Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Domestic History of Sir Edward Coke.

Sir Edward Coke — or Cook, as now pronounced, and occasionally so written in his own times — that lord chief-justice whose name the laws of England will preserve — has shared the fate of his great rival, the Lord Chancellor Bacon; for no hand worthy of their genius has pursued their story. Bacon, busied with nature, forgot himself. Coke who was only the greatest of lawyers, reflected with more complacency on himself; for “among those thirty books which he had written with his own hand, most pleasing to himself was a manual which he called Vade Mecum, from whence, at one view, he took a prospect of his life past.” This manuscript, which Lloyd notices, was among the fifty which, on his death, were seized on by an order of council, but some years after were returned to his heir; and this precious memorial may still be disinterred.1

Coke was “the oracle of law,” but, like too many great lawyers, he was so completely one as to have been nothing else. Coke has said, “the common law is the absolute perfection of all reason;” a dictum which might admit of some ridicule. Armed with law, he committed acts of injustice; for in how many cases, passion mixing itself with law, summum jus becomes summa injuria. Official violence brutalised, and political ambition extinguished, every spark of nature in this great lawyer, when he struck at his victims, public or domestic. His solitary knowledge, perhaps, had deadened his judgment in other studies; and yet his narrow spirit could shrink with jealousy at the celebrity obtained by more liberal pursuits than his own. The errors of the great are as instructive as their virtues; and the secret history of the outrageous lawyer may have, at least, the merit of novelty although not of panegyric.

Coke, already enriched by his first marriage, combined power with added wealth, in his union with the relict of Sir William Hatton, the sister of Thomas Lord Burleigh. Family alliance was the policy of that prudent age of political interests. Bacon and Cecil married two sisters; Walsingham and Mildmay two others; Knowles, Essex, and Leicester, were linked by family alliances. Elizabeth, who never designed to marry herself, was anxious to intermarry her court dependents, and to dispose of them so as to secure their services by family interests.2 Ambition and avarice, which had instigated Coke to form this alliance, punished their creature, by mating him with a spirit haughty and intractable as his own. It is a remarkable fact, connected with the character of Coke, that this great lawyer suffered his second marriage to take place in an illegal manner, and condescended to plead ignorance of the laws! He had been married in a private house, without banns or licence, at a moment when the archbishop was vigilantly prosecuting informal and irregular marriages. Coke, with his habitual pride, imagined that the rank of the parties concerned would have set him above such restrictions. The laws which he administered he appears to have considered had their indulgent exceptions for the great. But Whitgift was a primitive Christian; and the circumstance involved Coke and the whole family in a prosecution in the ecclesiastical court, and nearly in the severest of its penalties. The archbishop appears to have been fully sensible of the overbearing temper of this great lawyer; for when Coke became the attorney-general, we cannot but consider, as an ingenious reprimand, the archbishop’s gift of a Greek testament, with this message, that “He had studied the common law long enough, and should henceforward study the law of God.”

The atmosphere of a court proved variable with so stirring a genius; and as a constitutional lawyer, Coke, at times, was the stern asserter of the kingly power, or its intrepid impugner; but his personal dispositions led to predominance, and he too often usurped authority and power with the relish of one who loved them too keenly. “You make the laws too much lean to your opinion, whereby you show yourself to be a legal tyrant,” said Lord Bacon, in his admonitory letter to Coke.

In 1616 Coke was out of favour for more causes than one, and his great rival, Bacon, was paramount at the council table.3 Perhaps Coke felt more humiliated by appearing before his judges, who were every one inferior to him as lawyers, than by the weak triumph of his enemies, who received him with studied insult. The queen informed the king of the treatment the disgraced lord chief-justice had experienced, and, in an angry letter, James declared that “he prosecuted Coke ad correctionem not ad destructionem;” and afterwards at the council spoke of Coke “with so many good words, as if he meant to hang him with a silken halter;” even his rival Bacon made this memorable acknowledgment, in reminding the judges that “such a man was not every day to be found, nor so soon made as marred.” When his successor was chosen, the Lord Chancellor Egerton, in administering the oath, accused Coke “of many errors and vanities for his ambitious popularity.” Coke, however, lost no friends in this disgrace, nor lost his haughtiness; for when the new chief-justice sent to purchase his Collar of SS., Coke returned for answer, that “he would not part with it, but leave it to his posterity, that they might one day know they had a chief-justice to their ancestor.”4

