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The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold Paperback – October 9, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

In 1649, after Oliver Cromwell and his army had taken King Charles I prisoner, they had to decide what to do with him. The easiest option, according to a contemporary, was assassination, "for which there were hands ready enough to be employed." Instead, a lawyer named John Cooke was given the brief to prosecute him. (Other lawyers left town to dodge the job.) At the time, there was no language for what Charles was charged with: as king, he was the law, so prosecuting him seemed a logical absurdity. Robertson, a lawyer involved in the prosecutions of Augusto Pinochet and Saddam Hussein, credits Cooke with helping to make those proceedings possible; he "made tyranny a crime." But Cooke himself was executed after the monarchy was restored. His heart and genitals were fed to stray dogs, and his head, at King Charles II's direction, was displayed at the entrance to Westminster Hall.
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“Superb. . . . We owe Robertson a debt for reminding us of our benefactors and the price they paid.” —The Wall Street Journal“Fascinating. . . . The best account of these events to date. . . . A very major book, a persuasive reminder of the ongoing need to defend human rights and civil liberties. . . . Historical writing and legal writing at its best.” —Houston Chronicle“Scholarly and gripping. . . . The Tyrannicide Brief is not only a compelling history and legal thriller, but also a telling commentary for today.” —New York Law Journal Magazine

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (October 9, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307386376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307386373
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #894,637 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on October 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover
And who sits here that is not Richard's subject?

Shakespeare, Richard II, Act IV, Scene 1.

On October 11, 2006, Britain's House of Lords (a panel of Judges known as the "Law Lords" who serve as the British equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court) issued a ruling in the case of Jameel v. Wall St. Journal Europe. The Lords' decision radically altered Britain's libel laws and has been hailed as a remarkable victory for freedom of the press in Britain. The attorney who argued successfully on behalf of the newspaper was Geoffrey Robertson, Q.C. Mr. Robertson is also a noted human rights attorney who has been involved in cases involving Chile's General Pinochet, Malawi's Hastings Banda and other high profile cases involving crimes against humanity. Robertson has turned this expertise to good use in a well-written and timely book, "The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold". The Tyrannicide Brief examines the life of John Cooke, the attorney who created the legal theory that destroyed forever the right of kings to act with impunity from justice. Until 1649 the answer to Richard II's question was "no, there is no subject who can pass sentence upon a king." John Cooke changed that answer from no to yes and this is his story.

The story of John Cooke is little remembered and less understood. Cooke was a man of humble origins. Born in 1608, his father was a small Puritan farmer in Leicester who managed to gain a scholarship admission to Oxford at age 14 to study law. Robertson's account of Cooke's life and his practice of law is a fascinating one. Cooke was very radical for his day (as befitted his Puritan background). He railed against rampant corruption and cronyism in the legal profession and the justice system.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By DAVID BRYSON VINE VOICE on October 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on October 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John Cooke, who held progressive views of the law that were well ahead of his time and who was a key actor in the trial of King Charles I, is rightly rescued from the dusty corners of English history by the very knowledgeable Mr. Robertson. The heretofore forgotten Cooke emerges a fitting hero to all who believe in the rule of law.

I score this book high for both those interested in the general development of the law, those interested in the trial of King Charles I, and those looking for background in support of holding to account present-day political tyrants.

I do not have the knowledge to dispute the author's hostile view of some of the religious factions (such as Scottish Presbyterians) of that long ago day, but wholeheartedly agree with his condemnation---and John Cooke's---of the idea of a hereditary monarch (or tyrant of any stripe) ruling without restraint of earthly legislators and independent courts.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By lordhoot on December 12, 2007
Format: Paperback
John Cooke of 17th Century England, now that is a name most unknown to massive majority of Americans today and few who do, probably known him as "John Cook" and he wasn't well regarded by previous authors like Antonia Fraser, Charles Charlton or C.V. Wedgwood. But Geoffrey Robertson does great justice to him and this book is a biographical work on John Cooke (with the "e") and his greatest legal work, conviction of King Charles I of high treason against the people of his kingdoms. Of course, that conviction later cost Cooke his life when royal restoration came.

The author traces Cooke's life and interwoven it with the dramatic events of his lifetime, his services with Thomas Wentworth, the English Civil Wars, Cromwell's rule and finally at the end, restoration of Charles II. But the author took care stayed within the boundary of his subject. The author also made sure that Cooke wasn't just a "hack lawyer" as many of the previous historians made him out to be but someone who is ahead of his time in terms of legal reforms. Cooke appears to be a type of lawyer who took his profession very seriously. According to the author, he was the first to advocate the right to remain silence, to pro bono lawyers to help those who cannot afford one and to regard kingship in terms of office granted by the people instead of one anointed by God. Many of what Cooke initially advocated soon became part of our nation's Constitutional laws and legal system we enjoyed today.

The book reads very well and it well written. Obviously the author have done his homework and it clears up many of the misconceptions and little disregards that previous historians have given toward John Cooke, including the proper spelling of his name.
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