Edward Coke : biography

01 February 1552 - 03 September 1634

Attorney General

On 10 April 1594, Coke was made Attorney General for England and Wales thanks to his partnership with the Cecil family. Francis Bacon, his rival, was supported by Robert Devereux, who waged a constant war against Robert Cecil for control of the English government. The position of Master of the Rolls had become vacant in April 1593, and Coke was expected to be appointed according to convention; Bacon, therefore, would become Attorney General. Coke reacted by becoming even more dogmatic in his actions on behalf of the Crown, and when Devereux approached the queen on Bacon's behalf, she replied that even Bacon's uncle considered him the second best candidate, after Coke. The Attorney General was the main prosecutor of the Crown, expected to bring all charges on its behalf and serve as its legal advisor in any situation. Coke was appointed in a time of particular difficulty; besides famine and the conflict with Spain, war had recently broken out in Ireland.

Coke primarily dealt with matters of treason, such as the cases of Sir John Smythe and Edward Squire. He also handled religious incidents such as the disputes between the Jesuits and the Church of England, personally interrogating John Gerard after his capture. As the 1590s continued, the infighting between Cecil and Devereux persisted, with Devereux's raid on Cadiz earning him national fame. In March 1599 Devereux was sent to defeat the growing rebellion in Ireland and was given command of 18,000 men, but by November his army was reduced to 4,000, the rest "frittered away" in exchange for "[conquering] nothing". On 5 June 1600 he faced a panel of Privy Councillors, judges and members of the nobility at York House, where he was charged with appointing generals without the Queen's permission, ignoring orders and negotiating "very basely" with the leader of the rebel forces. While the members of the nobility wished to be gentle with Devereux, the lawyers and judges felt differently, recommending fines and confinement in the Tower of London. In the end a compromise was reached, with Devereux put under house arrest and dismissed from all his government offices.

Devereux immediately began plotting rebellion. Orders were sent out for "bedding" and "draperies" – codenames for weapons – and rebellious gentlemen gathered at Essex House to hear him talk of Elizabeth's "crooked mind and crooked carcass". In response, Coke and Cecil began a counter-plot. In 1599 Sir John Hayward had written and published The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie IV, dedicating it to Devereux. Elizabeth, furious, had banned the book, suggesting that it was a "seditious prelude" intended to show her as a corrupt and poor monarch. Against the backdrop of Devereux's plot, Coke and Cecil started a new investigation into the book, hoping to prove some involvement of Devereux in the publishing. Coke interviewed Hayward's licensing cleric, Samuel Harsnett, who complained that the dedication had been "foisted" on him by Devereux. In reaction, Coke decided to bring charges of treason against Devereux, saying that he had "plotted and practised with the Pope and king of Spain for the deposing and selling of himself as well as the crown of England ... His permitting underhand that treasonable book of Henry IV to be printed and published; it being plainly deciphered, not only by the matter, and by the epistle itself, for what end and for whose behalf it was made, but also the Earl himself being present so often at the playing thereof, and with great applause giving countenance to it".

The charges were never brought because of an incident that soon transpired. On 8 February 1601 Devereux ordered his followers to meet at Essex House. A day later a group of emissaries led by Thomas Egerton and John Popham were sent to Devereux, and immediately taken hostage. After a failed attempt to garner support from the population of London, Devereux found himself surrounded in Essex House; after burning his personal papers, he surrendered. On 19 February he was tried for treason, along with the Earl of Southampton. Coke led the case for the government, and Devereux was found guilty and executed; the Earl of Southampton was reprieved.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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