Edward Coke


Sir Edward Coke (pronounced "Cook") (1 February 15523 September 1634), was an early English colonial entrepreneur and jurist whose writings on the English common law were the definitive legal texts for some 300 years.


Coke was born at Mileham, Norfolk the son of a London barrister from a Norfolk family. He was educated at Norwich School and then Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1585, in the middle of the deserted village of Godwick, Edward Coke built a fine brick manor house, having purchased the estate in 1580. (The ruins of the house, which was E shaped with an impressive two storey porch and windows, was pulled down in 1962.) Coke became a Member of Parliament in 1589, Speaker of the House of Commons in 1592 and was appointed England's Attorney General in 1593, a post for which he was in competition with his rival Sir Francis Bacon. During this period, he was a zealous prosecutor of Sir Walter Raleigh and of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. He was appointed Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1606. In 1613, he was elevated to Chief Justice of the King's Bench, where he continued his defence of the English common law against the encroachment by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, local courts controlled by the aristocracy, and meddling by the King.

Bacon encouraged the King to remove Coke as Chief Justice in 1616, for refusing to hold a case in abeyance until the King could give his own opinion in it. In 1620 Coke became an MP again, and proved so troublesome to the crown that he was imprisoned, along with other Parliamentary leaders, for six months. In 1628, he was one of the drafters of the Petition of Right. In 1606, Coke apparently helped write the charter of the Virginia Company, a private venture granted a royal charter to found settlements in North America. He became director of the London Company, one of the two branches of the Virginia Company. One of Coke's greatest contributions to the law was to interpret Magna Carta to apply not only to the protection of nobles but also to all subjects of the crown equally, which effectively established the law as a guarantor of rights among all subjects against even Parliament and the King. He famously asserted: "Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign."

Famous judgments

  • Dumpor's Case (1578) this set forth a new rule for assignment of leasehold interests
  • Heydon's case (1584) on the 'mischief' rule of statutory interpretation.
  • Twyne's Case (1602) Coke opined here that, "Fraud and deceit abound in these days more than in former times."
  • Case of the Monopolies (1603) this is an important case for competition law (or "antitrust"), concerning a patent on the royal playing cards. Coke's opinion was that such a monopoly would be contrary to the law.

The Countess of Rutland's Case (1604): the origin of the parol evidence rule is usually traced to this case. Coke wrote: "(I)t would be inconvenient, that matters in writing made by advice and on consideration, and which finally import the certain truth of the agreement of the parties should be controlled by averment of the parties to be proved by the uncertain testimony of slippery memory. And it would be dangerous to purchasers and farmers, and all others in such cases, if such nude averments against matter in writing should be admitted.” In modern parlance, parties to a written contract are barred from contending that they had a prior, inconsistent oral agreement on the same subject.

  • Semayne's case (1604) Coke famously wrote that "The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose." It established the principle of freedom from arbitrary search and seizure.
  • Prohibitions del Roi (1607) published posthumously, these detail his discussion with the King in which he (briefly) convinced a reluctant James that the law is based on "artificial reason" and must be left to lawyers to decide, rather than to the monarch. Coke famously describes the function of judges as being "not to make but to declare the law, according to the golden mete-wand of the law and not by the crooked cord of discretion."
  • Calvin's Case (1608) concerning the London Company, Coke's opinion established that subjects of Scotland born after King James VI became James I of England, could hold land in England as well as in Scotland, because both Scots and Englishmen owed allegiance to the same king. This case would be important in supporting the idea that English colonists in North America would have the rights of Englishmen. "....However, in 1608, Sir Edward Coke, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, offered a ruling in Calvin's Case which went beyond the issue at hand: whether a Scotsman could seek justice at an English Court. Coke distinguished between aliens from nations at war with England and friendly aliens, those from nations in league with England. Friendly aliens could have recourse to English courts. But he also ruled that with "all infidels" (i.e. those from non-Christian nations) there could be no peace, and a state of perpetual hostility would exist between them and Christians.
  • Dr. Bonham's Case (1610) this has been much argued about by historians but is seen by lawyers as the origin of judicial review of legislation. The Case – arising from Dr Bonham’s imprisonment by the President and Censors of the College of Physicians of London – considered whether English Courts could define the limits of the legislative power vested in the Parliament at Westminster.
  • William Aldred's Case (1610) concerned the nuisance of smells coming from a pig sty, seen by some as the birth of environmental law.
  • Case of Sutton's Hospital (1612) a seminal case in corporations law, notable for its characterisation of corporations. The dispute centred around the London Charterhouse.

Political influence

Copies of Coke's writings arrived in North America on the Mayflower in 1620, and every lawyer in the English colonies and early United States was trained from Coke's books, particularly his Reports and Institutes (see #References section below), the most famous of which was his property book, The First Institute of the Lawes of England, or a Commentary on Littleton (a reference to 15th century English jurist Thomas de Littleton). Coke was a patron and mentor for American theologian and dissident Roger Williams and assisted with his education at Sutton's Hospital and at the University of Cambridge, Pembroke College. Both John Adams and Patrick Henry argued from Coke treatises to support their revolutionary positions against the Mother Country in the 1770s.

Under Coke's leadership, in 1628 the House of Commons forced Charles I of England to accept Coke's Petition of Right by withholding the revenues the king wanted until he capitulated. The Petition of Right was the forerunner of the English Bill of Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights.

See also



  • The Lion and the Throne, a biography (ISBN 0-316-10393-4) of Coke by Catherine Drinker Bowen, won the National Book Award.
  • Three volumes of Coke's writings, with translations, notes, commentary, and an introduction, have been published as The Selected Writings of Sir Edward Coke, edited by Steve Sheppard (ISBN 0-86597-316-4). They are available individually as PDF files: vol 1 (pp. 1–520), vol 2 (pp. 521–1184), vol 3 (pp. 1185–1468). These also contain “The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England: Or A Commentary upon Littleton, Not the name of the Author only, but of the Law it selfe”.
  • Selected Works of Edward Coke at the Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics, Commentary on English common and statutory law, including the Institutes and the Reports.
  • The 1826 edition (Thomas, John Henry and Fraser, John Farquhar eds) of Coke's Reports is available in part at Google Books:
  • : Vol 1 (Parts I-II)
  • : Vol 3 (Parts V-VI)
  • : Vol 4 (Parts VII-VIII)
  • : Vol 5 (Parts IX-X)

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