Few reigns, it has been remarked, have produced so many eminent lawyers as that of Queen Elizabeth
. The graces of oratory, however, formed no part of the character of an able lawyer in those days. Sir Edward Coke, the most distinguished among the number for talents and attainments, was at the same time one of the coarsest pleaders that perhaps ever practised at the English bar; in putting on his wig and gown, he seemed as it were to throw away for the time, every share of gentlemanly, nay, even of manly feeling, which his nature possessed.
In the prosecution of the Earl of Essex for high treason, 'Coke,' says Hume, 'opened the cause against him, and treated him with the cruelty and insolence which that great lawyer usually exercised against the unfortunate.' At the conclusion of his speech he said, that 'by the just judgment of God, he of his earldom should be Robert the Last, that of a kingdom thought to be Robert the First.'
Coke made a still more outrageous exhibition in the prosecution which he also managed against Sir Walter Raleigh, a name which can never be mentioned without exciting a blush of shame and indignation for his cruel fate. His trial was a mere mockery, and conducted in a manner which, at the present day, would not be tolerated for a single moment.
The Attorney-General, Coke, feeling too sensibly the unequal grounds on which he stood, to endeavour to succeed by argument, began by loading Sir Walter with abuse and insult, calling him the most 'notorious traitor that ever came to that bar. His schemes,' he said, 'were directed equally against the religion of his country as against its king; and when he had taken off the one he would have altered the other, and established Popery in its place.' 'Sir Walter,' he added, 'was a viper and a monster with an English face; but with a Spanish heart, against whom there was no occasion to confront the witnesses; his criminality was evident, and he was a reptile, and the dregs of the earth.'
The Attorney-General proceeded still farther, and said, 'That the king would be dethroned in less than a year, if a traitor could not be condemned upon circumstances; that it would be very dangerous for his majesty to acquit the prisoner; protesting in a solemn manner before his Maker, that he never knew a crime of treason more clearly made out than that against Sir Walter, who was 'the most vile and execrable traitor that ever existed in the world.'
Here the prisoner interrupted the Attorney-General, whose irascible zeal and scurrility exceeded all bounds.
Sir Walter. 'You speak indiscreetly, and barbarously.'
Attorney-General. 'I cannot find words to express such viperous treasons.'
Sir Walter. 'I think you want words indeed, for you have repeated one thing half a-dozen times.'
Attorney-General. 'Thou art an odious fellow; thy name is hateful to all England for thy pride.'
Sir Walter. 'It will then go near to prove a measuring cast between you and me, Mr. Attorney.'
Nor was Coke less blameable with respect to the high court before which he stood. His arrogance was so offensive, that Lord Cecil demanded 'If he came hither to direct them?' Coke chose to be so indignant at this rebuke, that he sat down and refused to utter another word till he was solicited by all the commissioners, when he rose, and summed up the case for the prosecution.
After a brief charge from the Lord Chief justice, in which he said, that 'he presumed Sir Walter was not so clear a man as he had protested,' the jury withdrew for a quarter of an hour, and then brought in a verdict of guilty against the most injured man of his age or country.
From The Percy Anecdotes, published 1823