on 31 March 2006
Apart from anything else, this book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Geoffrey Robertson's style brings immediacy to the events he narrates and makes the book as enjoyable to read as if it were a well-written historical novel.
As other reviewers have noted, the book is blatantly anti-royalist, but since all history is written from a perspective, I think it is refreshing to find Robertson owning up to his perspective right from the title, which makes it obvious where his sympathies lie.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is a further perspective that Robertson brings, namely that of a lawyer. Seeing the trials of both Charles I and the regicides from the insider viewpoint of someone who is intimately familar with the law as opposed to most historians, who interpret events primarily from a political standpoint, brings all kinds of new insights to the interpretation. An independent judiciary, and one where lawyers must take any brief brought to them by a citizen, is an integral element in a functioning democracy and it is enlightening to read about some of the early developments in this direction, particularly those espoused by Cooke.
I would, however, definitely recommend balancing the views in this book with other sources on the civil war as there are certainly areas that are glossed over by Robertson in presenting his partisan point of view.
on 28 January 2006
I enjoyed reading this work, which gave dimension to a courageous radical who undoubtably had the courage of his convictions. Nevertheless, I had the feeling throughout that I was attending to partisan advocacy rather than reading a work of history.
I am not naive enough to expect any historian to be completely objective and disinterested, but this work makes no pretence of balance. Royalists are demonized and held to 21st- century standards of behaviour. Presbyterians are all double-dealing rogues, and only Puritan Independents emerge as admirable or even tolerable. At worst, their more aggressive deeds are judged by a 17th-century standard, a courtesy denied their opponents. In this regard, it is hard to accept the rationalization of the Drogheda massacre and yet swallow the concept of Charles I as the predecessor of Milosevic or Hussein.
The book is, as noted, interesting, and certainly Cooke deserves to be re-examined and re-evaluated. Nevertheless, this work needs to be viewed as pleading or advocacy, and as such be read critically in the context of other works dealing with the Civil War and Interregnum.
on 20 January 2016
Brilliantly written book in which, unusually, the immoral and psychotic monarch's overdue demise is overshadowed by the dignity and honesty of the people who dared to take on and, temporarily, defeat the mighty State which fed off that rotten institution.
John Cooke's brave words ring out over the centuries to drown out the lickspittles and braying imbeciles who still regularly fawn and grovel to Power in order to gain underserved status and meaningless, supposedly glittering baubles,
(Have a glance, if you can bear it,at Prime Minister's Questions and play 'Spot The Toady' start by counting the number of previously mediocre timeservers on the back benches now demanding to be called 'Sir' because they did . . what?)
on 23 March 2013
This biography is of a lawyer whose reputation was for years vilified or ignored. He had prosecuted a King and ensured the death of Charles I. My main caveat is not that this book is pro-republican, but that it does not seem to recognise that there were real problems with the whole trial process, and contemporaries, including radicals denounced it as a travesty of justice..
To try a king was unprecedented, and those determined on such a course were forced to resort to improvisation and expediency. What happened was not justice as the English knew it with a judge, a jury and in accordance with long-established law, but an ad hoc creation to deal with an otherwise insuperable problem: the fate of a king whose very existence posed a threat to the state.
Parliament did not pass legislation authorising the trial. It did not and it could not because it no longer existed, except in name. In a military coup on 6th December 1648, carried out by the aptly named Colonel Pride, the House of Commons had been `purged' of the 240 members who had supported negotiations with the king and who would have opposed any measures to indict him. The `Rump' that remained passed an `Ordinance' `in the name of the people of England' establishing a High Court of Justice for the purpose of trying the king for treason. Under the Ordinance 150 Commissioners were to be the jury, and the three chief justices of the common law were to be the judges. All three, however, although they were opponents of the king and had all been recently appointed, denounced the proceedings as manifestly illegal. So too would have their illustrious predecessor, Edward Coke. None of them would deign to participate in such a legal farce. The Lords rejected the measure unanimously.
Denied assent in the Lords, and deprived of judicial support, a handful of members left in the House of Commons decided to be a parliament unto themselves and passed another enactment, this time styled an `Act,' establishing the High Court of Justice. Even so the measure passed by a narrow majority of twenty six votes to twenty. This rump of the `Rump' purported to represent the will of the people of England. By this `Act' the Commissioners, now reduced to 135 by the elimination of the names of all the peers and others opposed to the proceedings, were reconstituted as the judges. They were to be presided over by a barrister of Gray's Inn, the little known and undistinguished John Bradshaw. He was no eminent judge nor leading jurist. His credentials for such a role seemed to have been limited to three: he had held a minor judicial office in Cheshire, he had publicly compared Charles to Nero, and he had remained in London.
The High Court of Justice thus established was not part of the common law. It was a special tribunal set up to try one man, the authority of which rested on that tiny portion of the Commons who had arrogated to themselves the `Supreme authority of this Nation' with full power to enact and declare law `although the consent and concurrence of the king and House of Peers might not be had thereunto.'
