The 1607 book was one of the first law dictionaries in the English language. The printer was John Legate at Cambridge.

Perhaps the author, and monarchist, professor John Cowell thought he could hide behind the enormous title:

"The Interpreter: Or Booke Containing the Signification of Words: Wherein is Set Forth the True Meaning of All, or the Most Part of Such Words and Termes, as are Mentioned in the Law Writers, or Statutes of This Victorious and Renowned Kingdom, Requiring Any Exposition or Interpretation. A Work not Onely Profitable, but Necessary for Such as Desire Throughly to be Instructed in the Knowledge of Our Laws, Statutes, and Other Antiquities."

But it was not to be.

Known to legal historians as, simply, The Interpreter, the book is mostly known by the many posthumous re-prints starting with that of John Sheares in 1637 some 26 years after Cowell's death.

Eventually, as the new book made the rounds of England circa 1607, two of the more controversial definitions rubbed Edward Coke and his colleagues, who were trying to work out a workable compromise between the ancient divine right and authority of the King, and the rights and authority of a Parliament and of the common law courts:

"Parliament: A solemn conference of all the states of the kingdom summoned together by the Kings only authority to treat of the weighty affairs of the realm.

"Prerogative of the King: That special power, preeminence or privilege which the king hath over and above other persons and above the ordinary course of the common law in the right of his crown."

The Interpreter 1607And yet professor John Cowell had the credentials, as civil law professor at Cambridge University, a position given to him by the King of England (the "King's Majesty Professor of the Civil Law in the University of Cambridge").

His civil law mentor had been Bishop Bancroft who was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1604. He asked Dr. Cowell to produce the Interpreter, for the greater understanding of the people ... and because the civil law, derived from Roman law, was more accommodating to the needs of the Church than was the relatively pagan common law.

By 1605, Cowell had also published Institutiones Juris Anglicani ad methodum et seriem institutionum Imperialium compositae et digestae, in some ways, an English version of a digest of law in the Justinian style; and also, an attempt to suggest a rapprochement of Scottish and English law.

When the Interpreter was first published, it gave rise to no discontent. But when Bancroft was seen to be too close to James I, the person and works of Dr. John Cowell entered the Royal court's radar.

The great English legal historian William Holdsworth makes the point but mixes Cowell's Institutiones Juris Anglicani and the Interpreter when he writes:

"Cowell follows exactly the order and books of the Justinian Institutes and forces the English material into this exotic mold....

"Unfortunately, the (Interpreter) trespassed upon the domain of politics by expressing pronounced absolutist views in its definitions of Prerogative, Parliament and Subsidie....

"Coke and the common law lawyers ... combined with the constitutional opposition to attack Cowell and his book and James I thought it politic to disown him. The book was suppressed by Royal proclamation."

The story behind the story was that Cowell was the lawyer for his mentor, Bishop Bancroft, who ascended to the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury from 1604 to 1610. Bancroft, as all archbishops of the Church of England before and after him, wanted to expand on the Articuli Cleri, that compromise, stalemate of a statute between church and common law courts. At the head of the common law courts sitting at Westminster Hall was the bully, Edward Coke. Coke knew of Bancroft's intrigues and he looked for a weak link in the church's legal delegation and found it within the pages of the 56-year old civil law professor's record, the Interpreter, which the promptly referred to as seditious.

According to Julius Marke:

"Its publication provoked controversy. At a time when Parliament and crown were vying for power, the Commons disapproved of Cowell’s royalist sympathies, which were evident in such definitions as “King,” “Parliament,” “Prerogative,” “Recoveries” and “Subsidies.” When a joint committee of Lords and Councilors reviewed the work, the ensuing controversy nearly halted the affairs of government....

"James I intervened in fear that his own fiscal interests would not be approved by Parliament. Encouraged by Coke, the king imprisoned Cowell, suppressed the book and ordered all copies burned by a public hangman on March 10, 1610 (Ed. note: correct date is 26 March). Moreover, The Interpreter contained a quotation that criticized Littleton’s scholarship, which alienated and enraged Sir Edward Coke. It comes as no surprise that he was instrumental in the book’s suppression and in Cowell’s persecution."

Edward Coke was relentless in his pursuit of Cowell who, at every chance he got, referred to the civilist as "Mr. Cowheel".

The repercussions of Coke's successful campaign were long-lasting. In his 1684 re-printing of the Interpreter, Thomas Manley started off his preface with these words:

"I shall not apologize for this work...."

