33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
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. He created the first lawyer's code of ethics (although not accepted during his lifetime and for centuries to follow) whose basic principles now form the bedrock of legal codes of ethics in both Britain and the United States. He sought reform of a criminal justice system in which the rich could `buy' justice and in which the poor were routinely tossed into debtor's prison simply at the swearing out of a complaint. He was the first attorney (to my knowledge) to suggest that attorneys owed the public an obligation to work for free on behalf of the poor and indigent. Needless to say Cooke's theories of ethics did not sit well with his colleagues at the bar. The rump parliament that sat during the period of Cromwell's rule was dominated by lawyers (indicating how little things have changed in Britain and the U.S. in the last 350 years) quashed virtually all of Cooke's attempts to reform the profession and the criminal and civil justice system.
Cooke was also a strong supporter of Cromwell and the Puritan revolt against the Charles I. Charles I led a series of bloody civil wars against the Parliamentary forces that challenged Charles I's right to absolute rule. These civil wars caused the death of approximately 10% of Britain's adult males. It was a bloody time. Eventually. Cromwell and his supporters determined that the only way to end the civil wars was to put Charles I to trial. When it came time to select a prosecutor Cooke was the only one who didn't duck for cover. He accepted the brief. Cooke based his brief on the grounds that tyranny was not a right of rulers but a crime against the ruled.
After providing the reader with some sense of John Cooke and his times, Robertson turns to the trial itself. In the hands of Robertson the trial of Charles I in 1649 is conveyed in a narrative that is as compelling as it is informative. As might be expected from an experienced advocate Robertson makes a strong case for the fairness of the trial. I might quibble with the term fairness as it is commonly understood in today's justice system but I cannot argue with the point that Charles I's trial was fairer than those common at the time.
Next, Robertson recounts Cooke's life during the period of Cromwell's rule until the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. When Charles II was proclaimed king of England on May 2, 1660 the new king set about arresting and trying those `radical elements' that deposed, tried, and executed his father. Cooke was amongst those arrested and his trial and execution forms the centerpiece of the last part of Tyrannicide Brief. While the fairness of Charles I's trial is debatable the unfairness of Cooke's trial is certainly not. If Cooke's theory of the case set a precedent for future generations of human rights cases, Cooke's own trial set a precedent for the type of show trial favored by Stalin in the 1930s. Cooke was tried, sentenced, and executed in a particularly grisly fashion.
Robertson closes the book with a brief but compelling epilogue in which he discusses the contemporary relevance of the trials of Charles I and Cooke. It is at once well written and thought provoking.
Robertson's Tyrannicide Brief performs two valuable services. First, it sheds light on a lesser-known or misunderstood aspect of `history'. Second, it provides the reader with information that enables him/her to examine contemporary events (for example the Nuremberg trials, the trial of Milosevic or Saddam Hussein) with a greater understanding of the legal and political forces involved in those events. The fact that these two services are presented in a style that is literate, entertaining and informative for both academics and the general reader (such as this reviewer) makes the book an invaluable addition to the public record. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified 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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2007
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. Core of the book is the trial of King Charles I and its an excellent narrative far above the only other book that I read on the subject, authored by C.V. Wedgwood. He was a die-hard Puritan but made his reputation as fair-minded and very knowledgeable. He wasn't very famous nor rich or well connected, ironically nobody really know what he even looked like after his death since no one thought Cooke was worthy enough to paint his likeness. This book provides a lot of useful and new information to anyone interested in British history.
The book highly recommended for anyone interested along this subject area. However, I strongly recommended that you should have a good background on the time period before reading it since the subject of the book is rather specific in nature and having a good background knowledge of the reign of Charles I, the civil wars and all that really helped enhance your understanding of the book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Geoffrey Robinson, a British jurist and worlwide advocate for human rights, has produced a gripping biography of a man largely ignored by history, John Cooke, a barrister selected by Parliament to prosecute the deposed and imprisoned king, Charles I. In pressing his case, Cooke broke new legal ground, arguing that rulers derive their power, not from God, but from the people they rule. And following from this, rulers can be called to account, deposed, and punished if they rule tyrannically. In this case, and in his subsequent juridical career, Cooke is shown to have been farsighted and fair. His patriotism, his concern for human rights, and his integrity gained him no protection from Stuart wrath, however, after the Restoration, and the terrible payment they exacted from him is detailed, almost too vividly, in the final pages of the book. Still, the principles he espoused are today the recognized rights of Englishmen, are enshrined in the American Constitution, and are slowly becoming part of international law, as Sadaam Hussein recently learned.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2008
I confess: I like the way Geoffrey Robertson thinks and the way he writes even if I don't always agree with his conclusions. This book is a great read.
