Edward Coke1 February 1552 - 3 September 1634) was an early English colonial entrepreneur and jurist whose writings on the English common law were the definitive legal texts for some 300 years. He is credited with having established the legal basis for slavery in the English colonies.
Between becoming a Member of Parliament in 1589 and again in 1620, he served as England's Attorney General (1593-1606) under Elizabeth I of England and as its Lord Chief Justice (1613-1616) and a Privy Councilor (1614-1616, 1617-1620) under James I of England. His speeches, in the House of Commons, against governmental abuses of the people's rights so angered King James that he held Sir Edward prisoner in the Tower of London for nine months in 1622.
In 1606, Coke helped write the charter of the Virginia Company, a private venture granted a royal charter to found settlements in North America. He became director of the London Company, one of the two branches of the Virginia Company. As director, he proposed a means by which slavery could be legalised in the new Virginia Colony. Fearing opposition if the issue was publicly debated, Coke was responsible for Calvin's Case in 1608, which ruled that "all infidels are in law perpetual ennemies". Here he was borrowing from a legal tradition rooted in canonical law and apologetics for the crusades. In this way Coke played a significant part in the development of New World slavery. On January 2, 2003, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom refused to make a public apology for the long history of slavery under the British Empire on the basis that it was legal at the time. Writing via assistant private secretary Kay Brock, she said "Under the statute of the International criminal Court, acts of enslavement committed today . . . constitute a crime against humanity. But the historic slave trade was not a crime against humanity or contrary to international law at the time when the UK government condoned it."
Copies of Coke's writings arrived in North America on the Mayflower in 1620, and both John Adams and Patrick Henry cited Coke's treatises to support their revolutionary positions against the Mother Country in the 1770s. Under Lord Coke's leadership, in 1628 the House of Commons forced Charles I of England to accept Coke's Petition of Rights by withholding the revenues the king wanted until he capitulated.
The Lion and the Throne, a biography (ISBN 0-316-10393-4) of Coke by Catherine Drinker Bowen, won the National Book Award.