In this temporary alienation of the royal smiles, Coke attempted their renewal by a project, which, involved a domestic sacrifice. When the king was in Scotland, and Lord Bacon, as lord-keeper, sat at the head of affairs, his lordship was on ill terms with Secretary Winwood, whom Coke easily persuaded to resume a former proposal for marrying his only daughter to the favourite’s eldest brother, Sir John Villiers. Coke had formerly refused this match from the high demands of these parvenus. Coke, in prosperity, “sticking at ten thousand a year, and resolving to give only ten thousand marks, dropped some idle words, that he would not buy the king’s favour too dear;” but now in his adversity, his ambition proved stronger than his avarice, and by this stroke of deep policy the wily lawyer was converting a mere domestic transaction into an affair of state, which it soon became. As such it was evidently perceived by Bacon; he was alarmed at this projected alliance, in which he foresaw that he should lose his hold of the favourite in the inevitable rise once more of his rival Coke. Bacon, the illustrious philosopher, whose eye was only blest in observing nature, and whose mind was only great in recording his own meditations, now sat down to contrive the most subtle suggestions he could put together to prevent this match; but Lord Bacon not only failed in persuading the king to refuse what his majesty much wished, but finally produced the very mischief he sought to avert — a rupture with Buckingham himself, and a copious scolding letter from the king, but a very admirable one;5 and where the lord-keeper trembled to find himself called “Mr. Bacon.”

There were, however, other personages than his majesty and his favourite more deeply concerned in this business, and who had not hitherto been once consulted — the mother and the daughter! Coke, who, in every-day concerns, issued his commands as he would his law-writs, and at times boldly asserted the rights of the subject, had no other paternal notion of the duties of a wife and a child than their obedience!

Lady Hatton, haughty to insolence, had been often forbidden both the courts of their majesties, where Lady Compton, the mother of Buckingham, was the object of her ladyship’s persevering contempt. She retained her personal influence by the numerous estates which she enjoyed in right of her former husband. When Coke fell into disgrace, his lady abandoned him! and, to avoid her husband, frequently moved her residences in town and country. I trace her with malicious activity disfurnishing his house in Holborn, and at Stoke6 seizing on all the plate and moveables, and, in fact, leaving the fallen statesman and the late lord chief-justice empty houses and no comforter! The wars between Lady Hatton and her husband were carried on before the council-board, where her ladyship appeared, accompanied by an imposing train of noble friends. With her accustomed haughty airs, and in an imperial style, Lady Hatton declaimed against her tyrannical husband, so that the letter-writer adds, “divers said that Burbage could not have acted better.” Burbage’s famous character was that of Richard the Third. It is extraordinary that Coke, able to defend any cause, bore himself so simply. It is supposed that he had laid his domestic concerns too open to animadversion in the neglect of his daughter; or that he was aware that he was standing before no friendly bar, at that moment being out of favour; whatever was the cause, our noble virago obtained a signal triumph, and “the oracle of law,” with all his gravity, stood before the council-table hen-pecked. In June, 1616, Sir Edward appears to have yielded at discretion to his lady, for in an unpublished letter I find that “his curst heart hath been forced to yield to more than he ever meant; but upon this agreement he flatters himself that she will prove a very good wife.”

In the following year, 1617, these domestic affairs totally changed. The political marriage of his daughter with Villiers being now resolved on, the business was to clip the wings of so fierce a bird as Coke had found in Lady Hatton, which led to an extraordinary contest. The mother and daughter hated the upstart Villiers, and Sir John, indeed, promised to be but a sickly bridegroom. They had contrived to make up a written contract of marriage with Lord Oxford, which they opposed against the proposal, or rather the order, of Coke.

The violence to which the towering spirits of the conflicting parties proceeded is a piece of secret history, of which accident has preserved an able memorial. Coke armed with law, and, what was at least equally potent, with the king’s favour, entered by force the barricadoed houses of his lady, took possession of his daughter, on whom he appears never to have cast a thought till she became an instrument for his political purposes, confined her from her mother, and at length got the haughty mother herself imprisoned, and brought her to account for all her past misdoings. Quick was the change of scene, and the contrast was as wonderful. Coke, who, in the preceding year, to the world’s surprise, proved so simple an advocate in his own cause in the presence of his wife, now, to employ his own words, “got upon his wings again,” and went on as Lady Hatton, when safely lodged in prison, describes, with “his high-handed tyrannical courses,” till the furious lawyer occasioned a fit of sickness to the proud crest-fallen lady. “Law! Law! Law!” thundered from the lips of “its oracle;” and Lord Bacon, in his apologetical letter to the king for having opposed his “riot or violence,” says, “I disliked it the more, because he justified it to be law, which was his old song.”