This in itself could be categorised as a tyrannical usurpation by the Commons, or by Cromwell and his military might. Many did so call it, and not just ardent monarchists. One radical demagogue by the name of John Lilburne denounced the trial as a plot by the `Grandees' and the `silent independent', Oliver Cromwell, to use the proceedings as a distraction from the more urgent problems of social reform. He feared that with the king removed by a process decreed by a truncated parliament, and held outside the common law courts, a worse tyranny would result.
This book, however, is well worth a read, and John Cooke is a legal figure well worth knowing about and not just for his participation in the king's trial. More objectivity, however, would have made it much better
on 3 January 2006
John Cooke was the barrister who prosecuted Charles l; he was also a man of great compassion, humanity and foresight, unusual for his time. Geoffrey Robertson is also a barrister and judge specialising in human rights and war crimes; only such a man could have written this long overdue and first biography of John Cooke, correcting some of the legal errors and misconceptions that have arisen over the years, often from Royalist propaganda. He tells the story of John Cooke's life against the background of the Civil War and its aftermath; this is no easy task and Professor Robertson does this with great skill producing a very informative and interesting biography. Thus the book can be easily read even if you have no prior knowledge of this period of history; other authors take note!
It will be observed that Geoffrey Robertson calls the book the Tyrannicide Brief not the Regicide Brief so that it is hardly surprising to find that this book is written from a republican point of view. Unlike other writers - even those writing from a neutral or republican standpoint - who also write about this period, he does not allow himself to be seduced by the whiff of Royalty. Thus the trial is analysed as being as fair as possible.
John Cooke was tortured to death at the restoration, the event being watched by the Merry Monarch for his entertainment. John Cooke's own trial is often described as 'not unfair'; however Geofferey Robertson shows that after fixing the jury and altersing the law beforehand this was hardly the case and is another example of how the Royalists have rewritten history.
on 23 October 2005
I have studied, taught and read extensively on this period for some 30 years and have always been dissatisfied when it came to accounts of Charles I's trial as well as the fate of the regicides. Geoffrey Robertson has researched his subject exceptionally well and has brought to bear his legal expertise in assessing the legality of the trial of both the king and the regicides. He offers a corrective to the views of many historians who have taken a pro royalist line in their interpretation of events. It is also refreshing to see his criticism of the many hypocrites who switched sides during the period from the Civil War to the Restoration. He has restored a number of principled people to their rightful place in history, particularly John Cooke who is the central figure in this book. Cooke, a radical and reforming lawyer, made a greater contribution to the legal and civil liberties of this nation than Charles and his ilk ever did. This book is a pleasure to read and a significant addition to studies of this period. Highly recommended.
Around the turn of the 17th century, Wadham College was founded at Oxford for the gifted sons of poor but respectable parents. Its high-profile alumni from this period included Admiral Blake who achieved spectacular victories during Cromwell's reign. It also welcomed, at the age of 14, John Cooke, later the prosecuting counsel who secured the conviction of King Charles I.
Geoffrey Robertson has a long and distinguished record as a barrister in the field of human rights, and in this book he turns constitutional historian to raise awareness of the significance of Cooke for English legal history. It is startling to realise that the only written constitution England has ever had was a republican one, for the duration of Cromwell's Protectorate 1649-1660. Its roots were shallow, and its fate was sealed with the death of Cromwell himself during a ferocious storm in 1658, widely touted as an omen. Nevertheless the law and polity of England under the Stuart kings were a sickening morass. James I, founder of the dynasty, had indoctrinated his son Charles from boyhood with the doctrine of Divine Right, under which the monarch was allegedly above the law. This convenient theology was understood by Charles literally and unquestioningly. He did not even pretend to think that his agreements were binding on himself, he was unencumbered by scruples in the matter of raising taxation, he was indifferent to the death of one in every ten of his male subjects in the civil wars that he incited, and when pressed on such matters at his trial he asserted sublimely that he embodied the security of his people, whatever this concept may have conveyed to him.
At the same time the legal profession was deeply corrupt. Enforcement of the criminal law was ineffective, but political and religious speech-crimes were punished savagely, as was debt. A career in the law was a path to self-enrichment (autres temps, autres moeurs) and the privileged classes viewed humble birth and lack of patronage as not far short of a crime either. The Magna Charta and the statute of habeas corpus however were always there in the background, and a characteristically English fiction attributed royal offences against these to the King's ministers, the King being of course out of legal reach, or so Charles argued. Against such a background Robertson paints in a man of modest demeanour but high talent and total incorruptibility for whom religion went hand-in-hand with rationality and fairness; a man also, to his ultimate undoing, who could not and would not hold his tongue.
