« PreviousContinue »
SIR EDWARD COKE,
LORD CHIEF JUSTICE.
(With an Engraving.) On the 1st of February, 1551-2, Edward Coke was born at Milebam, in the county of Norfolk. His father was a Bencher of Lincoln's-Inn; and his family name is supposed by Lord Campbell to have been Cook, assumed in that form when surnames were first taken in England,—but subsequently changed to hide the craft which gave it; and still it is pronounced Cook, not Coke.
From the Free Grammar-School at Norwich, where he had spent seven years, he was sent to Cambridge, and had for tutor Whitgift, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury; but, although a diligent student, he possessed no literary ambition, nor much elevation of taste, and left the University, at the end of three years, without taking a degree. The division of the paternal estates among many children left him but a scanty fortune, and induced him to go up to London, and apply himself to legal studies in the Inner-Temple, where his diligence was indeed exemplary, and is thus described by Lord Campbell, in his “Lives of the Lord Chief Justices :"
“Every morn he rose at three; in the winter-season lighting his own fire. He read Bracton, Littleton, the Year-Books, and the folio Abridgments of the Law, till the Courts met at
Vol. XVII. Second Series.
eight. He then went by water to Westminster, and heard cases argued till twelve, when pleas ceased for dinner. After a short repast in the Inner-Temple Hall, he attended “readings' or lectures in the afternoon, and then resumed his private studies till five, or supper-time: this meal being ended, the moots took place, when difficult questions of law were proposed and discussed; if the weather was fine, in the garden by the river-side; if it rained, in the covered walks near the Templechurch. Finally, he shut himself up in his chamber, and worked at his common-place book, in which he inserted, under the proper heads, all the legal information he had collected during the day. When nine o'clock struck, he retired to bed, that he might have an equal proportion of sleep before and after midnight. The Globe and other theatres were rising into repute, but he never would appear at any of them ; nor would he indulge in such unprofitable reading as the poems of Lord Surrey, or Spenser. When Shakspeare and Ben Jonson came into such fashion, that even "sad apprentices of the law' occasionally assisted in masques, and wrote prologues, he most steadily eschewed all such amusements; and it is supposed that in the whole course of his life he never saw a play acted, or read a play, or was in company with a player."
On the 20th of April, 1578, he was called to the Bar, one year earlier than usual; for the Benchers, in admiration of his industry, forensic power, and extensive knowledge, dispensed with their own rule, and admitted him to practice after his name had been but six years on their books. He forthwith rose into eminence, made money with extraordinary rapidity, and, verifying the proverb that the love of wealth increases at an equal rate with its acquisition, became confirmed in a selfishness that appears to have been natural to him. But, under the counteraction of strong moral principle, he maintained his integrity as a servant of his Sovereign and the country, through a long and eventful public life. Had he known the grace of God, which teaches the denial of every worldly lust, he would have been one of the first of men; but avarice spoiled him both as a husband and a father. Only a few months after the death of his first wife, with whom he had lived happily, he married Lady Hatton, a person much younger than himself, and just as gay as he was grave. She merely consented to be his wife, in submission to her parents, who coveted alliance with him on account of his wealth and rank; for by that time he was Attorney General. With Lady Hatton, who would never take his name, he got a dowry of £30,000, and lost much of his peace, and some of his reputation. A daughter by this lady he gave away in marriage at a very early age, in order to recover interest at Court, at a time when his fidelity to the law and to his country had brought him into disfavour, and had soon the grief to see this daughter become a scandal to his family. It is also said of him that he was vindictive towards those who had injured him; that, during several years that he was AttorneyGeneral, he allowed himself to use extremely insolent language to those who stood before him to be tried, and manifested a heartless and vengeful temper towards fallen enemies. If Sir Edward Coke had been at all singular in this respect; if his rivals and antagonists, and perhaps most of his contemporaries, had not been similarly guilty; and if the temper and manners of those times had not been comparatively barbarous; the reproach which it is now almost fashionable to heap upon his memory, would have been less exaggerated than it is. It is undeniable that he was guilty of great indecorum: he even condescended to do the duty of a pursuivant; took part in the infliction of torture upon stateprisoners in the Tower; and, in many instances, appeared rather to be a partisan than a Judge: but high officers of state, in those days, had little notion of true dignity; and their common customs were such as would be deemed outrageous now, even if they were praeticable. And it must not be forgotten that he afterwards declared torture to be contrary to the common law of England, and laboured successfully to effect its- abolition. His good sense, and, in all matters of public duty, his conscientiousness, raise him high above most of his contemporaries; but he lacked vital godliness. In his early education and studies there does not appear to have been any mingling of earnest religion; and it is observable that, in his distribution of time, as recorded, there is no interval marked for private prayer.