The memorial alluded to appears to have been confidentially composed by the legal friend of Lady Hatton, to furnish her ladyship with answers when brought before the council-table. It opens several domestic scenes in the house of that great lord chief-justice; but the forcible simplicity of the style in domestic details will show, what I have often observed, that our language has not advanced in expression since the age of James the First. I have transcribed it from the original, and its interest must plead for its length.


10th July, 1617.


“Seeing these people speak no language but thunder and lightning, accounting this their cheapest and best way to work upon you, I would with patience prepare myself to their extremities, and study to defend the breaches by which to their advantage they suppose to come in upon me, and henceforth quit the ways of pacification and composition, heretofore and unseasonably endeavoured, which, in my opinion, lie most open to trouble, scandal, and danger; wherefore I will briefly set down their objections, and such answers to them as I conceive proper.

“The first is, you conveyed away your daughter from her father. Answer. I had cause to provide for her quiet. Secretary Winwood threatening that she should be married from me in spite of my teeth, and Sir Edward Cook dayly tormenting the girl with discourses tending to bestow her against her liking, which he said she was to submit to his; besides, my daughter daily complained, and sought to me for help; whereupon, as heretofore I had accustomed, I bestowed her apart at my cousin-german’s house for a few days, for her health and quiet, till my own business for my estate were ended. Sir Edward Coke never asked me where she was, no more than at other times, when at my placing she had been a quarter of a year from him, as the year before with my sister Burley.

“Second. That you endeavoured to bestow her, and to bind her to my Lord of Oxford without her knowledge and consent.

“Upon this subject a lawyer, by way of invective, may open his mouth wide, and anticipate every hearer’s judgment by the rights of a father; this, dangerous in the precedent to others; to which, nevertheless, this answer may be justly returned.

“Answer. My daughter, as aforesaid, terrified with her father’s threats and hard usage, and pressing me to find some remedy from this violence intended, I did compassionate her condition, and bethought myself of this contract to my Lord of Oxford, if so she liked, and thereupon I gave it to her to peruse and consider by herself, which she did; she liked it, cheerfully writ it out with her own hand, subscribed it, and returned it to me; wherein I did nothing of my own will, but followed hers, after I saw she was so averse to Sir Thomas Villiers, that she voluntarily and deliberately protested that of all men living she would never have him, nor could ever fancy him for a husband.

“Secondly. By this I put her under no new way, nor into any other than her father had heretofore known and approved; for he saw such letters as my Lady of Oxford had writ to me thereabouts; he never forbad it; he never disliked it; only he said they were then too young, and there was time enough for the treaty.

“Thirdly. He always left his daughter to my disposing and my bringing up; knowing that I purposed her my fortune and whole estate, and as upon these reasons he left her to my cares, so he eased himself absolutely of her, never meddling with her, neglecting her, and caring nothing for her.

“The Third. That you counterfeited a treaty from my Lord of Oxford to yourself.

“Answer. I know it not counterfeit; but be it so, to whose injury? If to my Lord of Oxford’s (for no man else is therein interested), it must be either in honour or in free-hold. Read the treaty; it proves neither! for it is only a complement; it is no engagement presently nor futurely; besides the law shows what forgery is; and to counterfeit a private man’s hand, nay a magistrate’s, makes not the fault but the cause: wherefore,

“Secondly, the end justifies — at the least, excuses the fact; for it was only to hold up my daughter’s mind to her own choice and liking: for her eyes only, and for no other’s, that she might see some retribution, and thereby with the more constancy endure her imprisonment, having this only antidote to resist the poison of that place, company, and conversation; myself and all her friends barred from her, and no person or speech admitted to her ear, but such as spoke Sir Thomas Villiers’s language.

“The fourth. That you plotted to surprise your daughter to take her away by force, to the breach, of the king’s peace and particular commandment, and for that purpose had assembled a number of desperate fellows, whereof the consequence might have been dangerous; and the affront to the king was the greater that such a thing was offered, the king being forth of the kingdom, which, by example, might have drawn on other assemblies to more dangerous attempts. This field is large for a plentiful babbler.

