Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Tyrannicide Brief

First off, happy second blog birthday to me! Here’s a link to my very first post. If I had got the hang of tagging back then, it would have gone under 'music' and 'silly'.

To business, and I want to recommend a book to y'all out there – budding lawyers and everyone else. The Tyrannicide Brief by Geoffrey Robertson, subtitled 'The Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold'. The author is a QC but don't let that put you off - his writing is very light and accessible, he has a sense of humour and the story is fascinating.

Hands up who's heard of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I? Okay, that was easy, let's step back a little. Other great names of the Civil War: Fairfax? Prince Rupert? Monck? Pym? Ireton? That thins it down a bit. (Of course, anyone who's read The New World Order will have heard of at least some of those ...)

How about John Cooke?

Cooke was a lawyer. He didn't fight in the Civil War because he was too much of a weed to be a soldier, and even though he was on Parliament's side Parliament didn't entirely trust him. Before the war, when Parliament had been determined to (and did) send the Earl of Strafford to the block, Cooke had offered to defend him. Cooke instead spent most of the war in London handling routine, uncontentious legal affairs like house sales. And after the war, he was the man chosen to prosecute the King.

Cooke seems to have been a remarkable man. (He's obviously a bit of a hero to the author of the book, who is my sole source of information, so I must accept some partiality. But even so.) He was a Puritan, but open-minded enough to have considered other denominations including Catholicism. He settled on Puritanism because it worked for him, rather than blind dogma. He offered to defend the distinctly non-Puritan Strafford because, while the man clearly had his faults, Cooke knew from personal acquaintance that the precise charges against him were incorrect. (At the time Cooke was a relatively junior barrister and seemed almost embarrassed to be making his offer to a legal giant like Strafford: his own legal knowledge, he admitted in his letter, was "as the pissing of a wren in the ocean" of Strafford's own experience.) He was one of the first to urge that barristers should give a certain percentage of their services for free, making justice affordable even to poor commoners, and he drew up proposals for a welfare state 300 years ahead of its time. In short, he was a completely straight, a-political man who let himself be guided more by his conscience's interpretation of the hard facts, rather than by any party politics or received dogma. And the law was all.

Which is why he took Parliament's brief to prepare the prosecution of the King.

No one had ever put the head of state on trial before. Everyone knew the brief was coming and the Inns of Court were strangely empty that day, with members finding all sorts of excuses to visit friends in the country. Cooke sat in his room and awaited the messenger. Eleven years later, in a strange echo of these events, he made no effort to save himself from the vengeful Charles II following the Restoration.

In the Declaration of Breda, Charles had declared a general pardon to all enemies of his father, with the crucial exception of those few who had actually killed him. They were few enough to be named specifically. Later on, the Commons discussed the Declaration and added a few more names. Cooke's was one of them. What must it be like to have the House of Commons debate, in open session, the withdrawal of all legal protection from you, a named individual, which will almost certainly result in your gruesome death? Why he didn't flee I have yet to find out – I haven't got that far. He would have been a relatively old man – 52 – and maybe he thought he had had his glory days. Ultimately he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

He left two legal legacies that last to this day. At his trial, he said he had prosecuted the King simply because a barrister must accept any brief he is given within reason – otherwise known as the 'cab rank' rule that still operates today. And the other is that he was the first to lay down the legal precepts for trying a head of state that have been used in recent times for Pinochet, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.