Such religious feeling as he possessed was probably attained and cherished by attendance at public worship on the Lord's day. Fuller, in his “Church History,” speaking of the famous high Churchman, "the judicious Hooker,” so called, and his antagonist, Travers, whose controversial and profoundly learned sermons were delivered in succession in the same pulpit in the Temple, describes Sir Edward Coke as diligently taking notes of their discourses; and it is not unlikely that the more liberal ecclesiastical doctrine of Travers imparted some of its enlargement to the mind of Coke. Certain it is that he reverenced the law of God, in regard to His holy day; and that, amidst the licentiousness of the reigns of James I. and Charles I., he strenuously upheld that sacred observance. In the year 1621, when he was a Member of Parliament, —where he had been Speaker in the reign of Elizabeth,—a Member introduced a Bill for the better observance of the day, and another Member, named Sheppard, a young man, moved an amendment, on which a remarkable debate ensued. In an account of the debate, we find the following passage :
Sheppard.—“Every one knoweth that Dies Sabbati is Saturday; but to forbid dancing on Sunday is in the face of the King's 'Book of Sports;' and King David says, “Let us praise God in a dance. This being a point of divinity, let us leave it to divines; and since King David and King James both bid us dance, let us not make a statute against dancing. He that preferred this Bill is a disturber of the peace, and a Puritan."
Sir Edward Coke." Whatsoever hindereth the observation of the Sabbath is against the Scripture. It is in religion, as in other things: if a man goes too much on the right hand, he goes to superstition; if too much on the left, to profaneness and Atheism; and take away reverence, and you shall never have obedience. If it be permitted thus to speak against such as prefer Bills, we should have none preferred.”
On the motion of Sir Edward, Sheppard was expelled the House, and only re-admitted by begging pardon on his knees. Harsh discipline, no doubt; but if certain godless orators of the present time were subjected to the like, they would suffer no more than they deserve.
To relate the constitutional stand which this great lawyer made against the pretensions of James and Charles, miscalled “ prerogatives,” it would be necessary to recount the history of the great struggle of those reigns, up to the time when the Parliament assumed a position of direct hostility against Charles, the victim of his father's injurious education, and of the schemes of the Papacy to re-establish civil and religious despotism in England. One or two instances will suffice to show the character of Lord Chief Justice Coke. James wanted to release himself from legal impediments to the execution of his will on such as he desired to put out of the way by juridical forms, but in contempt of justice. To that end, he expressed a wish to take cases into his own hand, and pronounce judgment, without the intervention of a Judge; and the Judges were summoned into his presence to give their opinion on the proposal. They were too obsequious even to maintain their own rights; but Coke objected. The King was angry; and after much warmth on one side, and no less firmness on the other, the Chief Justice rejoined thus to a boastful sentence of the King's :
Coke, C. J.-" True it is, please your Majesty, that God has endowed your Majesty with excellent science, as well as great gifts of nature; but your Majesty will allow me to say, with all reverence, that you are not learned in the laws of this your realm of England; and I crave leave to remind your Majesty, that causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of your subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason, but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which law is an art which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognisance of it. The law is the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of your Majesty's subjects; and it is by the law that your Majesty is protected in safety and peace.”
King James (in a great rage). “Then I am to be under the law, which it is treason to affirm.”
Coke, C. J.-" Thus wrote Bracton: Rex non debet esse sub