Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Equity and Ideas: Coke, Ellesmere, and James I

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Equity and Ideas: Coke, Ellesmere, and James I

Article excerpt

The legal strife in England in 1616, whereby Edward Coke, the Chief Justice, was dismissed from the King's Bench and the prerogatives of king and equity triumphed over common law (the former until 1642, the latter into our own time), has been understood in various ways in historical and legal scholarship. One longstanding and continuing scholarly tradition looks at the characters of the principal personages involved. In this mode of analysis, historical and legal events are the product of the characters of prominent people. To Coke, for instance, has been ascribed a "personal ruggedness of character," a "crabbed and uncouth personality," an arrogance of bearing, and a narrowness of intellect; an anonymous letter to Coke after his dismissal called him a greedy "legal Tyrant" who "delight[ed] to speake much, but not to heare other men."(1) Lord Ellesmere, the Chancellor, had the "timidity of a man of his age, "was "obstinate and difficult," or was a tough-minded politician with "an ability to grasp problems and get the job done."(2) James I has been called variously "the wisest fool in Christendom" and "Great Britain's Solomon" - he, of course, invariably perceived himself as the latter. Most recently, Glenn Burgess has argued that "[Coke's] fall in 1616 had as much to do with an intransigent personality as with any differences between Coke, Bacon, Ellesmere, and James I on fundamental principles."(3) The stubbornness, strength, irascibility, and folly of these men become the great forces molding early modern history.

Such an approach does seem particularly relevant in accounting for certain moments in the events of 1616 - for instance, when James was able to call before him the common law judges, intimidating and coercing them into agreeing to consult him individually before rendering judgment in any case involving his prerogative. As S.R. Gardiner has written, "The sovereign was the dispenser of favours, and was capable of making his ill-will felt in many ways. When that sovereign was voluble and opinionative, it was hard for the judges, unless they were men of more than ordinary firmness, to hold their own in his presence."(4) Even Coke fell to his knees but, alone of all the judges, refused to acquiesce before the king's wrath.(5) Coke was eventually dismissed from office; his strength of personal resolve - or his obstinacy and inflexibility - in large measure brought about his downfall. In moments like this, character and personality appear as important, even decisive, factors in the outcome of major historical events.

Some years ago, early modern history began to stress the importance of human personality in a new, less grandiose way in the work of historians who found "the motor of political change in the day-to-day rivalries, the personal plots and factional intrigues that surrounded the person of the monarch."(6) Clannishness replaced great men. In this light, as one historian put it, a new picture was "slowly being built out of minute details," which indicate that the major legal and political issues of 1616 were the product of "a rift among those who opposed the powerful Howard faction."(7)

In its emphasis on actors driven by the forces of everyday life this brand of historiography bears some similarity - if in little else - to the work of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. Hill shows great respect for the revolutionary thought and character of those like Gerard Winstanley and John Milton. Concerning those closer to the center of monarchy or capital, however, Hill tells another story. For Hill, the early seventeenth century was a time of new-found wealth and influence for common lawyers and of a Chancery engaged in protecting the interests of landlords and big merchants. Thus, "the conflict of courts in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, of which we hear so much, was in part a struggle of rival groups of lawyers for the profitable business that was going on."(8) Legal theorists and practitioners within the status quo, if not revolutionary thinkers, became, in Marx's phrase, "personifications of economic relations. …

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