Page images

though with such an affectation of caution as to induce the reader to think that the writer is wonderfully candid, in a spirit of certainty that it was idle to study or show. Even the coarseness, the malignity, and brutality of Čoke's language is put as a probability, when abundant proofs exist of its character. Thus, "He was, probably, generally correct in his law; not very eloquent; and, occasionally, too little refined in his expressions." Many more instances of our author's probabilities and conjectures might be pointed out; they occur in almost every page. Here is a very bold instance-"Of this Parliament, Serjeant Richardson was chosen Speaker." "Sir Edward Coke was certainly a member of it." The thing never was doubted. Another sage guess is thus ventured, "It is probable" (speaking of James and Charles)" that they were equally insincere in their professions, and far too readily departed from their engagements; for both betrayed their friends in the hour of their peril.'


Besides this wholesale dealing in probabilities, Mr. Johnson falls into several important mistakes as to points of fact. Some of these consist of gratuitous imaginings concerning several of the great actors in the political drama of the era. Thus we are told,

As a member of the House of Commons, Hampden generally acted with the moderate reformers of the day; a party of patriots whose influence was necessarily great, since they held in their hands the weight which balanced the powers of the royalists and the ultra-parliamentarians." We never before heard that Hampden could endure anything like half-measures, or that he was other than the stanchest of the reformers. Again, it is stated by Mr. Johnson, that "Pym was, in good truth, an experienced hand at impeachment. He led on that of Archbishop Land and others; and even had the folly to do the same in the case of the high-minded Queen. It need excite little surprise, therefore, that he was an especial object of the hatred of the court; that Charles impeached him at the bar of the House of Lords, and even personally came to the House of Commons to seize him." Now the truth is, that the Queen was not impeached for two years after Pym had himself been impeached, so that it can hardly be supposed that the consequences were as stated by our author.

Having made these general remarks, we shall now proceed to call the reader's attention to some of those passages in the life of Coke, and to some of those sketches of character which Mr. Johnson has with praiseworthy industry collected. It will be observed from these, however, that his tendency is to overrate the merits, and to underrate the errors of his hero. The very caution suggested to the reader in these words-" While reviewing at this distant period of human cultivation the life of this, in many respects, truly great man, let us not withhold from our estimate that liberal

interpretation of his failings, the absence of which, in his estimate of others, was Coke's chief error"-exhibits a leaning which the facts of the case do not warrant, for instead of failings and errors some gross and forbidding acts stain the character of Coke. On the other hand, some splendid points were displayed by him which entitle him to a niche among the "worthies" of England; for we are not unwilling to concede that his virtues outweigh his offences as a public man. Still the mixture of the good and the bad in him offer a curious and instructive example. That besides his profound knowledge as a lawyer, and his rigid enforcement of justice as a judge, his life was clouded by a brutality of conduct, in other instances, not only towards illustrious individuals when it served his personal purposes thus to demean himself, but to members of his own family, is as notorious as his manly and stern resistance of royal encroachment at one time is to be balanced by his base servility at another.

Coke was well advanced in life before he came prominently before the public. It was in his forty-second year that he first had a seat in parliament, and he was more than fifty before he attained the dignity of Attorney-General. The first half of his long life must therefore have been devoted to the laborious pursuits of the lawyer. It was not until the death of his first wife that he seems to have attracted the notice of the court; and almost contemporary with this event, his domestic and public troubles probably commenced. Ambition, it appears, directed his thoughts to a daughter of the Earl of Exeter, who was the eldest son of Burghley, for a second partner, who was young, beautiful, and proud. A more unsuitable match, in respect of years and habits, could hardly have been made. This same Lady Hatton had been sought by Bacon, and there is reason to believe that rivalry both in the matter of courtship and of law produced that bitter enmity which so long existed between these two illustrious men. It will refresh the memories of several of our readers, relative to the character of Bacon as well as Coke, to quote the former's account of the "squabble" between them in the Court of Exchequer.

