March 10, 2023

Steve Sheppard and The Writings of Sir Edward Coke


Sir Edward Coke (1 February 1552 – 3 September 1634) was an English barrister, judge, and politician who is considered the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

During his time as a Member of Parliament he wrote and campaigned for the Statute of Monopolies, which substantially restricted the ability of the monarch to grant patents, and authored and was instrumental in the passage of the Petition of Right, a document considered one of the three crucial constitutional documents of England, along with Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights 1689.

Coke is best known in modern times for his Institutes, described by John Rutledge as "almost the foundations of our law", and his Reports, which have been called "perhaps the single most influential series of named reports". Historically, he was a highly influential judge; within England and Wales, his statements and works were used to justify the right to silence, while the Statute of Monopolies is considered to be one of the first actions in the conflict between Parliament and monarch that led to the English Civil War. In America, Coke's decision in Dr. Bonham's Case was used to justify the voiding of both the Stamp Act 1765 and writs of assistance, which led to the American War of Independence; after the establishment of the United States his decisions and writings profoundly influenced the Third and Fourth amendments to the United States Constitution while necessitating the Sixteenth.

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Coke's challenge to the ecclesiastical courts and their ex officio oath is seen as the origin of the right to silence. With his decision that common law courts could issue writs of prohibition against such oaths and his arguments that such oaths were contrary to the common law (as found in his Reports and Institutes), Coke "dealt the crucial blow to the oath ex officio and to the High Commission".The case of John Lilburne later confirmed that not only was such an oath invalid, but that there was a right to silence, drawing from Coke's decisions in reaching that conclusion. In the trial of Sir Roger Casement for treason in 1916, Coke's assertion that treason is defined as "giving aide and comfort to the King's enemies within the realme or without" was the deciding factor in finding him guilty. His work in Slade's Case led to the rise of modern contract law, and his actions in the Case of Proclamations and the other pleadings which led to his eventual dismissal went some way towards securing judicial independence. The Statute of Monopolies, the foundation for which was laid by Coke and which was drafted by him, is considered one of the first steps towards the eventual English Civil War, and also "one of the landmarks in the transition of [England's] economy from the feudal to the capitalist".The legal precept that no one may enter a home unless by invitation, was established as common law in Coke’s Institutes. "For a man's house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man's home is his safest refuge]." It is the origin of the famous dictum, "an Englishman’s home is his castle".

Coke was particularly influential in the United States both before and after the American War of Independence. During the legal and public campaigns against the writs of assistance and Stamp Act 1765, Bonham's Case was given as a justification for nullifying the legislation, and in the income tax case of 1895, Joseph Hodges Choate used Coke's argument that a tax upon the income of the property is a tax on the property itself to have the Supreme Court of the United States declare the Wilson–Gorman Tariff Act unconstitutional. This decision ultimately led to the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. The castle doctrine originates from Coke's statement in the Third Institutes that "A man's home is his castle – for where shall he be safe if it not be in his house?", which also profoundly influenced the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution; the Third Amendment, on the other hand, was influenced by the Petition of Right. Coke was also a strong influence on and mentor of Roger Williams, an English theologian who founded the Rhode Island colony in North America and was an early proponent of the doctrine of separation of church and state.

Video Title: Steve Sheppard and The Writings of Sir Edward Coke. Source: Liberty Fund Books. Date Published: May 18, 2015. Description: 

Steve Sheppard is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and the William H. Enfield Distinguished Professor of Law at the School of Law, University of Arkansas. He is the editor of The Selected Writings of Sir Edward Coke.

Sir Edward Coke successfully defended English liberties against the royal prerogative of the Stuart kings and virtually single-handedly established the rule of law for the English-speaking peoples. Coke's view of English law has had a powerful influence on lawyers, judges, and politicians through the present day. 

The Liberty Fund edition of The Selected Writings of Sir Edward Coke is the first anthology of his works ever published.