Page images
PDF
EPUB

credit by his sagacity in unravelling the dark scenes of the Gunpowder-Plot; and by his admirable management of the evidence against Sir Everard Digby, and the rest of the conspirators tried at Westminster June 27, 1605, and against Henry Garnett at Guildhall, on the twenty eighth of March following: His speech, indeed, upon the last trial many have considered as his master-piece.*

In the same year, he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of the Common-Pleas.t After holding this post for seven years with great reputation, he was in 1613 made Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, and sworn of his Majesty's Privy Council.

ral of his errors, and advised him to be duly humbled in his visitation,

But he was, upon all occasions, grossly scurrilous. He told Mrs. Turner, the celebrated introductress of yellow starch (who was hanged in a ruff of that colour, for having been concerned in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury) that she was guilty of the Seven Deadly Sins ; she was a we, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon, and a murtherer.' For farther proofs of his venomous acrimony, see the State-Trials, VII. 102., in the cause referred to p. 68. note (o). To all his abuse Ralegh only replied, that he spoke indiscreetly, barbarously, and uncivilly;' and that it became not a man of quality and virtue to call him so. That he did not, however, invariably deal in scurrility, appears from his blasphemously calling the Duke of Buckingham (afterward his bitter enemy) his. Saviour,' on his return from Spain.

* It seems surprising how Catholic writers, who are inclined to place tradition and even legendary history nearly on a level with Scripture, can deny the reality of this celebrated conspiracy.

+ The motto which he gave upon his rings, when he was called to the degree of Serjeant, in order to qualify him for this promotion, was Lex est tutissima cassis ; • The law is the safest helmet.'

His profound skill in the common law enabled him to discharge the duties of his new and most important station with eminent ability. On the bench, he was above corruption; and he had this saying frequently in his mouth, that 'a Judge should neither give nor take a bribe.” As Attorney General, he had frequently been too ready to support the despotic projects of James and his ministers: but the court now found him, as Chief Justice, no friend to arbitrary measures, or, as they were then called, to the royal prerogative.

In 1614 Mr. Peacham, a clergyman, was accused of treason, for having inserted several passages reflecting on the ministry, in a sermon never preached, nor ever intended to be made public! The King, who was beyond measure jealous on this head, fearing that he might either be acquitted or not condemned to a capital punishment, had ordered Bacon, his Attorney General, to sound the judges beforehand, and gather their opinions apart. Coke, however, absolutely refused to declare his; justly regarding this auricular taking of opinions' (for so he termed it) as new, and of pernicious tendency. It was, indeed, directly contrary to his own sound maxim, that “ he was a Judge in a court, and not in a chamber In a cause likewise of the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, to whom the King had granted a vacant church in commendam, the Chief Justice behaved with exemplary firmness and integrity. Serjeant Chiborne, who was counsel against the Bishop, in arguing the case had maintained several positions, which were deemed derogatory from

*

* Notwithstanding this however, Mr. Peacham, it appears, was tried and convicted of high-treason.

the King's supreme power, considered as distinct from his ordinary authority. Upon this James, by his Attorney General, ordered the Judges to stay proceedings, till they had consulted with himself. But they unanimously determined, that they could not obey this order; that the letter, which they had received from his Majesty, was contrary to law; that, by their oath and the duty of their places, they were bound not to delay justice ;* and that they should, therefore, proceed in the cause at the time fixed;' and of this they certified the King in a writing under all their hands. They received, in reply, from their offended Sovereign an angry letter, peremptorily commanding them to desist till his return to London. They were then summoned before the Council, and sharply reprimanded for having suffered the popular lawyers to question his prerogative; which was represented as “sacred and transcendent, not to be handled in vulgar argument.' At last, raising his voice to frighten them into submission, he put this question to them severally: “If at any time, in a case depending before the Judges, he conceived it to concern him either in profit or power, and thereupon required to consult with them, and that they should stay proceedings in the mean time, whether they ought not to stay them accordingly?' They all, the Chief Justice only excepted, acknowledged it to be their duty to do so. His answer deserves to be for ever remembered : " That, when such a case happened, he would do that which should be fit for a Judge to do.'

About this time, Sir Edward Coke having deter

* Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus rectum vel justitiam.

mined a particular case at common law, the plaintiff, who thought himself injured by his decision, applied to chancery for redress : the defendant disclaimed the authority of that court. In this he was supported by the Chief Justice, who threatened the Chancellor with a pramunire, grounded on a statute of 27 Edward III., for thus invading the limits of his jurisdiction. The King, who thought his prerogative struck at anew in this attack on the court of his absolute power,' as Bacon stiled it, brought the matter before the Council, who passed a censure upon the Chief Justice. Nor is this to be wondered at, as they could correctly infer their royal master's disposition from the hints which he had previously let fall in the Star-Chamber Court. « The mystery," said James, “ of the King's power is not lawful to be disputed; for such a dispute seems to weed into the weakness of sovereigns, and diminishes the mystical reverence of those that sit on the throne of God." To which he added the following advice to the judges: * Keep yourselves within compass; give me my right of private prerogative, I shall acquiesce. As for the prerogative of the crown, it is not for a lawyer's tongue, nor lawful to be disputed. It is atheism to dispute what God can do ; his revealed will ought to content us: so it is contempt in a subject, to dispute what a king can or cannot do. The law is his revealed will.” Thus did he, who in his first speech to his parliament after his accession declared himself only the chief servant of the state,' render his whole ignoble reign one continued struggle for power, disputing every inch of ground with his subjects, when they contended for their legal rights

against his idle claims of prerogative; and at the same time suffering the honour, as well as the rights of his crown to be insulted abroad, not only by the natural enemies of England, but also by her allies : leaving unpunished the most flagrant acts of depredation and cruelty, committed by foreigners on the persons and effects of his subjects, and yet prosecuting at home with unrelenting rigour all who presumed even to question his royal pleasure, although frequently opposed to the laws of the land.*

In 1615, when the King was deliberating upon the choice of a successor to Chancellor Egerton (Lord Ellesmere) Bacon, the personal and persevering enemy of Coke, cautioned him against giving the seals to the Chief Justice, as thereby he would put an over-ruling nature into an over-ruling place, which might breed an extreme, and blunt his industries in matter of finances, which seemed to aim at another place beside that popular men (he added) were no sure mounters for his Majesty's saddle.” The animosities between these two illustrious characters are well known. Coke was jealous of Bacon's reputation in many parts of knowledge, and was envied by him in return for the high reputation which he had acquired

Cake was the greatest lawyer of his time; but he could be nothing more.

If Bacon was not so,

in one.

* From an unpublished Imitation of the Eighth Satire of Juvenal, which has fallen under the Editor's eye, a spirited extract on the character of this Monarch (commencing with the Libera si dentur populo suffragia of the original) might be subjoined for the reader's amusement, Buchanan of course personates Seneca, and Charles I. is the Orestes of the passage.

« PreviousContinue »