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Friday 2nd December, 2005

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Sorry end of the lawyer who dared to try a king

Barrister and MP Emily Thornberry is emotionally moved by a book about the lawyer who persuaded Parliament to chop off the head of Charles I

The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold by Geoffrey Robertson QC
Chatto and Windus, £20

Above: John Cooke is hung, drawn and quartered. Left: King Charles I

Charles I speaks to the crowd before his execution

SOME of the most pivotal figures in politics have been lawyers: Gandhi, Lenin and Nelson Mandela. John Cooke was an early product of that mould. He was a hero. He was brave, intelligent and principled.
Geoffrey Robertson’s book tells the story of how this son of a Leicestershire tenant farmer, stood in Westminster’s huge medieval Great Hall, before 60 black gowned judges, 120 soldiers with pikes and thousands of citizens and accused the king of England of high treason. It is full of drama. The trial itself is one of the highlights.
Cooke had just begun his case; in fact he’d only said two words, when the king, who was seated next to him, hit him with his cane, a walking staff with an ornate silver tip.
“Hold,” Charles commanded and rose to speak, poking the lawyer once more for extra emphasis. If Cooke had so much as faltered at this point, the whole audacious enterprise could have tumbled. He didn’t. He continued. The king hit him this time so hard that the top of the cane fell off and clattered onto the ground between the two men. They looked at each other. Charles indicated to Cooke to pick it up. The barrister ignored the king and continued with the words: “I do, in the name and on behalf of the people of England exhibit and bring into this court a charge of high treason and other high crimes whereof I do accuse Charles Stuart, King of England, here present.”
This seemed to bring the king to his senses. Robertson says that “the king seemed to shrink, into a small cranky prisoner with dirty hair”.
Charles then stooped and picked up the silver tip from the floor by Cooke’s feet. The assembled people gasped. It was seen as a sign. The king was finished.
He tells the story of the Civil War and how it cost one in 10 Englishmen their lives. The king’s behaviour was simply impossible, even whilst agreeing peace terms, the king was plotting the next battle.
He simply would not agree to work with Parliament and move beyond his belief in the Divine Right of Kings to rule in whatever way they pleased.
The book makes it clear that Charles was guilty as charged. Robertson argues convincingly that the execution of the king was necessary to establish the sovereignty of Parliament.
He plots the slow development of the idea at the time and how it gained ground. He also explains how Cooke was able to weave legal concepts together in a way that was brilliant and innovative and charge the king with treason.
He did this by building on the proposition that the occupant of the king’s office had to govern “by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise”.
This concept has of course reverberated down the centuries having its influence on the French and American revolutions and developed into the legal actions taken against Pinochet and Milosevic, where their claims to sovereign immunity when charged with killing their own people, were swept away.
The only question Robertson doesn’t really answer is why the king didn’t simply join the small but significant group of English and Scottish kings who were murdered when they became too troublesome.
The trial also finished Cooke. Many other more senior lawyers had fled town to avoid the brief. They knew, as Cooke did, that the chances of dying peacefully in one’s bed after prosecuting the King of England for treason were pretty minimal. When Charles’s son became king, Cooke was hung drawn and quartered. If you were ever in any doubt what that meant exactly, this book will enlighten you.
In fact Robertson can’t stop himself enlightening the reader on a very large number of topics and in some detail. If you buy the book you’ll learn whether in the considered opinion of the wife of a Gray’s Inn bencher, the wives of lawyers have a better sex life than the wives of threshers: page 75.
We are also told, in some detail, about the content of Cooke’s political pamphlets; the spell binding A Union of Hearts between the King’s most Excellent Majesty, the Right Honourable Lords and Commons in Parliament, His Excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax and the Army Under his Command; the Assembly and every Honest Man that Desires a Sound and Durable Peace, Accompanied with Speedy Justice and Piety.
There were times when reading this book when I felt that both Robertson and Cooke never shied away from 20 words when four would have done as well.
Robertson’s style shows throughout that he appreciates the importance of his book and expresses himself in the way that frequently makes me want to give many members of my former profession a slap.

Emily Thornberry is the MP for Islington South.

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