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Domestic History Of Sir Edward Coke
by [?]

Sir Edward Coke–or Cook, as now pronounced, and occasionally so written in his own times–that lord chief-justice whose name the laws of England will preserve–has shared the fate of his great rival, the Lord Chancellor Bacon; for no hand worthy of their genius has pursued their story. Bacon, busied with nature, forgot himself. Coke who was only the greatest of lawyers, reflected with more complacency on himself; for “among those thirty books which he had written with his own hand, most pleasing to himself was a manual which he called Vade Mecum, from whence, at one view, he took a prospect of his life past.” This manuscript, which Lloyd notices, was among the fifty which, on his death, were seized on by an order of council, but some years after were returned to his heir; and this precious memorial may still be disinterred.[1]

Coke was “the oracle of law,” but, like too many great lawyers, he was so completely one as to have been nothing else. Coke has said, “the common law is the absolute perfection of all reason;” a dictum which might admit of some ridicule. Armed with law, he committed acts of injustice; for in how many cases, passion mixing itself with law, summum jus becomes summa injuria. Official violence brutalised, and political ambition extinguished, every spark of nature in this great lawyer, when he struck at his victims, public or domestic. His solitary knowledge, perhaps, had deadened his judgment in other studies; and yet his narrow spirit could shrink with jealousy at the celebrity obtained by more liberal pursuits than his own. The errors of the great are as instructive as their virtues; and the secret history of the outrageous lawyer may have, at least, the merit of novelty although not of panegyric.

Coke, already enriched by his first marriage, combined power with added wealth, in his union with the relict of Sir William Hatton, the sister of Thomas Lord Burleigh. Family alliance was the policy of that prudent age of political interests. Bacon and Cecil married two sisters; Walsingham and Mildmay two others; Knowles, Essex, and Leicester, were linked by family alliances. Elizabeth, who never designed to marry herself, was anxious to intermarry her court dependents, and to dispose of them so as to secure their services by family interests.[2] Ambition and avarice, which had instigated Coke to form this alliance, punished their creature, by mating him with a spirit haughty and intractable as his own. It is a remarkable fact, connected with the character of Coke, that this great lawyer suffered his second marriage to take place in an illegal manner, and condescended to plead ignorance of the laws! He had been married in a private house, without banns or licence, at a moment when the archbishop was vigilantly prosecuting informal and irregular marriages. Coke, with his habitual pride, imagined that the rank of the parties concerned would have set him above such restrictions. The laws which he administered he appears to have considered had their indulgent exceptions for the great. But Whitgift was a primitive Christian; and the circumstance involved Coke and the whole family in a prosecution in the ecclesiastical court, and nearly in the severest of its penalties. The archbishop appears to have been fully sensible of the overbearing temper of this great lawyer; for when Coke became the attorney-general, we cannot but consider, as an ingenious reprimand, the archbishop’s gift of a Greek testament, with this message, that “He had studied the common law long enough, and should henceforward study the law of God.”

The atmosphere of a court proved variable with so stirring a genius; and as a constitutional lawyer, Coke, at times, was the stern asserter of the kingly power, or its intrepid impugner; but his personal dispositions led to predominance, and he too often usurped authority and power with the relish of one who loved them too keenly. “You make the laws too much lean to your opinion, whereby you show yourself to be a legal tyrant,” said Lord Bacon, in his admonitory letter to Coke.