Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cowell, John

COWELL, JOHN (1554–1611), civilian, born in 1554 at Ernsborough, Devonshire, left Eton College in 1570 for King's College, Cambridge. Richard Bancroft, afterwards bishop of London, seems to have advised him to devote himself to civil law at Cambridge, and he soon distinguished himself in the study, proceeding LL.D. and becoming a member of the college of civilians at Doctors' Commons in 1584. He was proctor of his university in 1585; was incorporated D.C.L. of Oxford in 1600; became regius professor of civil law at Cambridge in 1594, and master of Trinity Hall in 1598. He was vice-chancellor of Cambridge University in 1603 and 1604, and in 1608 Bancroft, then archbishop of Canterbury, made him his vicar-general. In 1607 Cowell published at Cambridge 'The Interpreter, a booke containing the signification of Words: Wherein is set foorth the true meaning of all … such words and termes as are mentioned in the Lawe- writers or Statutes … requiring any Exposition.' It was dedicated to Bancroft, who had interested himself in its production. This book gave Cowell more than an academic reputation. Under the headings 'King,' 'Parliament,' 'Prerogative,' 'Recoveries,' and 'Subsidies,' he advanced the opinion that the English monarchy was an absolute monarchy, and that the King only consulted parliament by his 'goodness in waiving his absolute power to make laws without their consent' (s. v. 'Subsidy'). This doctrine offended the commons, and early in the session of 1610 the lower house invited the lords to join with them in directing the king's attention to the book. A conference was arranged by the attorney-general, Sir Francis Bacon, but before further proceedings were taken the Earl of Salisbury announced that James had voluntarily summoned Cowell before him and disavowed his doctrine, which highly incensed him. Cowell duly appeared before the council in the middle of March 1610. 'He was requested to answer some other passages of his book which do as well pinch upon the authority of the king, as the other points were derogatorie to the liberty of the subject. … He could not regularly deliver what grounds he hath for the maintaining of those his propositions' (Winwood). Cowell was therefore committed to the custody of an alderman; the book was suppressed by a proclamation, in which it was denounced as insulting alike to king and commons, and was burnt by the common hangman (26 March 1610). Fuller states that Coke, moved by professional jealousy of Cowell, whose knowledge of civil law was reputed to exceed his own knowledge of common law, was foremost in attacking the book, and habitually spoke of its author as 'Dr. Cowheel.' On 25 May 1611, Cowell resigned his professorship of civil law (Le Neve, Fasti, ed. Hardy, in. 657), and he died 11 Oct. following, being buried in the chapel of Trinity Half. He left bequests to Trinity Hall, King's College, and to Cambridge University.

The 'Interpreter' was reissued in an expurgated edition in 1637, 1672, 1684 (continued by Thomas Manley), 1701 (edited by White Kennet), 1709, and 1727. A copy of Kennet's edition (1701), with valuable manuscript notes by Bishop Tanner, is in the Bodleian. Cowell also wrote 'Institutiones Juris Anglicani ad methodum institutionum Justiniani compositsB et digestse,' Cambridge, 1605 and 1630.

[Wood's Fasti Oxen. (Bliss), i. 289-90; Cat. BritMus. Books before 1640; Fuller's Worthies; Harwood's Alumni Eton. 182-3; Weldon's Court of James I, 1650, p. 191; Biog. Brit. (KippiB); Winwood's Memorials, iii. passim; Hallam's Hist. i. 326-6; Gardiner's Hist. ii. 66-8; Parliamentary Journal, 1610; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 9, 74, 6th ser. xi. 117. The proclamation printed by Robert Barker in 1610 suppressing the Interpreter appears in Manley's and in White Kennet's editions of the book, as well as in Rapin and Carte. It is not in the Parliamentary Journals.]

S. L. L.