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Mike reviews: Geoffrey Robertson's The Tyrannicide Brief

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  • Mike reviews: Geoffrey Robertson's The Tyrannicide Brief

    From The Guardian



    To kill a king

    Geoffrey Robertson impresses Michael Moorcock with his biography of the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I, The Tyrannicide Brief

    Saturday December 17, 2005
    The Guardian


    Buy The Tyrannicide Brief at the Guardian bookshop

    The Tyrannicide Brief
    by Geoffrey Robertson 448pp, Chatto & Windus, £20

    I owe Geoffrey Robertson an apology. As a witness in a Savoy Books obscenity trial, where Robertson appeared for the defence, I became so absorbed in his Media Law that I lost his page markers for what proved an eloquent and persuasive argument. I left the trial feeling a trifle guilty but with considerable respect for Robertson's quick wits, legal logic, intelligence and passionate social conscience.

    This extraordinarily good book refreshes that respect. The Tyrannicide Brief is about John Cooke, a heroic, conscientious, reforming lawyer, selected by parliament to prosecute the trial of Charles I. Until now royalists have tended to have the last word on Cooke, presenting him as an arriviste regicide, but Robertson, one of our very best contemporary QCs, restores his reputation and gives him his central place in English history.

    In the 1640s, tensions between the king and parliament over taxation led to invocations of Magna Carta and the freedom of the individual under the law. A puritan farmer's son, Cooke was among the vanguard, arguing the principle of no taxation without representation. When Charles effectively declared war on his own people, causing the deaths of one in 10 Englishmen, everyone involved was a monarchist. The only agnostic parliamentarian, Henry Marten, was sent to the Tower when he proposed a republic.

    As presbyterians and others sought to impose their views on the nation, Cooke argued: "To force men to come to church is but to make them hypocrites" and "the sword has no capacity to settle religion". Cooke thought justice a moral rather than a religious virtue. He proposed a form of social security and NHS, as well as a national land registry so the condition of estates could be immediately checked, a right of silence, prison reform, poverty relief, liquor licensing, commercial law, labelling of medicines and much more.

    After parliament's defeat of the royalists, a general disgust for corrupt legal institutions led Cooke to write his first full-length book, demanding law reform to serve the interests of common justice, established by parliament, not the legal profession itself, and based on the best foundations of English law: "One of the saddest spectacles in peace is to see might overcome right - a poor man's righteous cause lost for want of money to follow it." Extensive law reform, he felt, would make an honest lawyer "a necessary member of the kingdom". He argued for legal aid, for uncorrupt judges, for use of plain English in court rather than Latin and French.

    Cooke was, Robertson claims, writing the first real work on legal ethics, asking for a fair system of fees, demanding that lawyers let clients know the chances of a suit's success. Much was original; some was imported "proto-socialism", such as capping lawyers' earnings, thus encouraging the profession to take pro bono cases. Cooke was especially concerned that England's slow legal process worked against common justice. "Law is a labyrinth, the entry very easy but the exit very difficult." Cases involving life and liberty, he believed, should always be heard first.

    In 1648 Cooke was still a monarchist. All he and parliament required was a constitutional settlement before allowing Charles back on the throne. But, as in most revolutions, events rolled rapidly, uncontrollably forward. The army, levellers, parliament and others were all in flux, and a pressing need for stability grew, even as the Scottish covenantors "sold" Charles to London where, confident in his case, reneging on his promises, he rejected all terms and instead began secretly raising another army, effectively hastening his own end.

    Conscious of the magnitude of its burden, parliament found it all but impossible to appoint a prosecutor and, while others feigned illness or faded into the country, Cooke, known for his originality of thought, allowed himself to be selected, assuming Charles would formulate a case in his own defence. But no such case was proposed. Like so many tyrants after him, Charles arrogantly refused to recognise the legality of the court. So Cooke had to argue that Charles, by continuing to plot war against his subjects, was a traitor to his nation and his avowed duty to protect his kingdom. Thus, writes Robertson, Charles effectively signed his own death warrant for, with troubled mind, Cooke successfully proved Charles guilty. In his case against the king Cooke established a precedent, that tyranny was not a right of rulers but a crime against the ruled. This precedent was used in 18th-century France and 20th-century Germany continuously to the present day.

    Under English law, the punishment for aristocratic treason was beheading. In due course, the punishment was carried out. Charles died. The kingdom became in essence a republic. Events in England now gained their familiar historical momentum. Parliaments came and went. Cromwell became lord protector. Careerists followed the direction of the wind while Cooke kept his own principled course, including frustrated service as chief justice in Ireland and a dogged pursuit of legal reform.

    His conscience, rooted in his faith, was to prove his downfall. In 1660, those who had supported Cromwell were swift to shift allegiance to Charles II on his restoration, turning against Cooke and in some cases appearing as prosecution witnesses at what Robertson shows to have been an unjust, vengeful trial that led to Cooke's conviction as a traitor and a regicide. Again under existing English law, being a commoner, his fate was to be hanged, drawn and quartered (which Robertson describes in suitably gruesome detail). Nonetheless he made a death at least as brave as Charles's and met his maker with a clear conscience, perhaps reconciled in the knowledge that he had made tyranny a crime and forever changed the course of our legal and constitutional history.