“Answer. I know no such matter, neither in any place was there such assembly; true it is I spoke to Turner to provide me some tall fellows for the taking a possession for me, in Lincolnshire, of some lands Sir William Mason had lately dis-seised me; but be it they were assembled and convoked to such an end, what was done? was any such thing attempted? were they upon the place? kept they the heath or the highways by ambuscades? or was any place, any day, appointed for a rendezvous? No, no such matter; but something was intended: and I pray you what says the law of such a single intention, which is not within the view or notice of the law? Beside, who intended this — the mother? and wherefore? because she was unnaturally and barbarously secluded from her daughter, and her daughter forced against her will, contrary to her vow and liking, to the will of him she disliked; nay, the laws of God, of nature, of man, speak for me, and cry out upon them. But they had a warrant from the king’s order from the commissioners to keep my daughter in their custody; yet neither this warrant nor the commissioners’ did prohibit the mother coming to her, but contrarily allowed her; then by the same authority might she get to her daughter, that Sir Edward Cook had used to keep her from her daughter; the husband having no power, warrant, or permission from God, the king, or the law, to sequester the mother from her own child, she only endeavouring the child’s good, with the child’s liking, and to her preferment; and he, his private end against the child’s liking, without care of her preferment; which differing respects, as they justify the mother in all, so condemn they the father as a transgressor of the rules of nature, and, as a perverter of his rights, as a father and a husband, to the hurt both of child and wife.

“Lastly, if recrimination could lessen the fault, take this in the worst sense, and naked of all the considerable circumstances it hath, what is this, nay, what had the executing of this intention been comparatively with Sir Edward Cook’s most notorious riot, committed at my Lord of Arguyl’s house, when, without constable or warrant, associated with a dozen fellows well weaponed, without cause being beforehand offered, to have what he would, he took down the doors of the gate-house and of the house itself, and tore the daughter in that barbarous manner from the mother, and would not suffer the mother to come near her; and when he was before the lords of the council to answer this outrage, he justified it to make it good by law, and that he feared the face of no greatness; a dangerous word for the encouragement of all notorious and rebellious malefactors; especially from him that had been the chief justice of the law; and of the people reputed the oracle of the law; and a most dangerous bravado cast in the teeth and face of the state in the king’s absence, and therefore most considerable for the maintenance of authority and the quiet of the land; for if it be lawful for him with a dozen to enter any man’s house thus outrageously for any right to which he pretends, it is lawful for any man with one hundred, nay, with five hundred, and consequently with as many as he draw together, to do the same, which may endanger the safety of the king’s person, and the peace of the kingdom.

“The fifth, that you having certified the king you had received an engagement from my Lord of Oxford, and the king commanding you, upon your allegiance, to come and bring it to him, or to send it him; or not having it, to signify his name who brought it, and where he was; you refused all, by which you doubled and trebled a high contempt to his majesty.

“Answer. I was so sick on the week before, for the most part I kept my bed, and even that instant I was so weak as I was not able to rise from it without help, nor to endure the air; which indisposition and weakness my two physicians, Sir William Paddy and Dr. Atkins, can affirm true; which so being, I hope his majesty will graciously excuse the necessity, and not impose a fault, whereof I am not guilty; and for the sending it, I protest to God I had it not; and for telling the parties, and where he is, I most humbly beseech his sacred majesty, in his great wisdom and honour, to consider how unworthy a part it were in me to bring any man into trouble, from which I am so far from redeeming him as I can no way relieve myself, and therefore humbly crave his majesty, in his princely consideration of my distressed condition, to forgive me this reservedness, proceeding from that just sense, and the rather, for that the law of the land in civil causes, as I am informed, no way tieth me thereunto.”

Among the other papers it appears that Coke accused his lady of having “embezzled all his gilt and silver plate and vessell (he having little in any house of mine, but that his marriage with me brought him), and instead thereof foisted in alkumy7 of the same sorte, fashion, and use, with the illusion to have cheated him of the other.” Coke insists on the inventory by the schedule! Her ladyship says, “I made such plate for matter and form for my own use at Purbeck, that serving well enough in the country; and I was loth to trust such a substance in a place so remote, and in the guard of few; but for the plate and vessell he saith is wanting, they are every ounce within one of my three houses.” She complains that Sir Edward Coke and his son Clement had threatened her servants so grievously, that the poor men run away to hide themselves from his fury, and dare not appear abroad. “Sir Edward broke into Hatton House, seased upon my coach and coach-horses, nay, my apparel, which he detains; thrust all my servants out of doors without wages; sent down his men to Corfe to inventory, seize, ship, and carry away all the goods, which being refused him by the castle-keeper, he threats to bring your lordship’s warrant for the performance thereof. But your lordship established that he should have the use only of the goods during his life, in such houses as the same appertained, without meaning, I hope, of depriving me of such use, being goods brought at my marriage, or bought with the money I spared from my allowances. Stop, then, his high tyrannical courses; for I have suffered beyond the measure of any wife, mother, nay, of any ordinary woman in this kingdom, without respect to my father, my birth, my fortunes, with which I have so highly-raised him.