If you can suspend your knowledge of the history (and any associated bias) and look at the events through the perspective of the law, then this is a wonderful fresh look at the legal issues uncovered/exposed by these events.
This book is not just about the events of 17th century England. The issues discussed reverberate today in the trials of modern war criminals and leaders.
Highly recommended to all who have an interest in history, the law and contemporary international events.
Note: I first published this review in April 2006 for the hardcover version of the book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2007
Robertson displays the skills of a jurist, historian and writer all in one. A masterfully compiled, well written, and brilliantly presented analysis of John Cook, what is known of his life, as well as the time in which he lived (and, sadly), died.
A highly informative book, captivating from beginning to end, and full of modern day references that help to understand the fundamental impact some of the thoughts, actions and writings of John Cook had.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2010
Were the Nuremburg Trials and the war crimes trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein predicated on the legal precedent of English Puritanism? When Nuremburg brought Nazi War criminals to justice for "crimes against humanity" it introduced a new jurisdiction - that of international criminal law. Today the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or World Court sits at The Hague to bring tyrants like Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet to justice. In this fascinating book Australian-born British barrister and human rights advocate, Geoffrey Robertson, posits that the ICJ's institutional predecessor was the 17th Century English Parliament's '"High Court of Justice" that brought King Charles I to the block. At center stage of this political-legal drama was the unsung hero and largely forgotten John Cooke, a devout Puritan and the prosecutor at Charles' trial for treason. Never before had a ruler been publicly tried and convicted of tyranny, treason, and murder. With forensic skill Robertson offers the first ever biography of Cooke and breaks new historical ground in understanding how the lawful means of ending the impunity of a tyrant was accomplished. Cooke's legal genius, commitment to the rule of law, and biblical ideals of justice is illuminating. Today's amazing parallels of modern legal practice for war-crimes cases suggest that Cooke was ahead of his time. Yet more than a biography this book is an excellent and comprehensive history of England's short-lived republic. Royal absolutism was at issue in the English Civil Wars. The fundamental rights of the Magna Charta were in jeopardy. Robertson skillfully interweaves Cooke's life with those of Cromwell and Clarendon, Milton and Monck, Sidney and Strafford. Just over a century later these same rights would be at risk on the fringe of the British Empire provoking another civil war dating from 1775-1783. The outcome of that later war was an independent American republic.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2014
Geoffrey Robertson’s is the most up to date and possibly the most complete account of the trial of Charles I. It was written in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussain were both awaiting trial for war crimes. The author is a leading human rights barrister, and a campaigner who took the view both that the invasion was unlawful under international law, although Saddam deserved, morally, to be overthrown, and ought to have been tried (in an appropriate forum) for tyranny. His view of the trial of Charles I is that of a radical – that the trial established important principles of lasting importance. He is very dismissive of the Whig view that it was the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which truly secured the liberties of the English (he calls that Revolution ‘constitutional milksoppery’). Accordingly, he sees the central event of 1649 as winning parliamentary sovereignty, judicial independence, no taxation without representation and no detention without trial. I would say almost all of this is wrong; but the more important point is the way in which Robertson’s politics affect his view of the law and of the trial itself.
In his attempt to portray that trial as unprecedented but lawful, Robertson emphasizes the legal niceties which were observed: the fact that the Rump Parliament and the Army agreed to put Charles on trial at all – rather than simply murder him, or subject him to court martial; the fact that he was tried in public and given the opportunity (which he rejected) of defending himself, having counsel and testing the evidence. None of these opportunities was afforded to the accused after 1660, when the regicides (including Robertson’s hero John Cooke) were dealt with in a very summary and to our minds illegal fashion.
