Coke, John (DNB00)
COKE, Sir JOHN (1563–1644), secretary of state, second son of Richard Coke of Trusley, near Derby, and Mary Sacheverell, was born on 5 March 1562-3 (Melbourne Papers). Being one of a family of eleven children, and his father dying in 1582, John Coke began life with nothing but an annuity of 40l., payable by his elder brother, Francis. It has been supposed that he was educated at Westminster School. It is certain that he was admitted scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, about Easter 1580, and became a fellow of the same society in October 1583 (Trinity College Register). According to Lloyd, he was ' chosen rhetoric lecturer in the university, where he grew eminent for his ingenious and critical reading in that school' (State Worthies, 945). He seems from his correspondence to have entered the service of Lord Burghley, and in March 1591 appears to have been deputy-treasurer of the navy. The year 1594 and the two following years were spent in travelling, and on his return in 1597 Coke attached himself to the service of Fulke Greville [q. v. ] , then treasurer of the navy, under whom he was deputy-treasurer, supervising also his patron's household, and watching his interests at court. In 1604 Coke was rich enough to buy Hall Court in Herefordshire, and in the following year he married Mary, daughter of Mr. John Powell of Preston in that county. The years which followed this marriage were spent in farming in the country, varied by periodical journeys to Warwickshire and elsewhere to audit the accounts of Sir Fulke Greville's estates (Melbourne Papers). Owing probably to Greville's influence, Coke was appointed in June 1618 one of a special commission for the examination of the state of the navy, and was continued in that service when the commission became a permanent board, February 1619 (Gardiner, History of England, iii. 203). According to Bishop Goodman, the reform of the naval administration (and also of the Tower establishment) was mainly Coke's work (Court of James I, 308). The king rewarded his industry by a grant of 300l. a year, charged on the funds of the navy, expressly stated to be given ' for his service in several marine causes, and for the office of ordnance which he had long attended far remote from his family, and to his great charge' (November 1621, Melbourne Papers). In November 1622 Coke was also appointed one of the masters of requests, but still continued to act as one of the commissioners of the navy. ' The rest of the commissioners,' says Eliot, writing of 1625, 'were but cyphers unto him' (Negotium Posterorum, ii. 8). In the parliament of 1621 Coke sat for the borough of Warwick ; in the parliaments of 1624 and 1625he was returned for the borough of St. Germains by the interest of Valentine Gary [q. v.], bishop of Exeter, the husband of his sister, Dorothy Coke. In the parliaments of 1626 and 1628 he represented the university of Cambridge. Coke lost his wife in February 1624, but married a second time in the November of the same year. His second wife was Joan, widow of Sir John Gore, late alderman of London, and daughter of Sir John Lee, another alderman (Melbourne Papers). On 9 Sept. 1624 Coke was knighted, and about the same time rumours began to designate him as the successor of Calvert or Conway in one of the secretaryships of state (Court and Times of James I, ii. 484, 506). Although this promotion was deferred, Buckingham selected Coke to act as the mouthpiece of the government in the parliament of 1625. Dr. Gardiner, in criticising this selection, describes Coke as an experienced official, a man without any particular political views, except a fixed dislike of anything which savoured of the papacy ; ' in general a mere tool, ready to do or say anything he was bidden by Buckingham and the king' (History of England, v. 370). In this first parliament of Charles I, Coke's duties were confined to explaining the plan of the war, begging supply for the king's necessities, and defending the administration of the navy against the attacks of Eliot (Debate of the Commons in 1625, Camden Society, 56, 74, 90, 138). He was also actively engaged in preparing the fleet for the Cadiz expedition, was concerned in the complicated intrigues relating to the loan of English ships to France for the reduction of Rochelle, and eagerly pressed the severe measures against French ships carrying contraband of war, which were the chief cause of the breach with France. In 1625, on the death of Sir Albert Morton, Coke was appointed one of the principal secretaries of state, and received the seals at Plymouth in September (Nicholas Papers, i. 14). The appointment was unfortunate, for Coke was, according to Dr. Gardiner, 'the only man amongst the government officials who had incurred the positive dislike of the opposition leaders of the commons ' (op. cit. 311), and this statement is confirmed by the terms in which he is referred to by Eliot (Negotium Posterorum, ed. Grosart, i. 113). In the parliament of 1628 Coke's unpopularity and want of tact helped to produce the rupture between king and commons. He was obliged to begin the session by confessing that the King had broken the law, and urging the law of necessity as his excuse (Parliamentary History, vii. 372). Vainly he endeavoured to turn the rising excitement of the commons against ' the intended parliament of Jesuits at Clerkenwell' (ib. 373). On 7 April, when he reported to the house the king's thanks for the subsidies they had granted, he foolishly spoilt their effect by representing Buckingham as mediating with the king to grant the desires of parliament (ib. 431). On 12 April he gave fresh offence by accusing the house of attacking not merely the abuses of power, but power itself, and