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Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634, pronounced cook) was a judge and law
writer of great renown. He is considered one of the premier champions of the
common law, which he defended against the attempted encroachments of the courts
of equity and the royal prerogative of the Stuarts--James I (r. 1603-1625)
in particular. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, Coke obtained
a good practice and became a reader at Lyon's Inn in 1571 and a barrister of
the Inner Temple in 1578. He also served as a member of Parliament for a short
time. In 1592, to the great chagrin of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Coke
gained the appointment of attorney general. This was the beginning of a long
rivalry between the two men that included Coke's successful courtship of Lord
Burghley's daughter, whose affections Sir Francis also strove to attain.
In 1606 Coke was appointed chief justice of common pleas, and it was in this
post that he began to come into conflict with James I. The first instance occurred
in 1607-1608 when King James attempted to assert his personal right to tax
imports and exports. Coke declared this to be unlawful, arguing that the power
of taxation rested only in Parliament. In a series of similar decisions, Coke
resisted Archbishop Bancroft's (1544-1610) claim, which James I favored, to
the authority to remove certain church cases from the jurisdiction of the common-law
courts (1606-1609). In 1610 Coke decided against the king's authority to make
law by proclamation, and in 1611 he resisted Archbishop Abbot's (1562-1633)
attempt to remove ecclesiastical cases to the court of high commission.
These checks on the perceived attempts of the Crown to infringe English liberty
convinced James that he must buy the goodwill of Lord Coke if ever the monarchy
was to be free in its exercise of power. Lord Bacon suggested to His Majesty
that Coke be placed on the highest royal bench, where he might feel more inclined
to uphold royal power. In 1613, therefore, Coke was appointed chief justice
of the King's Bench. This proved a futile effort for James, because Coke continued
to insist on the king's legal inferiority to the common law and Parliament.
Coke's actions gave the ever-bitter Bacon the opportunity to exact the vengeance
for which he longed. Indeed, one might speculate that Bacon, knowing Coke could
not be bought, had recommended his elevation to the King's Bench simply to
relish Coke's inevitable public dishonor. After hearing Bacon's unfavorable
representations of the chief justice, the Crown suspended Coke from his seat
on the Privy Council, ordered him to expunge from his Reports opinions
unfavorable to the king's prerogative, and, when he still resisted, dismissed
him from the position of chief justice. Coke continued, however, to resist
incursions from his lesser position on the bench. He openly criticized the
Crown's marriage into the Catholic Spanish royal family, denounced interference
with the liberties of Parliament, and served on the committee to impeach Bacon.
For these actions he was sent to the Tower in 1622. On his release he entered
Parliament, and from there opposed King Charles I's demand for subsidies. He
later retired to Pogis, but the king had his papers seized and "detained" until
1641. The sequential portions of his famous Institutes of the Laws of England were
published in 1628 and, posthumously, in 1642 and 1644.
Works by the Author
Coke, Edward. Coke's Institutes of the Laws of England. 7 vols. London:
E. & R. Brooke, 1794.
Coke, Edward. Coke's Institutes of the Laws of England. 4 vols.
Coke, Edward. The First Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England. 2
vols. London: R. Pheney & S. Brooks, 1823.
Works about the Author
For more information about Coke,
see Steve Shepherd's Introduction to the Liberty Fund edition
Selected Writings and Speeches of Sir Edward Coke, ed. Steve Sheppard
(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003), 3 vols; and the Selected Readings Concerning
the Life, Career, and Legacy of Sir Edwar Coke.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.