Roger writing the LAWmag
Aug 2011

The Secret Life of Edward Coke

Except for the rare student of the common law such as those sitting in on Legal History 101 at Cambridge or Oxford law schools, one would hardly know of Edward Coke (1552-1634 - see biography here). And yet, in the history of the common law, he is the most influential of them all. His career shaped the law, and in retirement, his Reports and 4-volume Institutes carried that law until William Blackstone's Commentaries.

But even in Legal History 101,  and in typical British discreetness when it comes to the lives of their peers, you would never be told the half of it when it came to Edward Coke and his life away from the law.

Coke sparred constantly with his nemesis Francis Bacon. Bacon was more eloquent and a well-rounded philosopher, and also not one to be omitted from our imaginary tabloid as he was arrested for insolvency and married a 14-year old.

Edward Coke is not all fee tail and tenancies by the entireties. The personal life of few other legal icons compares to his.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton

Elizabeth Hatton was the granddaughter of England's then Minister of finance William Cecil, often referred to as Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's most senior minister.

When Hatton was suddenly widowed in 1597, her wealth and eligibility was not lost on two up-and-coming lawyers. Coke had lost his own wife Bridget in June of 1598. Francis Bacon was poor and saw gold and advancement in the wooing of Liz Hatton.

The two suitors went at it with a vengeance.

Coke in the newsJust how old Elizabeth Hatton was in 1598 will always be a mystery as a variety of credible sources set her birth-year as between 1574 and 1578. Quite possibly, then, she was as young as 20 years old when she was courted by the then 46-year old Edward Coke, a widower with eight children (Bacon eventually married a 14-year old, Alice Barnham, in 1606).

Since 1594, Coke had been Elizabeth's Attorney General, having beaten out the other candidate, Francis Bacon.

When Lord Burghley died on August 4, 1598, Hatton's fortune was increased by her dead husband's share. That sealed the deal for Coke; he proposed days later. She accepted. In November of 1598, the rich, young widow, Lady Hatton married Edward Coke even though the marriage broke the law as it was done without a license.

Hatton shocked society by marrying such an old man and so soon after her new husband's previous wife's death. Further, she retained her own name of Hatton. Something almost seemed odd in all this. One writer cut to the chase:

"Coke's second wife, Elizabeth ... was with child when he married her...."1

A child was born to Elizabeth Hatton but even when the couple announced it in August 1599, the rumours could not be quelled even though the date of birth suggested it was legitimate.

The Rack: Torture

As Attorney General, Edward Coke had no reservations about using torture to expedite confessions.

Common law historians often speak with hypocrisy against the horrific punishments used by the Spanish Inquisition after conviction but point out, as if it made some kind of difference, that this was somehow morally different from the investigative torture rampant in Middle Ages England.

Edward Coke participated in every horrible way in the administration of the rack on many prisoners to extract confessions or the names of suspected co-conspirators. Henry Walpole, a Jesuit priest, was racked in 1594 and 1595 and once convicted, sentenced to death by being drawn and quartered. Another Jesuit priest, John Gerard was racked repeatedly in 1597 while being questioned by Edward Coke. Guy Fawkes was so badly tortured in 1605 after the failed Gunpowder Plot, that he could barely climb the scaffold to his own execution.

All under the watch of Edward Coke, Attorney General to the Crown of England.

More Francis Bacon

The two protagonists had words on several occasions, mostly duly noted by observers. One occasion was a skirmish in Exchequer Court in which Bacon was the loser. Bacon retreated to his office and wrote Coke a letter admonishing him for having taken the "liberty to disgrace and disable my law, my experience, my discretion."

But in 1613, with Coke sitting as Chief Justice, the new Attorney General, Francis Bacon appeared before him. Coke sensed that Bacon was stoking the king towards bolder and bolder exercise of the rights of a monarch all of which was causing friction between king and court of law.

Coke: "Mr. Attorney, this is all your doing. It is you that have made this great stir."
: "Ah, my Lord. Your Lordship all this while hath grown in breadth. You must needs grow in height or else you would be a monster."

Elizabeth Hatton II

Elizabeth Hatton later alleged that in the early years of her marriage, she was subjected to spousal abuse by Edward Coke. He would, she claimed in public court papers, break into tantrums and seize or damage her property.

