EDWARD COKE Biography - Writers


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Sir Edward Coke (pronounced “cook") (1 February 1552 - 3 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, following his elevation to Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, he became a convinced supporter of the English common law and its staunch defender against the executive and the ecclesiastical hierarchy.


Bacon was instrumental in securing his removal from office in 1616; in 1620 he became an MP again, and proved so troublesome to the crown that he was imprisoned for six months. In 1628, he was one of the drafters of the Petition of Right.


In 1606, Coke 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. As director, he proposed a means by which slavery could be legalised in the new Virginia Colony. Fearing opposition if the issue was publicly debated, Coke was responsible for Calvin’s Case in 1608, which ruled that “all infidels are in law perpetual ennemies". Here he was borrowing from a legal tradition rooted in canonical law and apologetics for the crusades. In this way Coke played a significant part in the development of New World slavery. On January 2, 2003, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom refused to make a public apology for the long history of slavery under the British Empire on the basis that it was legal at the time. Writing via assistant private secretary Kay Brock , she said “Under the statute of the International criminal Court, acts of enslavement committed today . . . constitute a crime against humanity. But the historic slave trade was not a crime against humanity or contrary to international law at the time when the UK government condoned it.”


Copies of Coke’s writings arrived in North America on the Mayflower in 1620, and both John Adams and Patrick Henry cited Coke’s treatises to support their revolutionary positions against the Mother Country in the 1770s. Under Lord Coke’s leadership, in 1628 the House of Commons forced Charles I of England to accept Coke’s Petition of Rights by withholding the revenues the king wanted until he capitulated.