But, when it comes to other, perhaps more fundamental, legal aspects of the trial, Robertson seems blind to the most obvious injustices. Thus Charles objected to the jurisdiction of the court itself. He was not allowed to pursue that argument, because he was required to plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ and, when he refused to do so, the court took that as a guilty plea (this much at least was in accordance with precedent). But Charles had several good points here: that the court had been established by the House of Commons alone, and even then by a House of Commons shorn of the ‘Presbyterian’ opposition; that the House of Commons was not the same as Parliament and had never purported to act as either legislature or judicature on its own before. In short, Robertson justifies the trial on the basis that the regicides did – that they were acting on behalf of the people; but the truth is as Lady Fairfax said, that they were only acting on behalf of some of the people, and possibly a small number. Others regarded them simply as usurpers.
As for the charges, Charles never addressed these directly; but it seems that he had a very good defence to these two. High treason? He could say that this had always involved some attack on the person of the King, or those close to him. Murder/war crimes? He had been not only the commander in chief but the sovereign at the time; and sovereign immunity was always recognised in international law – as Robertson points out – until the last of the Pinochet judgments was handed down in the House of Lords in 1999. Lastly, ‘tyranny’. Robertson is clear that this was not an offence when Charles allegedly committed it: it became an offence because the Rump made it one, in 1649. To try Charles for this would be retrospective penalisation, which is contrary to common law and now prohibited by Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Here again therefore, Robertson seeks to justify the charges and thereby his hero John Cooke, when he knows full well that he is arguing for what the law ought to have been, not what it was.
The argument here is powerfully presented - the author is one of the UK's leading barristers; but in the final analysis, this is a very biased account. The critique of Charles I stands in sharp contrast to the extravagant praise heaped on John Cooke, the lawyer who accepted the so-called tyrannicide brief. Such praise may be deserved, if one looks only at Cooke’s career, and his ghastly execution in 1660; but it should not be asserted that he was alone in arguing for the rule of law, or indeed that the revolutionaries alone had fundamental law on their side.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
For a long time, I have been world weary of contemporary historians who time and again sell the truth of a period for a mess of pottage. The Tyrannicide Brief was written by lawyer and judge, Geoffrey Robertson, who has researched a brilliant history of the time of the Commonwealth in England, which has been horribly treated for the last 347 years.
His main focus is on the lawyer, John Cooke, who accepted his Parliamentarian assignment to try King Charles I, who indeed started the English Civil War and conspired with foreign interests.
Robertson gives a well researched history of the conflict that lead up to the king's trial (Robertson concurs that he was guilty) and the life of Cooke.
He also treats the many histories that have mostly provoked against the Parliamentarians who stood up to the task. He also clears up some historical errors, like the fact that the Parliamentarian Army did not wholesale murder Irish citizens, but took Drogheda against English officers according to the rules of war; and that Irish subjects were treated with the best English judgement under the Commonwealth judge Cooke, who also did not imprison debtors, but instead ordered them to pay the debt by installments, a form of legal sentencing of the poor that would take centuries to recapture, following the malicious court of the conspiring villain king and son of Charles I, Charles II, who tried to subvert his country at the secret Treaty of Dover to Louis XIV of France.
It is atrocious to see how conscientious men had and have suffered in history at the hands of antagonists. This is an important study concerning the Good Old Cause.
While I like the thoughtfulness of Robertson's application of this study of jurisprudence against tyranny, I think it is difficult to apply the traditions and common law of a sovereign state in an international context (i.e. part of the problem of enforcing democracy in Muslim nations) as he does at the end of the book. Nevertheless, his legal thoughts on the state of modern tyranny need to be considered in an increasingly complex world of law and culture. From an American perspective, I think one should also consider the thoughts of John and John Quincy Adams on the difficulties of that subject.
Robertson is rigorous in his historical analysis which is quite rare today. Perhaps historians should study law to write history.
If you want to add an authoritative text to your library, choose this one.