on 1 May, during the discussions on the question of imprisonment, he announced that, whatever laws they might make on the point, he should consider it his duty as a privy councillor to commit persons without showing cause to any but to the king himself (ib. vii. 437, viii. 95). He is also credited with a speech in which he urged the commons to comply with the king, because the wrath of a king was like a roaring lion, and all laws with his wrath were of no effect (ib. viii. 79). In the second session of the same parliament he had to apologise to the commons for words used when introducing the bill for tonnage and poundage (ib. viii. 277-9). In the administration of the kingdom during the period of the king's personal government Coke found a more suitable sphere. Strafford praised his carefulness, and the ' full, clear, and reasonable answers ' which he gave to the questions which the lord deputy laid before him for decision (Strafford Letters, i. 346). He praised also the fidelity with which Coke guarded the interests of the revenue (Strafford to the King, Letters, i. 492). For these reasons he pressed the king in 1635 to reward the secretary by a grant of Irish lands, and advised him two years later to put the charge of all Irish business into his hands (Strafford Letters, ii. 83). Coke was employed in 1633 in the intrigues carried on by the king to induce the discontented Netherlanders to set up an independent Belgian state (Hardwicke, State Papers, ii. 54-92), but he was not in the secrets of the king's foreign policy. On 15 March 1635 Coke was appointed one of the five commissioners of the treasury, which office he held till the appointment of Juxon as lord treasurer. On 22 June in the following year he delivered Laud's new statutes to the university of Oxford. In a remarkable speech, printed in Laud's history of his chancellorship, he set forth the theory of the king's absolute power in the strongest terms, and compared the prosperity enjoyed by England under it with the troubles and miseries of foreign countries. This is the most complete exposition of Coke's political creed (Laud, Works, v. 126-32). But although a favourer of absolute monarchy, Coke enjoyed a certain popularity as being a sound protestant. In Prynne's tract, entitled 'Rome's Masterpiece' (1643), it is stated that 'Secretary Coke was a most bitter hater of the jesuits, from whom he intercepted access to the king; he entertained many according to their deserts, he diligently inquired into their factions. . . Hereupon being made odious to the patrons of the conspiracy, he was endangered to be discharged from his office; it was laboured for three years, and at last obtained' (p. 17). The real causes of Coke's fall were rather more complicated. In June 1638 the king appointed a committee for Scotch affairs, of which Coke was a member, and in which he was considered to belong rather to the peace than the war party (Strafford Papers, ii. 181–6). At the conclusion of the first Scotch war, and in consequence of the unsatisfactory nature of the peace, 'it being necessary that so infamous a matter should not be covered with absolute oblivion, it fell to Secretary Coke's turn (for whom nobody cared), who was then near fourscore years of age, to be made the sacrifice' (Clarendon, Rebellion, ii. 54). Clarendon says that it was pretended that Coke 'had omitted the writing what he ought to have done, and inserted somewhat he ought not to have done.' Dr. Gardiner assigns three causes: that he was growing too old for his work, accounted a puritan, and suspected of drawing a pension from the Dutch government (History of England, ix. 87). Even his old friend Strafford opposed his removal, solely from hatred of his successor. The Earl of Northumberland describes with some scorn the dismissal of the 'Old Noddy' (Sydney Papers, ii. 631). Coke himself wrote to his son that he found 'both a gracious countenance and profession that no offence is taken against me, and so much expression of good opinion and good will towards me both in court and city that I could never withdraw myself with a more favourable aspect' (Melbourne Papers). He retired to Derbyshire, where he had acquired in 1628 the property of Melbourne, and resided there until the war forced him in January 1643 to remove to Tottenham. The Long parliament summoned him from his retirement to answer complaints made of commitments in 1628 (Diurnal Occurrences, 1 Nov. 1641), but with this exception he escaped unquestioned. He seems to have sympathised with the cause of the parliament, for in a letter to Essex asking for protection, dated 20 Sept. 1642, he wrote: 'My heart is faithful and my prayers assiduous for the prosperity of the parliament, wherein consisteth the welfare of this church and state' (Melbourne Papers). Moreover, his eldest son, Sir John Coke (knighted 16 July 1636), who represented Derbyshire, took the popular side, though his younger son, Thomas, who sat for Leicester, was a cavalier. Sir John Coke the elder survived removal from Melbourne little more than eighteen months, dying at Tottenham on 8 Sept. 1644.
Clarendon, who has left but a brief and disparaging notice of Coke, asserts that his most eminent infirmity was covetousness (Rebellion, i. 142). In spite of this it does not appear that Coke stooped to unworthy means of raising a fortune. As an official he was honest and capable, and his private character was blameless. The servility which stains his public career was inseparable from the theory of absolutism which he professed.
[Sir John Coke's papers at Melbourne Hall; Briggs's Hist.of Melbourne; Calendar of Domestic State Papers; Strafford Letters; Clarendon's His., of the Rebellion; Lloyd's State Worthies; Gardiner's Hist. of England.]