Edward Coke : biography

01 February 1552 - 03 September 1634

During the 1580s, Coke became intimately linked with the Howard family, the Dukes of Norfolk and Earls of Arundel. His uncle Thomas Gawdy had close links to Earl Arundel himself. In Norfolk Arundel held a Liberty – he was essentially a local prince who appointed all officials, maintained his own prison, executed justice and bribed any royal clerks. His power was based around his household, particularly the network of lawyers and stewards who held his estates together. Coke's uncle Thomas Gawdy had served as Steward to the Third Duke of Norfolk, and during the 1580s Coke was employed by the Howards to counter lawyers employed by the Crown, who argued that the Howards' lands were forfeit owing to the treason of the 4th Duke. As well as defeating these direct attacks Coke travelled to Cardiff to answer a challenge by Francis Dacre, brother-in-law to Philip Howard – he proved that Dacre's evidence was false and had the case dismissed.

Coke became involved in the now classic Shelley's Case in 1581, which created a rule in real property that is still used in some common law jurisdictions today; the case also established Coke's reputation as an attorney and case reporter. His next famous case was Chudleigh's Case, a dispute over the interpretation of the Statute of Uses, followed by Slade's Case, a dispute between the Common Pleas and King's Bench over assumpsit now regarded as a classic example of the friction between the two courts and the forward movement of contract law; Coke's argument in Slade's Case formed the first definition of consideration.


Coke is best known for his written work – his thirteen volumes of law reports, and his four-volume Institutes of the Lawes of England. John Marshall Gest, writing in the Yale Law Journal, notes that "There are few principles of the common law that can be studied without an examination of Coke's Institutes and Reports which summed up the legal learning of his time", although "the student is deterred by the too common abuse of Coke's character and the general criticism of his writings as dry, crabbed, verbose and pedantic". John Campbell, in his The Lives of the Chief Justices of England, said that "His reasoning ... is narrow minded; [he had] utter contempt for method and style in his compositions", and says that Coke's Reports were "tinctured with quaintness and pedantry". Gest, noting this criticism, points out that:


frontispiece to the first volume of Coke's Reports (1600)|alt=The front cover of Coke's Reports. In the centre, the title of the book ("Les Reports de Edward Coke") with a large subtitle. Around the outside is a collection of images, all centred around a pair of pillars.]]

His Law Reports, known as Coke's Reports, were an archive of judgements from cases he had participated in, watched or heard of. They started with notes he made as a law student in winter 1572, with full reporting of cases from October 1579. The Reports were initially written down in seven notebooks, four of which are lost; the first notebook contains not only law reports, but also a draft version of Coke's first Institutes of the Lawes of England. Coke began reporting cases in the traditional manner, by copying out and repeating cases found in earlier law reports, such as those of Edmund Plowden. After being called to the Bar in 1578 he began attending court cases at Westminster Hall, and soon drew the attention of court officials – many early reports have notes that he was told "by old Plowden" or "by Wray CJ". The original reports were kept in a generally chronological order, interspersed with personal memos, obituaries and notes on court practices. They are not entirely chronological; during his career, Coke took note of earlier cases he had heard of or which had drawn his attention. These were written down with the plea roll reference and the year in which Coke recorded them, but later editions failed to include the plea roll reference and led to inaccuracies.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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