Sir Edward Coke was born on February 1st, 1552. Coke was educated at Norwich Grammar School and went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Coke trained as a lawyer and he was called to the Bar in 1578. By 1594, under the patronage of Lord Burghley (Coke had married Burghley’s grand daughter Elizabeth) he had become Attorney-General. Coke was knighted for his services in 1604. In 1606, Sir Edward became Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and in 1613, he was appointed to be the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.
As a judge, Coke defended the Common Law as interpreted by Parliament and he viewed Common Law as being superior to any law laid down by ecclesiastical or prerogative courts such as the High Commission and the Council of the North. James I was greatly angered and perturbed that a very senior law man believed that common law was superior to the king. In 1613, James promoted Coke to be the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Whilst professionally an elevation in status, the position was less well paid than his previous post. James had sent out a warning to Coke to ‘toe the party line’ or suffer the consequences. Coke failed to come to heel. He continued to speak out that Common Law as interpreted by Parliament was superior to the Royal Prerogative.
In 1616, Coke refused to delay a hearing (the Commendams Case) so that James could speak to the judges involved in the case. In the previous year, he had not supported the king’s desire that he, the king, should be allowed to speak to judges individually before a case was heard. Coke believed that this gave the king too much of an opportunity to influence the outcome. James dismissed Coke from his post in November 1616 for insubordination.
Coke’s removal from his position on the King’s Bench was a serious blow to his social and professional standing. To regain this standing, in 1617 he married off his daughter Frances to the Viscount Purbeck – John Villiers, the brother of the Duke of Buckingham. Within a year, Frances had left Purbeck and gone to live with the son of the Earl of Suffolk – a Howard.
The Howard’s fall from political power was a result of the social and political advance made by Buckingham.
From Buckingham’s point of view, for Coke’s daughter to leave his brother for a Howard was unforgivable. However, Coke blamed the separation on John (who has been described by J P Kenyon as having the reputation of a “mental defective”) and Buckingham who had pushed his brother nearly as far up the social ladder as was possible. Coke decided that the only way to get back at Buckingham was via the House of Commons. James’s 3rd parliament was from 1621 to 1622. This gave Coke the opportunity he needed.
England at that time was suffering from economic ills especially in the cloth trade that were affecting many in the country from the workers to the gentry. It was in the House of Commons that the gentry had the base to express their concerns. All that they needed was a man who could lead them and Sir Edward Coke provided that leadership and drive.
There may well have been an element of personal revenge for Coke taking this role. However, by 1621, there was a clear wedge between the king, his courtiers and the Commons. It also became clear that the traditional loyalty a monarch could expect from the Lords no longer existed. In the Lords, the Earl of Southampton led opposition to all that Buckingham stood for. A combined Commons and Lords presented the king with a formidable opponent, especially after Coke revived the old practice of impeachment – putting on trial before the Lords people indicted by the Commons. Coke was prominent in starting the impeachment proceedings against Mompesson and Mitchell (monopolists) and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon for bribery.
Coke was also vociferous in speaking out against Buckingham’s Spanish match policy. This raised a very serious question – did the Commons have the right to discuss foreign policy? James believed that they did not and that they could only do so if they had the king’s permission. Coke believed that it was an “ancient and undoubted birthright” of the Common’s to do so. On December 18th, 1621, the Commons voted on the issue in the ‘Protestation’. On December 30th, 1621, James himself tore out of the House of Commons Journal any reference to the ‘Protestation’. Three days earlier Coke had been arrested and he spent the next eight months in the Tower of London.
In James’s 4th Parliament (February 1624 to March 1625), Coke supported the war with Spain and he gave his backing to the impeachment of the Lord Treasurer, Lionel Cranfield.
Coke was to become a major thorn in the side of Charles I and the Duke of Buckingham from the first days of Charles’s first Parliament. He led a movement that voted in customs revenue for the king for just one year instead of for the life time of the king, as was the tradition. Coke used his legal knowledge to start impeachment proceedings against Buckingham that only failed as Charles prorogued Parliament.
Coke did not sit in the second parliament of Charles (February to June 1626) as he had been appointed a sheriff, along with other opposition leaders. This meant that he could not be a MP – though that did not stop Coke turning up at the Commons with what he deemed ‘evidence’ that stated that he could serve as a MP.
Coke retired in 1629 and died on September 3rd, 1634. It is claimed that his wife said:
“We shall never see his like again, praises be to God.”