1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Coke, Sir Edward
COKE, SIR EDWARD (1552–1634), English lawyer, was born at Mileham, in Norfolk, on the 1st of February 1552. From the grammar school of Norwich he passed to Trinity College, Cambridge; and in 1572 he entered Lincoln’s Inn. In 1578 he was called to the bar, and in the next year he was chosen reader at Lyon’s Inn. His extensive and exact legal erudition, and the skill with which he argued the intricate libel case of Lord Cromwell (4 Rep. 13), and the celebrated real property case of Shelley (1 Rep. 94, 104), soon brought him a practice never before equalled, and caused him to be universally recognized as the greatest lawyer of his day. In 1586 he was made recorder of Norwich, and in 1592 recorder of London, solicitor-general, and reader in the Inner Temple. In 1593 he was returned as member of parliament for his native county, and also chosen speaker of the House of Commons. In 1594 he was promoted to the office of attorney-general, despite the claims of Bacon, who was warmly supported by the earl of Essex. As crown lawyer his treatment of the accused was marked by more than the harshness and violence common in his time; and the fame of the victim has caused his behaviour in the trial of Raleigh to be lastingly remembered against him. While the prisoner defended himself with the calmest dignity and self-possession, Coke burst into the bitterest invective, brutally addressing the great courtier as if he had been a servant, in the phrase, long remembered for its insolence and its utter injustice—“Thou hast an English face, but a Spanish heart!”
In 1582 Coke married the daughter of John Paston, a gentleman of Suffolk, receiving with her a fortune of £30,000; but in six months he was left a widower. Shortly after he sought the hand of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, daughter of Thomas, second Lord Burghley, and granddaughter of the great Cecil. Bacon was again his rival, and again unsuccessfully; the wealthy young widow became—not, it is said, to his future comfort—Coke’s second wife.
In 1606 Coke was made chief justice of the common pleas, but in 1613 he was removed to the office of chief justice of the king’s bench, which gave him less opportunity of interfering with the court. The change, though it brought promotion in dignity, caused a diminution of income as well as of power; but Coke received some compensation in being appointed a member of the privy council. The independence of his conduct as a judge, though not unmixed with the baser elements of prejudice and vulgar love of authority, has partly earned forgiveness for the harshness which was so prominent in his sturdy character. Full of an extreme reverence for the common law which he knew so well, he defended it alike against the court of chancery, the ecclesiastical courts, and the royal prerogative. In a narrow spirit, and strongly influenced, no doubt, by his enmity to the chancellor, Thomas Egerton (Lord Brackley), he sought to prevent the interference of the court of chancery with even the unjust decisions of the other courts. In the case of an appeal from a sentence given in the king’s bench, he advised the victorious, but guilty, party to bring an action of praemunire against all those who had been concerned in the appeal, and his authority was stretched to the utmost to obtain the verdict he desired. On the other hand, Coke has the credit of having repeatedly braved the anger of the king. He freely gave his opinion that the royal proclamation cannot make that an offence which was not an offence before. An equally famous but less satisfactory instance occurred during the trial of Edmund Peacham, a divine in whose study a sermon had been found containing libellous accusations against the king and the government. There was nothing to give colour to the charge of high treason with which he was charged, and the sermon had never been preached or published; yet Peacham was put to the torture, and Bacon was ordered to confer with the judges individually concerning the matter. Coke declared such conference to be illegal, and refused to give an opinion, except in writing, and even then he seems to have said nothing decided. But the most remarkable case of all occurred in the next year (1616). A trial was held before Coke in which one of the counsel denied the validity of a grant made by the king to the bishop of Lichfield of a benefice to be held in commendam. James, through Bacon, who was then attorney-general, commanded the chief justice to delay judgment till he himself should discuss the question with the judges. At Coke’s request Bacon sent a letter containing the same command to each of the judges, and Coke then obtained their signatures to a paper declaring that the attorney-general’s instructions were illegal, and that they were bound to proceed with the case. His Majesty expressed his displeasure, and summoned them before him in the council-chamber, where he insisted on his supreme prerogative, which, he said, ought not to be discussed in ordinary argument. Upon this all the judges fell on their knees, seeking pardon for the form of their letter; but Coke ventured to declare his continued belief in the loyalty of its substance, and when asked if he would in the future delay a case at the king’s order, the only reply he would vouchsafe was that he would do what became him as a judge. Soon after he was dismissed from all his offices on the following charges,—the concealment, as attorney-general, of a bond belonging to the king, a charge which could not be proved, illegal interference with the court of chancery and disrespect to the king in the case of commendams. He was also ordered by the council to revise his book of reports, which was said to contain many extravagant opinions (June 1616).
Coke did not suffer these losses with patience. He offered his daughter Frances, then little more than a child, in marriage to Sir John Villiers, brother of the favourite Buckingham. Her mother, supported at first by her husband’s great rival and her own former suitor, Bacon, objected to the match, and placed her in concealment. But Coke discovered her hiding-place; and she was forced to wed the man whom she declared that of all others she abhorred. The result was the desertion of the husband and the fall of the wife. It is said, however, that after his daughter’s public penance in the Savoy church, Coke had heart enough to receive her back to the home which he had forced her to leave. Almost all that he gained by his heartless diplomacy was a seat in the council and in the star-chamber.
In 1620 a new and more honourable career opened for him. He was elected member of parliament for Liskeard; and henceforth he was one of the most prominent of the constitutional party. It was he who proposed a remonstrance against the growth of popery and the marriage of Prince Charles to the infanta of Spain, and who led the Commons in the decisive step of entering on the journal of the House the famous petition of the 18th of December 1621, insisting on the freedom of parliamentary discussion, and the liberty of speech of every individual member. In consequence, together with Pym and Sir Robert Philips, he was thrown into confinement; and, when in the August of the next year he was released, he was commanded to remain in his house at Stoke Poges during his Majesty’s pleasure. Of the first and second parliaments of Charles I. Coke was again a member. From the second he was excluded by being appointed sheriff of Buckinghamshire. In 1628 he was at once returned for both Buckinghamshire and Suffolk, and he took his seat for the former county. After rendering other valuable support to the popular cause, he took a most important part in drawing up the great Petition of Right. The last act of his public career was to bewail with tears the ruin which he declared the duke of Buckingham was bringing upon the country. At the close of the session he retired into private life; and the six years that remained to him were spent in revising and improving the works upon which, at least as much as upon his public career, his fame now rests. He died at Stoke Poges on the 3rd of September 1634.
Coke published Institutes (1628), of which the first is also known as Coke upon Littleton; Reports (1600–1615), in thirteen parts; A Treatise of Bail and Mainprize (1635); The Complete Copyholder (1630); A Reading on Fines and Recoveries (1684).
See Johnson, Life of Sir Edward Coke (1837); H. W. Woolrych, The Life of Sir Edward Coke (1826); Foss, Lives of the Judges; Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices; also English Law.