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Sir Edward Coke, 1552 - 1634

The Classical Law of Tort

Coke's Institutes of the Law, No. 1, Series Editors: Amanda J. Owens & Charles K. Rowley


Sir Edward Coke, 1552 - 1634

Sir Edward Coke is most remembered for his forceful championship of the supremacy of the common law. He defended the common law against the prerogative power of the crown and the encroachments of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. In 1628 he published the first of four volumes of Institutes, which delineated some of the basic rights of an individual in a stable legal order. The last three volumes, which included an analysis of the Magna Carta, were so incendiary that they were suppressed by King Charles I for almost a decade after Coke's death. These books, as well as his case reports, were accepted as first principles of law.

Coke was born at Mileham, Norfolk in England on February 1, 1552. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge for four years but never took his degree. He left Cambridge in 1572 to enroll at the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London. He was called to the bar on April 20, 1578. Coke had a prodigious memory and extensive study habits. Soon he developed a vast knowledge of feudal and early modern precedents that he used to overwhelm both the opposing counsel and the judge.

Coke's success in the law courts soon earned him the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I's first minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Coke entered public service and in 1589 he was elected to Parliament, becoming speaker of the House of Commons in 1593. In 1592 Coke was appointed solicitor general and recorder of London. Coke was appointed Queen Elizabeth's Attorney General in 1594. As Attorney General, Coke was a zealous supporter of the Crown, prosecuting libel and treason cases with exceptional vigor.

In 1606 King James I appointed Coke as Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Coke soon declared that the common law was the supreme authority in English life, above even the king. Coke's support for the common law gave the courts and the rule of law new strength. While Lord Chief Justice, Coke wrote law reports that provided an authoritative basis for the skilled practice of law and the growing Parliamentary arguments about the king's claims of royal prerogative.

In 1613 King James made Coke a privy councillor and was appointed Chief Justice of the court of King's Bench. Coke was supposed to uphold the King's interests. When Coke failed to represent his sovereign's interests he was dismissed in 1616.

Coke was not to be kept out of public life. By 1617 he was re-appointed to the privy council and the Star Chamber. In 1620, Coke returned to Parliament and drafted the Protestation of the Commons. This proclamation declared that ever since the Magna Carta was signed, Parliament had been subject only to the common law for its liberties, privileges and jurisdiction. Coke spent nine months in prison for his participation in debates about parliamentary liberties in 1621.

In 1628, after King Charles succeeded James to the throne, Parliament adopted Coke's Petition of Right. This document re-inforced the due process clause contained in the Magna Carta and became a charter of liberty limiting the royal prerogative. Coke died in 1634 but his contributions continued to shape the political forces after his death. The Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the limited monarchy established by the Act of Settlement in 1701 all were based on Coke's work.  

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