Sir Edward Coke, an English jurist, born at Mileham, Norfolk, Feb. 1, 1552, died at Stoke Pogis, Buckinghamshire, Sept. 3, 1633. Nothing of particular interest is related of his school days at the grammar school in Norwich, or in the university of Cambridge. He left Cambridge without taking a degree, and at the age of 20 commenced the study of law at an inn of chancery, where he spent a year in acquiring a knowledge of the forms of writs and proceedings in courts, and then entered upon the study of general jurisprudence in the Inner Temple. He was called to the bar a year before the expiration of the time prescribed for legal studies (at that time seven years), in 1578, and was soon after appointed reader (lecturer) of Lyon's Inn (an inn of chancery), which office he held three years, and so distinguished himself by his lectures that he gained much repute for legal learning. Within that time he rose to the highest rank in the profession by his argument in Shelley's case, the most celebrated case relating to real estate which is to be found in the English reports.
He was thenceforth employed in most of the important cases in Westminster, was successively elected recorder of Coventry, then of Norwich, and lastly of London, and was appointed reader (law professor) of the Inner Temple. In 1592 he was, at the instance of Lord Burleigh, appointed solicitor general, and the following year he was returned to parliament as the representative of Norfolk, and was chosen speaker of the house. In 1594, the office of attorney general becoming vacant, Coke expected to succeed to it in regular course, but was unexpectedly met by a formidable claimant, Francis Bacon, backed by the influence of the earl of Essex. Queen Elizabeth resisted the solicitation of her favorite, and appointed Coke; but it was the commencement of bitter hostility between the rivals, which, with alternating success, was ultimately disastrous to both. In 1598 Coke lost his first wife, to whom he had been married 16 years, and within four months married Lady Hatton, a wealthy young widow, who within a year bore to him a daughter, but refused to take his name, being always known as Lady Hatton. In 1600 he published the first of the 11 parts of his reports. The other parts were published in the following reign. The preface is characteristic of the author.
He proposes no diminution of the student's labor by any facility which his reports are to furnish. "My advice to the reader," he says, "is that in reading of these or any new reports, he neglect not in any case the reading of the old books of years reported in former ages, for assuredly out of the old fields must spring and grow the new corn." In his subsequent works he often reiterates the same advice. He did not encourage the use of abridgments, except for reference to the original cases, but insists upon the study of the cases themselves. The trial of the earls of Essex and Southampton for high treason, which occurred early in 1601, brought out harsh traits in the character of Coke. His statement of facts in opening the case was exaggerated, and his manner abusive, and this was continued throughout the trial. In the first year of King James, the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh upon a charge of high treason for a conspiracy to place the lady Arabella Stuart on the throne again exhibited Coke (who still remained attorney general) as a public prosecutor, and on this occasion to arrogance and vituperation he added an unfair attempt to convict the prisoner upon evidence which he knew to be insufficient, and in fact inadmissible.
The advancing favor of Bacon with King James now exasperated the former enmity of Coke against him. The literary renown of Bacon, and the personal regard shown for him by Elizabeth, although it had not procured him official station other than the honorary one of queen's counsel, had excited the jealousy of Coke, and sharp encounters had taken place between him and Bacon. As attorney general Coke rendered efficient service in the unravelling of the gunpowder plot and the prosecution of the parties concerned. On the trial Coke opened the case to the jury at enormous length, interlarding his diatribe against the prisoners with quaint conceits. To Sir Everard Digby, one of the prisoners, who confessed the charge, but prayed the mercy of the king as to the mode of death, and also in behalf of his family, Coke answered that he must not look to the king to be honored in the manner of his death, but was rather to admire the moderation of the king in that for so important a crime no new torture answerable thereto had been devised to be inflicted on him.
