|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
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.
Above: John Cooke is hung, drawn and quartered. Left: King
Charles I speaks to the crowd before his execution
Geoffrey Robertsons book tells the story of how this son of
a Leicestershire tenant farmer, stood in Westminsters 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
Cooke had just begun his case; in fact hed 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 didnt. 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
Charles then stooped and picked up the silver tip from the floor
by Cookes 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 kings 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
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 kings 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 doesnt really answer is why the
king didnt simply join the small but significant group of
English and Scottish kings who were murdered when they became too
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 ones bed after prosecuting
the King of England for treason were pretty minimal. When Charless
son became king, Cooke was hung drawn and quartered. If you were
ever in any doubt what that meant exactly, this book will enlighten
In fact Robertson cant stop himself enlightening the reader
on a very large number of topics and in some detail. If you buy
the book youll learn whether in the considered opinion of
the wife of a Grays 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 Cookes
political pamphlets; the spell binding A Union of Hearts between
the Kings 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
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
Robertsons 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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