"A true remembrance of the abuse I received of Mr. Attorney General, publicly in the Exchequer, the first day of term, for the truth whereof I refer myself to all that were present.


"I moved to have a re-seizure of the lands of George More, a relapsed recusant, a fugitive and a practising traitor, and showed better matter for the Queen against the discharge by plea, which is ever with a salvo jure. And this I did in as gentle and reasonable terms as might be.

"Mr. Attorney kindled and said: 'Mr. Bacon, if you have any tooth against me pluck it out; for it will do you more hurt than all the teeth in your head will do you good.' I answered coldly, and in these words: Mr. Attorney, I respect you; I fear you not; and the less you speak of your own greatness, the more I will think of it.'

He replied; I think scorn to stand upon terms of greatness towards you who are less than little, less than the least;' and other strange light terms he gave me, with that insulting which cannot be expressed.


Herewith stirred, yet I said no more than this: Mr. Attorney, do not depress me so far, for I have been your better, and may be again when it pleases the Queen.'

[ocr errors]

"With this he spake, neither I nor himself could tell what, as if he had been born Attorney-General; and, in the end, bade me not meddle with the Queen's business, but with my own, and that I was unsworn, &c. I told him, sworn or unsworn, was all one to an honest man; and that I ever set my service first and myself second, and wished to God he would do the like.

"Then he said it were good to clap a capias ut legatum upon my back; to which I only said he could not, and that he was at a fault, for he hunted upon an old scent.


He gave me a number of disgraceful words besides, which I answered with silence, and showing that I was not moved with them."

Coke appeared in 1605 against the Gunpowder-plot conspirators, and made, according to our author's estimate, a very able speech. Most probably this served to advance him in the favour of James; at any rate, in the following year he was raised to be Chief-justice in the Court of Common Pleas, in which office he performed his duties with an undaunted independence, even in opposition to the views of the crown; one of his noble resistances being to the power of the king to issue proclamations which should have the same force of law as an act of parliament. One of Coke's objections to this stretch of power amounted to this-that there was no law or authority existing to countenance it. The Lord Chancellor, however, said, "that every precedent must have first a commencement, and that he would advise the judges to maintain the power and prerogative of the king, and in cases in which there is no authority and precedent, to leave it to the king to order it according to his wisdom, and the good of his subjects, for otherwise the king would be no more than the Duke of Venice." To this Coke made answer, "that true it is that every precedent hath a commencement, but where authority and precedent are wanting, there is need of great consideration before anything of novelty is established, and to provide that this be not against the law of the land; for, I said, the king cannot change any part of the common law, nor create any offence by his proclamation, which was not an offence before, without Parliament."

Coke also stood up against the crown by refusing to become a member of the High Court of Commission. Even after this, however, he was elevated to the Chief-justiceship of England, in which situation he more than once acted in a manner that was distasteful to James. His disgrace at length followed; for though to avert such a calamity he began to stoop, and by sundry acts to manifest

a base servility, he was suspended from his high office, on the alleged account of "uncomely and undutifu! carriage in the presence of his Majesty," a precious foretaste of the tyranny of the Stuarts.

Coke was now sixty-six years of age, but the darkest portion of his history, it is grievous to contemplate, here opens. Having felt very sensibly his removal from office, and the having been dismissed undeservedy being insufficient to suggest adequate consolation to his mind, he fell into a snare, and became unscrupulous as to the expedients to be employed to regain the smiles of the court. Nothing less than the sacrifice of a daughter was the method adopted to advance his interests, and for which it is in vain to offer an apology or a palliation.

"Marriages have, in all ages, been employed to strengthen political interests; and in Coke's days the marriage of a child or ward was regarded as a regular territoral perquisite, to which every lord of a manor was clearly entitled, even upon the marriage of his tenant's orphan children. That Coke viewed these marriages as mere matters of bargain, is shown by the way in which he now proposed the espousal of his youngest daughter by the lady Hatton, Frances Coke, to Sir John Villiers. This event arose in 1617, the year after his disgrace, since which he had been living in retirement, at his seat at Stoke in Buckinghamshire.

