Geoffrey Roberston QC is set to publish a new biography of John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I.
Charles I waged civil wars that cost one in ten Englishmen their lives. But in 1649 parliament was hard put to find a lawyer with the skill and daring to prosecute a King who was above the law – in the end the man they briefed was the radical barrister, John Cooke. Cooke was a plebeian, son of a poor Leicestershire farmer. His puritan conscience, political vision and love of civil liberty gave him the courage to bring the King’s trial to its dramatic conclusion: the English republic.Cromwell appointed him as a reforming Chief Justice in Ireland, but in 1660 he was dragged back to the Old Bailey, tried and brutally executed.
Geoffrey Robertson QC, the internationally renowned human rights lawyer, provides a vivid new reading of the tumultuous Civil War years, exposing long-hidden truths: that the King was guilty as charged; that his execution was necessary to establish the sovereignty of Parliament; that the regicide trials were rigged and their victims should be seen as national heroes. John Cooke was the bravest of barristers, who risked his own life to make tyranny a crime. He originated the right to silence, the ‘cab rank’ rule of advocacy and the duty to act free-of-charge for the poor. He conducted the first trial of a Head of State for waging war on his own people – a forerunner of the prosecutions of Pinochet, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, and a lasting inspiration to the modern world. (Amazon)
Robertson argues that for different reasons, Cooke’s role has been ignored by historians from across the political spectrum.
Robertson, who heads a large barristers’ chambers in London and is also a judge with the United Nations in West Africa, believes the entire revolution and republican period is a time that has traditionally been misread or overlooked by Britons.
"It’s as if it was just so wrong to cut off the head of the only king who ever cared about culture," he says with a laugh in an interview in Sydney.
"I don’t think the English historians have ever been able to come to terms with the event.
"There hasn’t been a proper recent analysis of the trial. The right-wing historians have tended to see it simply as treason and murder. The liberal historians – the Whig historians who revived the reputation of Cromwell in the 19th century – tiptoed around the trial and execution of the king, justified as ‘cruel necessity’."
And the left-wing historians, he says, have the events even more skewed, "because they have tended to concentrate on the Levellers, who were a group of radical agitators who first urged that the king be put on trial, but then went to water, or to the country, when the hard decisions about his trial were to be made". (The Age)
This is perhaps unfair to the Levellers, whose priority was to establish a new constitution, and who did not accept the legitimacy of the tribunal which executed the King, but it sounds like an interesting book, neverthless. I will post a review here when I can get hold of a copy.