Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Coke’s Style, and His Conduct.

This great lawyer, perhaps, set the example of that style of railing and invective in the courts, which the egotism and craven insolence of some of our lawyers include in their practice at the bar. It may be useful to bring to recollection Coke’s vituperative style in the following dialogue, so beautiful in its contrast with that of the great victim before him! The attorney-general had not sufficient evidence to bring the obscure conspiracy home to Rawleigh, with which, I believe, however, he had cautiously tampered. But Coke well knew that James the First had reason to dislike the hero of his age, who was early engaged against the Scottish interests, and betrayed by the ambidexterous policy of Cecil. Coke struck at Rawleigh as a sacrifice to his own political ambition, as we have seen he afterwards immolated his daughter; but his personal hatred was now sharpened by the fine genius and elegant literature of the man; faculties and acquisitions the lawyer so heartily contemned! Coke had observed, “I know with whom I deal; for we have to deal to-day with a MAN OF WIT.”

COKE. Thou art the most vile and execrable traytor that ever lived.

RAWLEIGH. You speak indiscreetly, barbarously, and uncivilly.

COKE. I want words sufficient to express thy viperous treason.

RAWLEIGH. I think you want words indeed, for you have spoken one thing half-a-dozen times.

COKE. Thou art an odious fellow; thy name is hateful to all the realm of England for thy pride.

RAWLEIGH. It will go near to prove a measuring cast between you and me, Mr. Attorney.

COKE. Well, I will now make it appear to the world that there never lived a viler viper upon the face of the earth than thou. Thou art a monster; thou hast an English face, but a Spanish heart. Thou viper! for I thou thee, thou traitor! Have I angered you?

Rawleigh replied, what his dauntless conduct proved —“I am in no case to be angry.”1

Coke had used the same style with the unhappy favourite of Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex. It was usual with him; the bitterness was in his own heart as much as in his words; and Lord Bacon has left among his memorandums one entitled, “Of the abuse I received of Mr. Attorney-General publicly in the Exchequer.” A specimen will complete our model of his forensic oratory. Coke exclaimed —“Mr. Bacon, if you have any tooth against me, pluck it out; for it will do you more hurt than all the teeth in your head will do you good.” Bacon replied —“The less you speak of your own greatness, the more I will think of it.” Coke replied —“I think scorn to stand upon terms of greatness towards you, who are less than little, less than the least.” Coke was exhibited on the stage for his ill usage of Rawleigh, as was suggested by Theobald in a note on Twelfth Night. This style of railing was long the privilege of the lawyers; it was revived by Judge Jeffreys; but the bench of judges in the reign of William and Anne taught a due respect even to criminals, who were not supposed to be guilty till they were convicted.

When Coke once was himself in disgrace, his high spirit sunk, without a particle of magnanimity to dignify the fall; his big words, and his “tyrannical courses,” when he could no longer exult that “he was upon his wings again,” sunk with him as he presented himself on his knees to the council-table. Among other assumptions, he had styled himself “Lord Chief-Justice of England,” when it was declared that this title was his own invention, since he was no more than of the King’s Bench. His disgrace was a thunderbolt, which overthrew the haughty lawyer to the roots. When the supersedeas was carried to him by Sir George Coppin, that gentleman was surprised, on presenting it, to see that lofty “spirit shrunk into a very narrow room, for Coke received it with dejection and tears.” The writer from whose letter I have copied these words adds, O tremor et suspiria non cadunt in fortem et constantem. The same writer incloses a punning distich: the name of our lord chief-justice was in his day very provocative of the pun, both in Latin and English; Cicero, indeed, had pre-occupied the miserable trifle.

Jus condire Cocus potuit; sed condere jura

Non potuit; potuit condere jura Cocus.

Six years afterwards, Coke was sent to the Tower, and then they punned against him in English. An unpublished letter of the day has this curious anecdote:— The room in which he was lodged in the Tower had formerly been a kitchen; on his entrance, the lord chief-justice read upon the door, “This room wants a Cook!” They twitched the lion in the toils which held him. Shenstone had some reason in thanking Heaven that his name was not susceptible of a pun. This time, however, Coke was “on his wings;” for when Lord Arundel was sent by the king to the prisoner, to inform him that he would be allowed “Eight of the best learned in the law to advise him for his cause,” our great lawyer thanked the king, “but he knew himself to be accounted to have as much skill in the law as any man in England, and therefore needed no such help, nor feared to be judged by the law.”

1 State Trials.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/disraeli/isaac/curiosities/chapter218.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37