Robertson writes as an advocate. He is not trying to rescue Cooke's reputation, Cooke having very little reputation in the first place. Certainly, if Cooke had significant character-defects we don't read about them here and he emerges as a bit of a saint. However the basic objective seems to be to argue for Cooke's unrecognised importance in the precedents he set. English common law is all based on case-law and precedent. I'm not myself clear to what extent Cooke's judgments 'stuck' for posterity, but at the least he is presented as having a mind-set ahead of his time. A liberal lawyer of our era has recognised a kindred spirit in a less enlightened age. Indeed some of Cooke's views verge on welfare socialism with legal aid for the poor and something like a health service. Unsurprisingly, this did not make him popular with everyone. Giving judgments in favour of tenants in Ireland didn't endear him to the rapacious landlords whose ideas of their own rights in this matter were the mirror-image of the King's. Belief in religious tolerance upset those who had recruited the Creator of Heaven and Earth to their own vested interest or at least to their own ideas of how He ought to see the matter. The Protectorate was certainly an improvement on the Stuarts in the matter of basic fairness, but Cooke was always a bit of a loner, and to stigmatise him as 'radical' (on top of his obscure origins) was condemnation enough for the self-complacent and partisan.
Cooke's rigid belief in due legal process led him to accept as his duty the prosecution of the King when barristers of greater eminence wisely took cover. Robertson recounts the trial as a professional and connoisseur, and trials make good drama. Charles was well advised, and it is beyond a legal layman to judge of the legitimacy of the arguments by which Cooke prevailed. Trials under the Stuarts, with their packed, suborned and bullied juries and their rigging of the law, are a clear affront to ordinary human notions of equity, but it's hard to see that the King's trial was any model of modern rectitude or process either, and Robertson seems to me to sail perilously close to arguing 'That's just the way it had to be'. His prejudices are basically mine too, but that is not really the issue. The doctrine that national leaders are above the law was later re-enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia, and it took new legal ingenuity to get around that when it came to the post-WWII trials. Indeed at the trial of the Japanese leaders the Indian judge dissented from all the guilty verdicts as being victors' justice.
Part of Robertson's own self-brief is to measure Charles's trial against those of modern monsters. How the trial of Saddam Hussein may conclude is anyone's guess, but convention in 1649 dictated that if the prisoner refused to enter a plea that was equated with admission of guilt, and this cramped Cooke's style. Robertson rightly commends my late dear friend Richard May for directing a plea of not-guilty to be recorded when Milosevic took the same line of refusing to recognise the court, but faults him for allowing an indictment so long that the trial promised to go on indefinitely, this being an error that the King's judges had avoided. Pinochet may be too old and gaga to stand trial, but at least the concept of immunity for a head of state seems to have been rejected in his case too.
It makes an excellent read for a layman. The print is rather small but my eyesight is excellent through no merit of mine. Proof-reading in general is good, although 'elemental' has crept in for 'elementary' at one point, as well as the solecisms (now wearily familiar) of 'beseeched' for 'besought' and 'wreaked' for 'wrought'. Oxford has a Christ Church but no 'Christchurch College', Ormonde alternates with Ormond, and was the lover of Mary Queen of Scots Riccio or Rizzio? The book is patently fair, and the partisanship, though obvious, is rational. How it will all play out for the next putative King Charles I can't tell, but I suggest this book for his reading list.
on 19 October 2005
Geoffrey Robertson's life of John Cooke is one of the most engaging books I have read on the Seventeenth Century.
Robertson has researched his subject throughly, but as you might perhaps expect from a top barrister, he wears his learning lightly and presents the story with wit and style.
It is particularly timely because this era was decisive for the development of civil liberties in Britain, as Robertson shows.
Men like Cooke risked their lives to hold authority to account. Their reputations deserve to be rescued from the aspersions cast on them by royalist historians.
The Tyrannicide Brief succeeds in that task admirably.
on 7 August 2016
Excellent book that clarifies the complex politics of the English Civil War. It is really well researched and reads like a novel. The introduction lays out how Charles I could have saved his life by coming to terms with his political opponents. I think seeing alternative behaviours and the free will of individuals are very much of a lawyer's views of humanity otherwise blame and punishment would have no meaning. But could a man like Charles ever have come to terms with people whose religion and politics he despised? Especially when they too believed they had God on his side.
on 29 December 2005
This is an excellent book. I studied the English Civil War at school, and have since dipped back into that period. However, this book has helped greatly to widen my understanding of the significance of the period, both in historical and constitutional terms. It is an excellent example of why ultimately, history can best be understood only through detailed analysis. It is far better than more general accounts of the mid-late 17th Century.
The book dispels myths - for example, that the outcome of King Charles's trial was inevitable and pre-ordained (clearly, it was not), or that those who participated in the trial merit only passing mention in accounts of the Restoration. The contrast between the King's trial and that of the "regicides" makes chilling reading.
More than this, it is a book is about principle - John Cooke's deeply held - and, for its time, radical - conviction that the law must apply fairly to all, irrespective of background, status or means. Last, but not least, it explains the background to the Civil War and why finally, as the situation between King and Parliament deteriorated and reached an impasse, there was little real option but to fight. I wish there were more books of this quality.