The trial of Garnett, the superior of the Jesuits, who was implicated in the same plot, called forth still greater effort on the part of Coke to show his zeal for the king and severity to the prisoner. - In 1606 Coke was appointed chief justice of the common pleas, and Bacon in 1607 solicitor general. From the time he entered upon his office he exhibited an integrity and independence in striking contrast with his former violation of private rights in his zeal to serve the crown. Indeed, the difference is so great that we hardly recognize. Coke the chief justice as the same person with Coke the attorney general. Thus he granted writs of prohibition to restrain the court of high commission from issuing process for the arrest of parties complained against, which practice, recently introduced in place of citation, Coke maintained to be contrary to Magna Charta. He resisted the pretension of King James to the right of sitting in person to hear causes, which was a device suggested for the purpose of getting rid of prohibition and appeal.
Prohibitions were also issued from the common pleas to check the arbitrary proceedings of the lord president of Wales, and of the lord president of the North. Complaint having been made to the king of these prohibitions, and the judges having been summoned before the council, Coke justified the judges; and in like manner, when the question came up as to the king's prerogative to impose penalties and otherwise alter laws by proclamation, and the opinions of the judges were demanded by the king for the purpose of enforcing the power claimed, Coke resisted, and finally got the rest of the judges to concur in an answer that a proclamation was no law. The effect of this bold opposition to arbitrary power can hardly be overestimated. It at least checked abuses, and it led to investigation as to the limit imposed by law. Although Coke had but little turn for abstract reasoning about natural rights, he was inflexible in maintaining such rights as had been recognized by law. In 1613 Coke was removed from the office of chief justice of the common pleas to the chief justiceship of the king's bench.
The change was intended partly as a penalty for his conduct in the matters before referred to, but chiefly to favor the advancement of Bacon, who wished the place of attorney general, and Hobart, who then held the office, was willing to exchange for the chief justiceship of the common pleas, but not of the king's bench. The reluctance of Coke to leave the common pleas may be explained by the fact that far the larger part of the civil business of the kingdom was transacted in that court, it having exclusive jurisdiction of all cases relating to real property. It appears from a letter of Bacon to the king that it was designed to put Coke upon his good behavior, and to prepare the way for his final dismissal from office if he should fail to become conformable to the views of the court. He was in fact dismissed three years afterward, but in the mean time, with the certainty of losing his place by persistence in the course of judicial independence which he had heretofore pursued, he fearlessly resisted the encroachment of royal prerogative, and the corrupt attempts of court minions to pervert his administration of the law to improper purposes.
Two memorable instances occurred of Coke's inflexibility in maintaining what he believed to be right, although exceedingly obnoxious to the king: his contest with the court of chancery, and his resistance of the interference of the king in the matter of the commendams. The court of chancery had exercised the power of correcting judgments of other courts. The limit of this power had not been well defined. There were many cases where, by the rigid practice at common law, great injustice was done, and relief could be had only by the equitable administration of chancery; but some of the chancellors had proceeded as if they had a general right to review the judgments of all other courts. Coke wholly denied the authority of the court as thus claimed. He and his associate judges declared it to be an indictable offence to question a judgment of the king's bench or common pleas; and an effort was made to get an indictment against the parties, solicitors, and officers of the court of chancery, in two cases in which injunctions had been granted by the chancellor against judgments at law. But as it appeared that gross fraud had been committed in the obtaining of these judgments, the grand jury could not be persuaded to bring in a bill.
The proceeding having attracted public attention, the king appointed commissioners to inquire into the subject of dispute. The report of the commissioners sustained the proceeding of the chancellor. Proceedings were thereupon instituted in the star chamber against the private parties concerned in resisting the authority of the chancellor. The conduct of Coke on this occasion has been generally censured; but there can be no doubt that it had the effect of estab-. lishing with more precision the rule by which the interposition of the court of chancery should be regulated. The case as to the com-mendams was this: In a suit against the bishop of Lichfield and Coventry respecting a benefice, the defendant pleaded that he held it in commendam, which was an appointment by the king in certain cases until a new incumbent could be regularly appointed. The question was involved as to the right of the king to make such grants. Upon being advised of the discussion, the king sent a message to Coke signifying his pleasure that all proceedings should be stayed till the judges should have a conference with his majesty on the subject.
