Edward Coke : biography

01 February 1552 - 03 September 1634

In June 1614, the University of Cambridge by unanimous vote elected Coke High Steward, honorary office next below Chancellor of the University. Through Cecil, (previously High Steward and then Chancellor of Cambridge), Coke had procured for the University the right to send its own two representatives to Parliament, a matter of much practical benefit. A fervent Cantabrigian, Coke had a habit of naming Cambridge first, including in Parliament. When reminded that precedence belonged to Oxford "by vote of the House," Coke persisted in giving Cambridge primacy. A Privy Councilor, Sir Thomas Edmondes, interrupted with a rebuke. It was reported that Coke suggested Edmondes not bother worrying about the primacy of Oxford or Cambridge, given that he had not attended either university.


Coke used his role in Parliament as a leading opposition MP to attack patents, a system he had already criticised as a judge. Historically, English patent law was based on custom and the common law, not on statute. It began as the Crown granted patents as a form of economic protection to ensure high industrial production. As gifts from the Crown, there was no judicial review, oversight or consideration, and no actual law developed around patents. To boost England's economy, Edward II began encouraging foreign workmen and inventors to settle in England, offering letters of protection that protected them from guild policy on the condition that they train English apprentices and pass on their knowledge. The letters did not grant a full monopoly; rather they acted as a passport, allowing foreign workers to travel to England and practice their trade. This process continued for three centuries, with formal procedures set out in 1561 to issue letters patent to any new industry, allowing monopolies. The granting of these patents was highly popular with the monarch because of the potential for raising revenue; a patentee was expected to pay heavily for the patent, and unlike a tax raise (another method of raising Crown money) any public unrest as a result of the patent was normally directed at the patentee, not the monarch.

Over time, this system became more and more problematic; instead of temporary monopolies on specific, imported industries, long-term monopolies came about over more common commodities, including salt and starch. These monopolies led to a showdown between the Crown and Parliament, in which it was agreed in 1601 to turn the power to administer patents over to the common law courts; at the same time, Elizabeth revoked a number of the more restrictive and damaging monopolies. Even given a string of judicial decisions criticising and overruling such monopolies, James I, when he took the throne, continued using patents to create monopolies. Coke used his position in Parliament to attack these patents, which were, according to him, "now grown like hydras' heads; they grow up as fast as they are cut off". Coke succeeded in establishing the Committee of Grievances, a body chaired by him that abolished a large number of monopolies. This was followed by a wave of protest at the patent system. On 27 March 1621, James suggested the House of Commons draw up a list of the three most objectionable patents, and he would remove them, but by this time a statute was already being prepared by Coke. After passing on 12 May it was thrown out by the House of Lords, but a Statute of Monopolies was finally passed by Parliament on 25 May 1624.

In response to both this and Coke's establishment of a sub-committee to establish freedom of speech and discuss the rights of the Commons, James announced that "you usurp upon our prerogative royal and meddle with things far above your reach". He first adjourned Parliament and then forbade the Commons from discussing "matters of state at home or abroad". Ignoring this ban, Parliament issued a "Remonstrance to the King" on 11 December 1621, authored by Coke, in which they restated their liberties and right to discuss matters of state, claiming that such rights were the "ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England". After a debate, it was sent to James, who rejected it; the Commons instead resolved to enter it into the Journal of the Commons, which required no royal authorisation. In the presence of Parliament, the king reacted by tearing the offending page from the Journal, declaring that it should be "razed out of all memories and utterly annihilated", then dissolved Parliament. Coke was then imprisoned in the Tower of London on 27 December, but released nine months later.

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