Her uncle Robert Cecil was often called upon to reconcile the couple, especially on the frequent occasions that Hatton would leave her husband (on one occasion, for a whole year). Queen Elizabeth herself had to get involved, circa 1601, as she roughly demanded of her Attorney General that he get his personal house in order.

Edward CokeThe problem seems to be that both Hatton and Coke were pigheaded and stubborn.

In 1617, their marital discord spilled out onto the streets, again. This time, each petitioned the Privy Council, Hatton alleging that Coke and his "fighting son Clement" had broken into her private quarters and stolen her property.

The most sensational incident occurred when husband and wife disagreed on the marriage of their 14-year old daughter Frances Coke to 30-year old John Villiers. The groom's mother wanted a much larger dowry than Coke was prepared to pay but they were negotiating.

When she found out about the discussions to which she had not been made privy by Coke, Hatton reacted by rejecting her daughter's proposed marriage outright.

One night, after Coke had gone to bed, mother kidnapped daughter and went into hiding at Oatlands, near London. Coke got a warrant for his wife's arrest, saddled up with a posse of ten men including his son Clem, and discovered where the pair was hiding.

They knocked but were rebuffed at the door of Oatlands. Coke waved his warrant and ordered his men to ram the door down. He then forced his way in and found his daughter who he wrenched from the arms of her wailing mother and returned her to his home.

Weird turned to crazy when Hatton turned to none other than Francis Bacon for help. He directed her to the Privy Council where she attended and begged for a warrant to return Frances to a mutual guardian, to which Edward Coke acquiesced.

Then followed an extraordinary scene in the Privy Council as first wife then husband aired their dirty laundry and asked the court for relief against the other.

Finally, King James put an end to it by directing that Frances be returned to Edward Coke and that he alone make decisions as regards her marriage.

A time later, James pulled Hatton aside and proposed a reconciliation with her husband. Her reply:

"If he come in at one door, I will go out at the other."

Conduct Unbecoming

During the 1603 treason trial of Walter Raleigh, Edward Coke grew increasingly frustrated with Raleigh's eloquence on the stand. Coke, ever before the classy barrister, lost it and used language unbecoming an attorney general, much to the chagrin of the commoners and historians alike who revered Raleigh. During the trial, Coke shook his closed fist at the prisoner and shouted:

"Thou art the most vile and execrable traitor that ever lived! There never lived a viler traitor on the face of the earth than thou!"

Raleigh was convicted and sentenced to be drawn and quartered but King James commuted his sentence to life in the Tower (Raleigh was eventually beheaded in 1618).

The Tower

In December of 1621,  Edward Coke was a prominent member of the House of Commons and far too outspoken about the limits of monarchical jurisdiction, King James knew who the mover and shaker of this Parliament was.

Angry at demands being made of his office, James adjourned Parliament and sent Coke to the Tower of London, where he was to spend his 70th birthday. James considered charging the old lawyer with treason for using the Parliament to stir up rebellion.

After six months, Coke was released.

Near-Death Experiences

Edward Coke had two near death experiences that we know of. In this era of travel by horse or horse and carriage, roads and weather were uncertain as were horses.

Once, the carriage he was travelling in rolled over at high speed. Coke emerged unscathed.

On May 3, 1632, at the age of 80, Coke was out riding when his horse reared and fell on top of him. The octogenarian again walked away without so much as a bruise.


Edward Coke's sons never came close to his greatness. "The five sons were forever in debt, forever quarrelling," wrote Catherine Drinker Bowen.

Robert Coke ran up colossal debts and needed to be bailed out by his father regularly.

Clem Coke, law school drop-out, was a battler; his nickname, Fighting Clem. Once, in the great Parliament of 1621, Clem hit another member (Charles Morison), who then drew his sword, an offence punishable by life in prison and forfeiture of all property to the Crown. Morison never reached Coke with his weapon but the House was aghast. Coke was sent to the Tower where he spent two days until his father could get his release.


Edward Coke died on September 3, 1634. On the 1st, as he lay on his deathbed, the local sheriff executed a search warrant and seizure of his papers as Charles I feared Coke's deathbed writings.

Coke's body was kept in state for a month before burial.


  • Drinker Bowen, Catherine, The Lion and the Throne - The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957) [NOTE 1 at page 125]
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Edward Coke (1552-1634)

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