1610 proclamation John CowellIt was Manley who suggests that Bancroft used Cowell to assert the dominance of ecclesiastic law in a proposed re-opening of the perennially unsatisfactory accord of powers between church and common law known as the Articuli Cleri. And that brought the wrath of Edward Coke, the end of many a good man:

"Paper reproofs were too little satisfaction. Sir Edward Coke ... represented to His Majesty that this bold writer had asserted that his Royal Prerogative was in some case limited.... The design against (Cowell) was carried on in the House of Commons... The author was committed to custody and his books were publicly burned."

The indictment in Parliament:

"Anno 7 Jacobi, 1909, Dr. Cowell, Professor of the Civil Law at Cambridge, writ a book called The Interpreter, rashly, dangerously and perniciously asserting certain heads to the overthrow and destruction of Parliaments, and the fundamental laws and government of the Kingdom."

James I, good protestant that he was, decided upon the book burning and a public and permanent admonition in the form of a proclamation, in exchange for Dr. Cowell's release.

The Proclamation:

"This later age and times of the world wherein we are fallen, is so much given to verbal profession, as well of religion, as of all commendable Royal virtues, but wanting the actions and deeds agreeable to so specious a profession, as it hath bred such an insatiable curiosity in many men's spirits, and such an itching in the tongues and pens of most men, as nothing is left unsearched to the bottom in talking and writing. For from the very highest mysteries in the Godhead and the most inscrutable counsels in the Trinity, to the very lowest pit of hell, and the confused actions of the Devils there, there is nothing now unsearched into by the curiosity of men's brains. Men not being contented with the knowledge of so much of the will of God as it hath pleased him to reveal, but they will need set with Him in His most private closet and become privy of His most inscrutable counsels; and therefore, it is no wonder that men in these, our days, do not spare to wade in all the deepest mysteries that belong to the persons or state of kings and princes, that are Gods upon earth; since we see ... that they spare not God Himself. And this license that every talker or writer now assumeth to himself, is come to this abuse, that many Phormios will give counsel to Hannibal, and many men that never went out of the compass of cloisters or colleges will freely wade by their writings in the deepest mysteries of monarchy and political government: whereupon, it cannot otherwise fall out but that when men go out of their element, and meddle with things above their capacity, themselves shall not only go astray and stumble in darkness, but will mislead also divers others with themselves into many mistakings and errors; the proof whereof we have lately had by a book written by Dr. Cowell called The Interpreter: for he being only a civilian by profession, and upon that large ground of a kind of dictionary (as it were) following the alphabet, having all kind of purposes belonging to government and monarchy in his way, by meddling in matters above his reach, he hath fallen in many things to mistake and deceive himself: in some things disputing so nicely upon the mysteries of this our monarchy that it may receive doubtful interpretations. Yes, in some points very derogatory to the supreme power of this Crown. In other cases, mistaking the true state of the Parliament of this Kingdom and the fundamental constitutions and privileges thereof; and in some other points speaking unreverently of the common law of England and the works of some of the most famous and ancient judges therein. It being a thing utterly unlawful to any subject to speak or write against that law under which he liveth in which we are sworn and are resolved to maintain. Wherefore upon just considerations moving us hereunto for preventing of the said errors and inconveniences in all times to come, we do hereby not only prohibit the buying, uttering or reading of the said book, but do also will and straitly command all and singular persons whatsoever, who have or shall have any event in their hands are custody, that upon pain of our high displeasure, and the consequence thereof, they do deliver the same presently upon this publication to the Lord Mayor of London, if they are any of them be dwelling in or near the said city, or otherwise to the sheriff of the county where they or any of them shall reside, and in the two universities to the Chancellor ... there, to the intent that further order may be given for the utter suppressing thereof.... Given at our Palace of Westminster, the 25th day of March, in the eighth year of our reign of Great Britain, France and Ireland. Anno. Dom. 1610."

Having barely escaped with his life, Cowell died soon after being released from prison, in 1611. Apparently, Dr. Cowell "died upon the operation of being cut for the stone."1


He was buried in Trinity Hall Chapel, Cambridge.

In spite of Coke's machinations, John Cowell's laugh is still heard in the corridors of time. Many copies of The Interpreter survived the book-burning and was reprinted at least ten times. As Holdsworth adds:

"It long remained the standard dictionary of English law."


  • Holdsworth, William, A History of English Law, Vol. 5 (pages 21-22)and 6 (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1952).
  • Cowell, John, The Interpreter of Words and Terms, reprint 1701 (London: W. Battersley, 1701). Preface by Thomas Manley (also NOTE 1[.
  • Marke, Julius, Vignettes of Legal History (South Hackensack: Fred B. Rothman & Company, 1977), pages 309-312.
  • Smith, George, Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922)