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Lord of the Law
The fathers of American independence founded their case on “that wonderful Edward Coke … masterful, masterless man,” who made two English kings bow to the common law
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
Coke’s influence over his colleagues lay not alone in his courage and blunt speaking but in the ease he had developed from long experience, the advocate’s quick shift from mood to mood. Coke could be funny when he chose. And he chose often—told stories, jokes, anecdotes, and made the houses laugh. A plain countryman by birth and breeding, Coke’s similes came from the everyday life the Commoners knew—the dance called Almagne; the tasteless spice, Herb-John, which cooks tossed in every pot. “Like Herb-John, neither good nor bad,” he said of one proposal; and of the suggestion to postpone certain bills to autumn session, “It would be too great an Almagne leap betwixt this and Allhallowtide; the bills would take wind.”
A house that smiles is a house softened to reason. Prince Charles sat with the Lords, a sober, proud young man who had little sympathy for the country faction. Yet even Charles declared he could not have enough of Coke’s speaking, “was never weary with hearing him, he mingled mirth with business to so good purpose.” “If it please your Grace,” Coke said, “there is no danger in a merry man but only in a sullen and melancholy, as Caesar feared not Brutus, but pale and sad Cassius.”
But Brutus too can be dangerous; it was the last time a Stuart prince had words of praise for Sir Edward. In James’s mind free speech, for instance, was a matter conferred upon the Commons by Majesty, a matter not of right but of grace, to be granted after humble petition, and depending for its maintenance on good behavior. This bold Norfolk lawyer used the word rights when he should have said by the King’s grace. “Take heed,” Coke told the lower house, “that we lose not our liberties by petitioning for liberty to treat of grievances.” King James loathed all Parliaments; this was the first session he had called in seven years (since 1614). He desperately needed money, the fat taxation that could come only by the Commons’ vote. But Coke persisted in reminding the Lords that Parliaments, according to the ancient laws of England, should meet often. King Alfred, Coke said confidently, had ordained two Parliaments to be held each year; Edward I and III had been equally eager for their Parliaments to meet “for redressing mischiefs and grievances.”
The words met with a clamor of dissent from high circles. Where was Coke’s authority for such statements? Surely, he had invented them! Three days later, Coke brought his precedents to the Lords “in a book,” wrote a diarist, “because he was suspected by some malevolent persons to have devised them of his own head.” Coke read them and the Lords cleared him. As the Commons grew more knowledgeable and thereby more insolent, James grew angrier. In December, 1621, he adjourned Parliament, sent Coke to the Tower and kept him for nearly seven months in close confinement, none permitted access except the King’s messengers. “Twenty-six weeks and five dayes,” as Coke recorded it. Allowed no books, Sir Edward, like any forgotten prisoner, wrote verses with a piece of coal. Latin verses, they were, about the roaring of the Tower lions in their pit, the damp reeking walls so near the river, the prison stink. Heu! horridus ille locus —“May God return me one day to my small house in Norfolk!” In August Coke was freed; perhaps James considered it more politic to let him go, a man so much admired in the country. Coke returned to full activity and sat in the Parliaments of 1624 and 1625. But in 1626 the King kept him out by a ruse, the well-known strategy of naming him high sheriff of his county. During their one year’s tenure, high sheriffs could not sit in Parliament.
It was in the famous session of 1628 that Coke rose to his true stature. This was the Parliament which, after much turmoil and hazard, presented to the King that Petition of Right that has been called one of the three great documents of English history—and which served as model for our own patriot forefathers in the Continental Congress. King Charles, son of James I, desperately in need of money, had been attempting to tax the country by way of forced loans. Men who refused payment were thrown in jail; the principal gentry summoned by hundreds to London to answer for their disobedience. Whole counties were aroused. The plight of the Refusers, as they were called, became a cause célèbre; when the Refusers were finally released from prison their counties returned them to Parliament with cheers and unanimity.