    Michael Moorcock's The Vengeance of Rome will be published by Cape in January.
    Last edited by David Mosley; 08-12-2006, 01:40 PM.

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  • #2
    Sounds like an interesting book, Mr. M.
    Historical biographies and accounts are a large percentage of what I read nowadays and this is one I shall keep an eye out for.
    (Wasn't there another review I received an alert for recently?)

    When I read the title I had the brief hope that you were going to inform us of a new JC story!? :)
    You see, it's... it's no good, Montag. We've all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Governor of Rowe Island
      When I read the title I had the brief hope that you were going to inform us of a new JC story!? :)
      Heh, the same thought crossed my mind as well, Guv. :oops: Still as you say, TTB does sound an interesting book. I seem to remember seeing a documentary on TV recently about the regicide of Charles I which mentioned Cooke's role in prأ©cis, possibly one of David Starkey's "Monarchy" series? :?
      _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
      _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
      _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
      _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

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      • #4
        Originally posted by Governor of Rowe Island
        When I read the title I had the brief hope that you were going to inform us of a new JC story!? :)
        Umm me too! Spooky or what? It does sound like a JC story title. Geoffrey Robertson is an all-round good egg and champion of freedom. We need more people like him.
        'You know, I can't keep up with you. If I hadn't met you in person, I quite honestly would NOT believe you really existed. I just COULDN'T. You do so MUCH... if half of what goes into your zines is to be believed, you've read more at the age of 17 than I have at the age of 32 - LOTS more'

        Archie Mercer to Mike (Burroughsania letters page, 1957)

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        • #5
          Another good book which I reviewed for the Daily Telegraph (appeared today but I can't access the Telegraph site) is Artworks by Woody Guthrie. A wonderful book of Guthrie's drawings and paintings (and manuscripts). If you're interested in the man who was a huge seminal influence on today's music, this is a good book for Christmas. It has great reproductions, but isn't cheap.

          Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
          The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
          Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


          Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
          The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
          Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

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          • #6
            This one I got to read. Thanks for the heads up!

            Comment


            • #7
              The conflict of a basically monarchist, but conscientious lawyer having to prove the guilt of his former King who arrogantly refuses to defend himself, believing he won't be punished, is strong stuff for a drama, wouldn't you think? And in the light of the Saddam Trial it could have a very modern context too.
              Google ergo sum

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              • #8
                I hope Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald reads this book.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by LEtranger
                  The conflict of a basically monarchist, but conscientious lawyer having to prove the guilt of his former King who arrogantly refuses to defend himself, believing he won't be punished, is strong stuff for a drama, wouldn't you think? And in the light of the Saddam Trial it could have a very modern context too.
                  This occured to me too, L'E, when I read this comment in Mike's review
                  Cooke, known for his originality of thought, allowed himself to be selected, assuming Charles would formulate a case in his own defence. But no such case was proposed. Like so many tyrants after him, Charles arrogantly refused to recognise the legality of the court.
                  Tyrants share the same basic outlook on life it would seem.
                  You see, it's... it's no good, Montag. We've all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal.

                  -:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

                  Image Hive :-: Wikiverse :-: Media Hive

                  :-: Onsite Offerings :-:


                  "I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides. I am in the regimented society, but not of it." Moondog, 1964

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    The trial is dramatized in the film Cromwell. Richard Harris is Cromwell and Alec Guiness is Charles. It's pretty sad . . . he's sitting there petting his Cavalier spanial and it finally dawns on him that the Army is nobody's sweetheart. Charles just didn't have a clue, and what with the Bishops enforcing the notion of "divine right of kings". Actually, the conflict over the divine right issue--like much of the English Civil War (lines of division, social classes, religious views) were transplated to America and drove the American revolution as well (see Baiylen's (Sp.) Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. I believe Cromwell would have prefered not to behead Charles, but Charles was asking for it. With the Army screaming for blood, Cromwell had no choice.

                    I often think of the Stewarts when King George the Dubya pulls his stunts. His arrogance over the wire tapping thing just this week. Goodness, what a blockhead! And what a shameful disgrace to our country.

                    Cromwell was before his time, and when his personality was gone the revolution went into dormancy. It took Shaftsbury and then Locke the next forty years to set England up for the return of "the good old cause", which was realized in the the Bill of Rights, William and Mary, and so on. Not as "epic" as Cromwell's story, but Locke was probably a greater hero. Locke was quiet about it, a real man of peace--great story of a guy who could get things done with intellect, wisdom, and pleasant manners. Hawthorne has a charming story about 1688--"The Gray Champion"--how the glorious revolution was welcomed in the colonies.

                    Indeed, the trial would make a good play or film. Very timely! Not only the Saddam trial, but it could reflect keenly on Bush's arrogance too.

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                    • #11
                      Agree. I've often said that the American Revolution was a rematch of the English Civil War (s). The US Bill of Rights is, in its early parts, almost word for word the same as that of the 1689 UK one, including the right to keep and bear arms (with the provision in the UK, still wary of Jacobites, that you had to be Protestant -- changed to include Catholics circa 1850).

                      Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                      The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                      Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                      Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                      The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                      Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

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