Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Sir Edward Coke’s Exceptions Against the High Sheriff’s Oath.

A curious fact will show the revolutionary nature of human events, and the necessity of correcting our ancient statutes, which so frequently hold out punishments and penalties for objects which have long ceased to be criminal; as well as for persons against whom it would be barbarous to allow some unrepealed statute to operate.

When a political stratagem was practised by Charles the First to keep certain members out of the House of Commons, by pricking them down as sheriffs in their different counties, among them was the celebrated Sir Edward Coke, whom the government had made High Sheriff for Bucks. It was necessary, perhaps, to be a learned and practised lawyer to discover the means he took, in the height of his resentment, to elude the insult. This great lawyer, who himself, perhaps, had often administered the oath to the sheriffs, which had, century after century, been usual for them to take, to the surprise of all persons drew up Exceptions against the Sheriff’s Oath, declaring that no one could take it. Coke sent his Exceptions to the attorney-general, who, by an immediate order in council, submitted them to “all the judges of England.” Our legal luminary had condescended only to some ingenious cavilling in three of his exceptions; but the fourth was of a nature which could not be overcome. All the judges of England assented, and declared, that there was one part of this ancient oath which was perfectly irreligious, and must ever hereafter be left out! This article was, “That you shall do all your pain and diligence to destroy and make to cease all manner of heresies, commonly called Lollaries, within your bailiwick, &c.”1 The Lollards were the most ancient of protestants, and had practised Luther’s sentiments; it was, in fact, condemning the established religion of the country! An order was issued from Hampton Court, for the abrogation of this part of the oath; and at present all high sheriffs owe this obligation to the resentment of Sir Edward Coke, for having been pricked down as Sheriff of Bucks, to be kept out of parliament! The merit of having the oath changed, instanter, he was allowed; but he was not excused taking it, after it was accommodated to the conscientious and lynx-eyed detection of our enraged lawyer.

1 Rushworth’s Historical Collections, vol. i. p. 199.

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