This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics
Sir Edward Coke was one of the most influential legal figures of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart period. Over a span of nearly 40 years, he also served in six parliaments as an MP for various constituencies.
Already a successful lawyer, he became an MP when returned unopposed for Aldeburgh in 1589. Active in various House committees, his main contribution was the investigation of abuses in the Exchequer. This angered the Queen, so Coke searched for precedents to bolster Parliament’s position. This worked, and Elizabeth agreed to remedy the abuses.
He sat for Norfolk in the 1593 Parliament, and was chosen as its Speaker. As such, Coke was a key link between Parliament and Crown, especially when the Queen thought Parliament was meddling in sensitive affairs of state, like religion and the royal succession.
He was very interested in procedural matters and in keeping order. He once reprimanded some members for whispering among themselves in the chamber, because, in Parliament, “only public speeches are to be used”.
Coke was out of the House for nearly 30 years. He was one of England’s most senior and controversial judges during the growing constitutional crisis over royal prerogative powers. He supported the courts against both Crown and Parliament, even suggesting that judges could strike down acts of Parliament. Eventually, the Stuart King James dismissed Coke from the bench in 1616, but when James decided to hold another Parliament, Coke found a seat at Liskeard, after failing at Bossiney.
In the 1621 Parliament ,Coke emerged as a major opponent of the king, criticising policy on business monopolies and on sensitive constitutional and ecclesiastical issues. He proposed a committee on grievances, and was made its chair. Coke campaigned against many senior officials, including the lord chancellor Francis Bacon.
James grew exasperated with Parliament’s attacks on him, and bluntly warned it – and Coke in particular – that it was subordinate to the Crown. Eventually, when the Commons drew up a ‘Protestation’ asserting its rights and privileges, the king reacted. He ripped the document out of the journal, dissolved Parliament and sent Coke to the Tower.
When, three years later, the monarch summoned a new Parliament, he tried to keep Coke out by sending him on a mission to Ireland. However, this ploy failed when Coke secured a seat at Coventry and the mission was postponed. This 1624 Parliament was a less fractious and more productive affair, and Coke managed to secure enactment of three of his bills which had fallen at the previous dissolution.
He was again returned for Charles I’s first Parliament in 1625. In April, he won one of the Norfolk seats after a hard contest, but, concerned that the result might be challenged, tried elsewhere, and was also successful in his old constituency of Coventry. He took his time deciding which seat to take, only choosing Norfolk in early July.
The new king was as much troubled by Coke as had been his predecessor, specifically on the issues of royal finances, foreign policy and religion. On the first, Coke lectured Charles in some detail on necessary reforms, which resulted in Charles dissolving Parliament a week later and seeking to prevent the Norfolk MP from entering the next one by making him sheriff of Buckinghamshire. Ignoring this, Coke was returned for Norfolk at the 1626 election, but could not take his seat while holding the office of sheriff.
His final Commons stint came in the momentous 1628 Parliament. Returned for both Buckinghamshire and Suffolk, he chose to sit for the former. King and Parliament were in deep conflict over the Crown’s increasingly arbitrary rule, which Coke feared threatened the rule of law. He seized an opportunity to reassert the basic liberties of Magna Carta by promoting the Petition of Right, which Charles reluctantly accepted. For the aged Coke, this was his last and greatest parliamentary success.
In one of his legal works, Coke described the necessary attributes of an MP. He “should have three properties of the elephant”: first, have no gall – that is, be “without malice, rancour, heat” – secondly, be inflexible and do not bow; thirdly, be of a most ripe and perfect memory. He added two further qualities, sociability and philanthropy. To what extent Coke himself displayed all these is, as the lawyers might say, a moot point.