton, ‘after so many large and likely offers’, should accept a man of Coke’s rank. The match made Coke a member of the court circle, and in September 1601 the Queen visited him at Stoke Poges, where he entertained her ‘most sumptuously’, presenting her with jewels and other gifts ‘to the value of a thousand or twelve hundred pound’. By this marriage, Coke became lord of the manor of Corfe Castle, and able to influence the choice of Members. In 1601 he returned John Durninge, a former servant of Burghley, and John Davies, who had received support from Coke in the past and had dedicated a poem to him. Coke also had influence in Orford, where he was recorder and nominated one Member for the 1597 and 1601 Parliaments. In these years he was allowed a similar privilege at Dunwich—of which borough he had been counsel—‘in respect of his former and continual ... friendship many ways’.
The details of Coke’s career in the Jacobean and Caroline periods belong elsewhere. In James I’s reign, when he was successively chief justice of the courts of common pleas and King’s bench, he propagated theories of the judges’ position in the state which were incompatible with the King’s conception of the royal prerogative. Dismissed from the bench in 1616, he transferred his stand from the courts to Parliament, where, from 1621 onwards, he was a leading member of the Opposition. Fundamentally, Coke remained an Elizabethan throughout his life. The contradiction between the attorney-general of the later sixteenth century and the man who was the prime mover in framing and carrying the Petition of Right is more apparent than real. In a debate in the Commons in 1621 he paid a nostalgic, glowing tribute to Queen Elizabeth. ‘She was the flower of Queens’, he said, ‘as the rose [is] Queen of flowers’.
Coke, whose active mind ‘was put into a fair case, a beautiful body with a comely countenance; a case which he did wipe and keep clean, delighting in good clothes well worn’, spent his last years at Stoke Poges. In 1631, when he was ill, he dismissed the doctors sent to him by a friend:
he had never taken physic since he was born and would not now begin; and that he had now upon him a disease which [neither] all the drugs of Asia ... nor all the doctors of Europe could cure—old age.
A devout Anglican and a benefactor to the church and to the poor, he died 3 Sept. 1634 and was buried beside his ‘first good wife’ at Titteshall in Norfolk. Shortly before his death many of his manuscripts at Stoke Poges, including his will, were seized on the King’s orders.
The key to Coke’s success lay in his single-mindedness, his determination to know and expound the law. It is true that there are grounds for describing him as a ‘humanist’. It is also true that he was interested in wealth and power, but, as his behaviour in the reign of James shows, these were secondary to his love for the law. His narrow but powerful intellect was not original, and he despised Bacon’s philosophical writings. Coke looked to the past, and in searching out precedents he was undertaking notable work in the field of historical research even if his techniques and approach leave much to be desired. His major works—the Reports which began to be published in 1600 and the Institutes—reflect his personality. He was concerned less with the philosophy of the law than to be a legal encyclopaedist, and, in the contemporary political and legal scene, he succeeded in establishing himself as a master, the soundness of whose knowledge of medieval law was to be taken for granted by later generations. Few realised how uncritical and imperfect was his reading of the Year Books, or questioned his facile references to old books and non-existent ‘ancient maxims of the common law’. Few doubted the spurious Latin maxims which he could produce on any occasion ‘with an air of authentic antiquity’. Yet despite, and partly because of this, there is no need to quarrel with Maitland’s verdict that ‘Coke’s books are the great dividing line, and we are hardly out of the middle ages until he has dogmatized its results’. His achievement was to harmonise medieval rules with modern additions, and to revive doctrines which in his own day were obsolete. From his strangely conservative antiquarianism were to stem doctrines of parliamentary authority and judicial review which have been of decisive importance ever since.