Perhaps the man most responsible for reviving interest in Magna Carta in the early 17th century, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) was a leading lawyer, legal writer and politician. Throughout his career, Coke eulogised the Great Charter — in his jurisprudence, in the courts of law and in Parliament — to challenge the policies and methods of the Stuart monarchy. For Coke, Magna Carta restored the ancient and fundamental laws of Anglo-Saxon England, which formed the basis of common law essential for safeguarding individual liberty against the prerogative of the monarch. This interpretation of Magna Carta, though inaccurate to modern eyes, was explored by Coke most thoroughly in his Reports and his Institutes, which became required reading for lawyers in Britain and North America for the next two centuries. Coke identified Parliament as the guardian of the law against royal despotism, and in this struggle he considered Magna Carta to be their greatest asset. Indeed, in 1628 he drafted the Petition of Right which consciously invoked the Great Charter and elaborated upon the liberties contained within it.
Inscribed ‘Lord Chief Justice Coke’, this portrait by an unknown artist depicts him in the traditional garb of a judge with his chain of office, ermine-lined red gown and black cap. It was probably bequeathed to Trinity College, Cambridge, by his daughter, Anne Sadleir, in 1670. The painting can be dated to between 1606 and 1616, when Coke was successively Chief Justice of the Courts of Common Pleas and King’s Bench. Although the portrait displays Coke as confident, resolute and steadfast, his years in these courts were turbulent. His persistent antagonism of the monarchy eventually led to his dismissal from office, but his interpretation of Magna Carta remained enormously influential throughout the English Civil Wars and into the 19th century.