What availed the vexation of this sick, mortified, and proud woman, or the more tender feelings of the daughter, in this forced marriage to satisfy the political ambition of the father? When Lord Bacon wrote to the king respecting the strange behaviour of Coke, the king vindicated it, for the purpose of obtaining his daughter, blaming Lord Bacon for some expressions he had used; and Bacon, with the servility of the courtier, when he found the wind in his teeth, tacked round, and promised Buckingham to promote the match he so much abhorred.8 Villiers was married to the daughter of Coke at Hampton Court, on Michaelmas Day, 1617 — Coke was re-admitted to the council-table — Lady Hatton was reconciled to Lady Compton and the queen, and gave a grand entertainment on the occasion, to which, however, “the good man of the house was neither invited nor spoken of: he dined that day at the Temple; she is still bent to pull down her husband,” adds my informant. The moral close remains to be told. Lady Villiers looked on her husband as the hateful object of a forced union, and nearly drove him mad; while she disgraced herself by such loose conduct as to be condemned to stand in a white sheet, and I believe at length obtained a divorce. Thus a marriage, projected by ambition, and prosecuted by violent means, closed with that utter misery to the parties with which it had commenced; and for our present purpose has served to show, that when a lawyer like Coke holds his “high-handed tyrannical courses,” the law of nature, as well as the law of which he is “the oracle,” will be alike violated under his roof. Wife and daughter were plaintiffs or defendants on whom this lord chief-justice closed his ear: he had blocked up the avenues to his heart with “Law! Law! Law!” his “old song!”

Beyond his eightieth year, in the last parliament of Charles the First, the extraordinary vigour of Coke’s intellect flamed clear under the snows of age. No reconciliation ever took place between the parties. On a strong report of his death, her ladyship, accompanied by her brother, Lord Wimbledon, posted down to Stoke-Pogis to take possession of his mansion; but beyond Colebrook they met with one of his physicians coming from him with the mortifying intelligence of Sir Edward’s amendment, on which they returned at their leisure. This happened in June, 1634, and on the following September the venerable sage was no more!

1 This conjecture may not be vain; since this has been written, I have heard that the papers of Sir Edward Coke are still preserved at Holkham, the seat of Mr. Coke; and I have also heard of others in the possession of a noble family. The late Mr. Roscoe told me that he was preparing a beautifully embellished catalogue of the Holkham library, in which the taste of the owner would rival his munificence.

A list of those manuscripts to which I allude may be discovered in the Lambeth MSS. No. 943, Art. 369, described in the catalogue as “A note of such things as were found in a trunk of Sir Edward Coke’s by the king’s command, 1634,” but more particularly in Art. 371, “A Catalogue of Sir Edward Coke’s Papers then seized and brought to Whitehall.”

2 Lloyd’s State Worthies, art. Sir Nicholas Bacon.

3 Miss Aikin’s Court of James the First appeared two years after this article was written; it has occasioned no alteration. I refer the reader to her clear narrative, ii. p. 30, and p. 63; but secret history is rarely discovered in printed books.

4 These particulars I find in the manuscript letters of J. Chamberlain. Sloane MSS. 4172, (1616). In the quaint style of the times, the common speech ran, that Lord Coke had been overthrown by four P’s — PRIDE, Prohibitions, Præmunire, and Prerogative. It is only with his moral quality, and not with his legal controversies, that his personal character is here concerned.

5 In the Lambeth manuscripts, 936, is a letter of Lord Bacon to the king, to prevent the match between Sir John Villiers and Mrs. Coke. Art. 63. Another, Art. 69. The spirited and copious letter of James, “to the Lord Keeper,” is printed in “Letters, Speeches, Charges, &c., of Francis Bacon,” by Dr. Birch, p. 133.

6 Stoke Pogis, in Buckinghamshire; the delightful seat of J. Penn, Esq. It was the scene of Gray’s “Long Story,” and the chimneys of the ancient house still remain, to mark the locality; a column on which is fixed a statue of Coke, erected by Mr. Penn, consecrates the former abode of its illustrious inhabitant.

7 A term then in use for base or mixed metal.

8 Lambeth MSS. 936, art. 69 and 73.

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