A meeting of all the judges having been held for consultation, it was resolved by them that the court ought to proceed as though they had received no notice, which was accordingly done, and a memorial signed by the 12 judges was sent to the king, in which they say: " We hold it our duty to inform your majesty that our oath is in these express words, ' that in case any letter come to us contrary to law, we do nothing therefore but certify your majesty thereof, and go forth to do the law notwithstanding the same.' We have advisedly considered the said letter of Mr. Attorney, and with one consent do hold the same to be con-trarv to law, and such as we could not yield to the same by oath." A sharp response followed from the king, ordering the judges to proceed no further till his coming in town. He then called them before him, and commented severely upon their course of proceeding and the form of their letter; upon which the judges kneeled and craved pardon. But Coke, though he expressed sorrow for any error of form, still persisted in defending the substantial right of what he had done.
The king himself seems to have been impressed by the noble bearing of the chief justice, for the court was permitted to proceed in the cause of the bishop, which was finally decided against him. - The active measures taken by Coke for the conviction of the murderers of Sir Thomas Overbury gave further offence to James, and he probably intended the removal of Coke upon the first favorable opportunity. This intention was no doubt precipitated by the enmity of the new favorite Villiers, who had been thwarted by the chief justice in a corrupt attempt at the disposition of a lucrative clerkship in the king's bench. The removal was, however, put upon very different grounds. Among the charges which he was required to answer before the council were: 1, the alleged concealment of a bond belonging to the crown; 2, his misconduct in the dispute with the chancellor respecting injunctions; 3, his disrespectful conduct to the king in the matter of the commendams. A few days afterward he was again called before the council, when sentence was pronounced that he be suspended from the council and from his judicial functions till the king's pleasure should be further known, and in the mean time that he should revise his books of reports, wherein it was alleged that "many extravagant and exorbitant opinions were set down for good law." After the summer vacation he was again cited before the privy council to answer as to revision of errors in his reports, when he made aspecification,showingthat there were not more errors in his 11 books of reports, containing 500 cases, than could be found in a few cases in Plowden. The whole charge was indeed frivolous; but a supersedeas nevertheless issued, removing him from his office (1616), and Montague was appointed in his place.
Not long after his disgrace Coke offered his daughter in marriage to Sir John Villiers, brother of the duke of Buckingham, the royal favorite. She was only 14 years of age, but was a rich heiress, as the estate of her mother, Lady Hatton, was entailed upon her, and she also had an expectancy from her father's immense wealth. The match had been sought by Villiers, who was poor, and had been rejected by Coke while chief justice. He determined on availing himself of it now for the purpose of recovering from his disgrace and humbling Bacon, who was now his open enemy. Lady Ilatton, who was not on good terms with her husband, and had not been consulted, refused consent, and carried off her daughter to a place of concealment. Coke, having ascertained where they had fled, pursued, broke open the house, and took his daughter away. The mother appealed to the privy council. Bacon, who had been appointed lord keeper, warmly supported her, and proceedings were instituted in the star chamber against Coke. The king, however, who was then in Scotland, sharply reproved the lord keeper, and on his return the parties were so far reconciled that the marriage took place.
Coke was restored to his place in the privy council (1617), but received no other appointment, except temporarily as one of the commissioners of the treasury while the office of lord treasurer was vacant. Bacon, on the other hand, entirely recovered a good understanding with the king, and was shortly after made lord chancellor. The lord treasurer's office, which Coke expected to have had, was finally given to Montague, who had succeeded him as chief justice; and instead of his being restored to the chief justiceship, that place was filled by an obscure lawyer. - After his removal from office Coke did not intermit his legal pursuits. The 12th and 13th parts of his reports were prepared, though not published, as they contained the obnoxious opinions he had expressed upon proclamations, the court of high commission, and some other matters. He had also commenced his great work, the "Commentary on Littleton." Utterly destitute of orderly arrangement, this work is exuberant in legal learning and curious illustrations of English customs; vigorous in style, and interesting even to nonprofessional readers by the quaint and amusing analogies with which the gravest discussions are interspersed. The commentary is written in English, for which he deemed it necessary to make an apology in the preface.
