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.
For more information about Coke, see Steve Shepherd's Introduction to the Liberty Fund edition of The 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.
Last modified April 10, 2014