Edward Coke

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Sir 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. He is credited with having established the legal basis for slavery in the English colonies.

He became a Member of Parliament in 1589 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 defense 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, along with other Parliamentary leaders, was imprisoned 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 to all not only for the protection of nobles but to all subjects of the crown equally, which effectively established the law as a guarantor of rights among all subjects, even against the Parliament and the King.

Among his most famous cases, Coke wrote Dr. Bonham's Case, which has been much argued about by historians but which is seen by lawyers as the origin of judicial review of legislation. Coke's opinion in Calvin's Case 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. He also wrote Semayne's Case, the origin of many of the rights to freedom from arbitrary searches; the Case of the Monopolies, important in anti-trust; Sutton's Hospital, a seminal case in corporations law; and William Aldred's Case, which may be the birth of environmental law. Published after his death, the Prohibitions del Roi 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.

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, the most famous of which was his property book, The First Institute of the Lawes of England, or a Commentary on Littleton. 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.


  • The quote believed to have led to the "castle exception" of self-defense:
    • "A man's house is his castle – for where shall a man be safe if it be not in his own house?"
  • His famous quote about the common law:
    • "Reason is the life of the law; nay, the common law itself is nothing else but reason.... The law which is perfection of reason." (First Institute)
  • "A stout man's heart breaks bad luck."
  • "Diligence is the mother of good fortune, and idleness – its opposite – never brought a man to the goal of any of his best wishes."
  • "Hitch your wagon to a star. Let us not fag in paltry works which serve our pot and bag alone. Let us not lie and steal. No god will help. We shall find all their teams going the other way: Every god will leave us. Work rather for those interests which the divinities honor and promote – justice, love, freedom, knowledge, utility."
    • These last three all from "Essay on Littleton".
  • "The King himself should be under no man, but under God and the Law."
  • "The Law is the surest sanctuary that a man can take, and the strongest fortress to protect the weakest of all; Lex est tutissima cassis."

Preceded by:
Thomas Snagge
Speaker of the House of Commons
Succeeded by:
Sir Christopher Yelverton

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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 0865973164).


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