"Coke gladly proposed, through Winwood, this marriage to the favourite Buckingham; for Sir John Villiers was Buckingham's eldest brother. An account of this proposal being written to Buckingham, then on a progress with the King in Scotland, the offer was very readily accepted. The lady Frances Coke was only about fourteen years of age; and her inclination in this affair was never thought of, nor was even her mother consulted in the match. Coke considered only one darling object-how to recover his interest at court; and for this he was evidently willing to make any sacrifice.

"Lady Hatton, indignant at this unfeeling conduct, carried off the Lady Frances, and secreted her first at Sir Edmund Withipole's house, near Oatlands, and then at a house of Lord Argyle's near Hampton Court. Coke, who was violently enraged at this spirited resolution, immediately desired Buckingham to procure a warrant from the Privy Council, for the restoration of his daughter. But before this could be procured, ha ving discovered the place of her retreat, he proceeded with his sons to Oatlands, and carried her away by force; breaking through several doors, before he could obtain her.

"Upon this, Lady Hatton, following her husband's foolish example, indignantly complained of the outrage to the Privy Council;-thus making public a family feud, which highly amused the lovers of scandal, and long occupied their attention. Bacon, too, strenuously opposed the proposed union; for he saw the important object which Coke had in view, and the advantages which his great rival would probably derive from its accomplishment."

Coke's daughter was, at the time of her marriage, only fourteen years of age, and the match being contrary to her own choice, nothing but misery could be expected to result from it, especially

as the husband was the profligate brother of the profligate favourite of the king. He was, however, created Viscount Purbeck, after which he separated from his wife. It was hardly to be wondered at that she should depart from the paths of virtue, when exposed to the prevalent temptations of the age; and the truth is, that, "deserted by her husband, disowned by the Villiers' family, and a disgrace to her own, she had been a wife five years, and had become an outcast from her country, before she was twenty years of age.” In short she had become the mistress of Sir Robert Howard.

While she was the victim of a father's tyranny and ambition, one cannot regret that the sacrifice failed to purchase the object he had at heart; for he was never restored to his former situation. He, however, obtained a seat in the Lower House, where he, from time to time, exerted himself manfully in defence of certain great political principles. It would appear that he was a bold speaker, for even Bacon, in a letter to Buckingham, wished for "some round caveat to be given him from the king," to check the freedom of his speech.

The death of this illustrious lawyer was probably hastened by an accident which befel him, and which is thus noticed by him in the last entry made in his memorandum book, written, says Mr. Johnson, "with the same firmness of hand" which distinguished his penmanship through life. The accident is thus described by him

"The third of May, 1632, riding in the morning in Stoke, between eight and nine o'clock, to take the ayre, my horse under me had a strange stumble backwards, and fell upon me (being above eighty years old) where my head lighted to near sharp stubbles, and the heavy horse upon me. And yet, by the providence of Almighty God, though I was in the greatest danger, yet I had not the least hurt-nay, no hurt at all. For Almighty God saith by his prophet David," the angel of the Lord tarrieth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them," et nomen Domini benedictum, for it was his work.'

"He had, about a year previous to this accident, been reconciled to his daughter, Lady Purbeck, and taken her to live with him at Stoke, and she continued to live with him until his death. He probably saw the error he had committed in uniting her to Lord Purbeck, was sorry for his folly, and had compassion on a daughter he had unintentionally assisted to render miserable.

"His characteristic love of order, equity, and religion, attended him to the last; and in this frame of mind, on the 3rd of September, 1633, in his eighty-third year, died the great Coke, the glory of the English common law, whose name will probably be held in reverence as long as courts of justice exist, or lawyers have any regard to precedents."

The sketches of Coke's contemporaries which our author has collected and introduced are numerous, many of them being curious and important. One or two of these we shall copy, after having introduced two letters written by parties that have already been mentioned in our preceding extracts. The first of these is from Lady Hatton (for Coke's second wife refused to be called by his

« PreviousContinue »