Sir Edward Coke

The English jurist and parliamentarian Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) fought to prevent royal interference with the independent common-law courts.

Edward Coke was born at Mileham, Norfolk, and was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1567 to 1571. Thereafter he rapidly rose in the legal profession from a student at Lincoln's Inn to barrister, reader at Lyon's Inn, and senior member of the Inner Temple. In 1592 Queen Elizabeth I appointed Coke solicitor general, and in the following year he became attorney general. As attorney general, Coke was a forceful prosecutor on behalf of the Crown, and among his most famous prosecutions were those of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the "Gunpowder" plotters. Coke's ascendancy was at the expense of Sir Francis Bacon, whom Essex had supported for the attorney generalship, and the two were rivals throughout their careers.

In 1582 Coke married Bridget Paston, who brought him a fortune. She died in 1598, and Coke then married the beautiful and rich Elizabeth Hatton, who had also been courted by Bacon.

In 1606 James I made Coke chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Coke opposed James on the question of the king's right to interpret the common law and to encroach on judicial independence. In accord with his belief in the divine right of kings, James felt that God had endowed him with the wisdom to interpret the traditional English common law. Coke insisted that the interpretation of common law must be left to lawyers. He also opposed James's policy of discussing cases with the judges before they gave judgment. In 1610 he argued that the king could not lawfully create new offenses through his own proclamation. Coke's chief rival during this period, the chancellor, Baron Ellesmere, supported James's view of the royal prerogative.

Coke was appointed chief justice of the King's Bench in 1613. Both Bacon and Ellesmere favored this shift; though it accorded Coke a higher status and greater wages, it made conflict with the Crown less likely. In the same year Coke was brought into the Privy Council. The battle between Coke and James was not easily avoided, however, and in 1616 the King dismissed his obstreperous judge from both the bench and the government.

Coke returned to favor the following year, when his daughter married the elder brother of George Villiers, the King's favorite courtier and later the powerful Duke of Buckingham. The vain and stubborn Coke again sat in the Privy Council and enjoyed great respect at court for his unrivaled knowledge of the common law. But in 1621 he sat in Commons and was active in the debates against the King's lax enforcement of the anti-Catholic laws and against royal grants of monopoly; as a result he was sent to the Tower for 9 months. Thus 1621 marked the end of his hopes for attaining a high government position and the start of the last phase of his career, as a leader of the parliamentary opposition.

In 1625 Coke was a leader of the attack on the Duke of Buckingham and later supported his impeachment. He held that Commons should withhold further grants of revenue until it was provided with an accounting of government expenditures. In 1628, when Commons sought to place restraints upon royal power, Coke initiated the idea of a Petition of Right. Its principal terms required parliamentary consent for taxation and a statement of charges against those placed under arrest. In 1629 Coke retired to Stoke Poges, where he died in 1634, at the age of 82.

Coke's main writings are the Reports and the Institutes. Compiled between 1578 and 1615, the former contains cases argued before the royal courts. The four parts of the Institutes deal with tenures, statutes, the criminal law, and the jurisdiction of courts. Coke was not above twisting earlier law to the advantage of the 17th-century causes he favored. His holding in Dr. Bonham's case (1610) has attracted the interest of students of American constitutional law, some of whom view it as the first enunciation of the principle of judicial review.

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Further Reading on Sir Edward Coke

The sole modern biography of Coke is Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, 1552-1634 (1957). This work makes very pleasant reading, while maintaining a high standard of scholarship, and contains a lengthy list of older works and journal articles on Coke.

Additional Biography Sources

Bowen, Catherine Drinker, The lion and the throne: the life and times of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

Lyon, Hastings, Edward Coke: oracle of the law: containing the story of his long rivalry with Francis Bacon …, Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman, 1992.