The reports, that is, the 11 parts which had then appeared, were printed in Norman French; the 12th and 13th parts were not published till 1654, having been translated into English, as were subsequently the other parts. The reports had one peculiarity which has never been adventured upon by any other author, viz.: that they represent many questions to have been resolved which in fact did not arise in the cause, or which were not at all events decided; and these he disposes of according to his own judgment, with abundant citations of authorities. Yet such was the respect entertained for his opinion, that these resolutions were always regarded as of equal weight with the opinions of the judges actually expressed. - The closing period of the life of Coke was brilliant and eventful. He was a member of parliament in 1621, and when the motion for a supply was made, secured a reference of the subjects of supply and grievances to a committee of the whole house. His first measure was a report upon the illegal grants of monopolies to Sir Giles Mom-pesson and Sir Edward Villiers, which report was agreed to, and sent to the upper house for concurrence.
Consentaneously with this, an investigation of judicial abuses was instituted, which was aimed at Bacon; and although Coke declined acting as chairman of the committee, yet he directed all the proceedings, prepared the charges, and prescribed the mode of prosecution. Coke was to have been the manager of the prosecution before the house of lords; but Bacon shrank from the contest, and by a plea of guilty sought to shelter himself from his revengeful adversary under the sympathy of the lords and the dispensing power of the crown. Coke followed up his success by carrying through the house an address against the proposed match of Prince Charles with the infanta of Spain. This called forth a threatening response from the king, in which he mentioned Sir Edward Coke by name as particularly obnoxious to censure. Finally, in a letter to the speaker, the king intimated his intention "to punish any man's misdemeanor in parliament, as well during the sitting as after." Coke immediately moved a protestation for the privileges of the house, which having been reported by a committee, setting forth the right of every member of the house to freedom of speech, and the "like freedom from all impeachment, imprisonment, and molestation," on account of anything said or done in parliament, it was carried and entered on the journals of the house.
The king immediately prorogued parliament, sent for the journals, and with his own hand tore out the offensive protestation. This was followed by a dissolution, and the arrest of Coke, Philips, Pym, and other leaders of the commons. The ex-chief justice was confined in the tower, but after some months' imprisonment was set at liberty, upon the intercession of Prince Charles; his name was however stricken out of the list of privy councillors. He was returned again as member of parliament on the accession of Charles I. (1625), and obtained the appointment of a committee on expenditures, which was proceeding so vigorously that the king suddenly dissolved parliament. An attempt was made to keep him out of the next parliament by appointing him sheriff of the county of Norfolk; nevertheless, he was returned as a member, but the parliament was dissolved before his right to a seat was settled. In 1628 he was again elected, and he proceeded at once to attack the recent illegal measures of the king. The first was commitments by order of the privy council, without specifying the cause in the warrant; and he carried through two resolutions, which constituted the basis of the famous habeas corpus act, passed many years after, in the 31st of Charles II. (1679). He then framed the famous petition of right, which enumerated the prominent grievances of the nation from the abuse of prerogative, and declared them all to be contrary to the laws and customs of the realm.
This was carried through the house in spite of all the subterfuges of the king, and finally passed by the lords after a fruitless attempt to nullify the bill by a clause which was rejected by the commons; and after a treacherous attempt by the king to cheat the house by an evasive form of assent, he was finally compelled to approve the bill and it became a law. In every step of this arduous contest, Coke, now in his 76th year, rendered important service by his sagacity and firmness. It was his last appearance in public; though he survived six years, he lived in retirement. During this time he prepared a new edition of the commentary on Littleton, and wrote the second, third, and fourth Institutes. In 1633, when he was on his deathbed, his house was searched by order of the king for seditious papers, and all his manuscripts were carried off. He died two days afterward, in his 82d year. It is said that, except a slight attack of the gout, he was never sick until his 80th year.