BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold, by Geoffrey Robertson
, November 19, 2005
When parliament beheaded a kingTHE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold
by Geoffrey Robertson
London: Chatto & Windus,
Hardback RRP: $55.00The struggle in 17th-century England between King Charles I and parliament, which culminated in the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Commonwealth, was arguably the first modern revolution.
It was seminal in the development of the English political system and its derivatives such as Australia.
In this study, Australian-born Justice Geoffrey Robertson QC - the renowned human rights lawyer and jurist, best known for hosting the television show Hypotheticals
- focuses on John Cooke, the solicitor who, early in 1649, accepted the brief to prosecute Charles I early in 1649. In 1660, however, soon after the restoration of the monarchy, Cooke was tried and executed for his role in Charles I's trial.
Robertson argues that previous studies have either glossed over both trials or have given a highly sympathetic treatment of Charles I; but, for Robertson, a study of them is overdue as Charles I was the first modern ruler to be put on trial for crimes against his own people, the court rejecting the line of argument that a ruler is immune from prosecution.
Such a decision naturally set a legal precedent, particularly given the then immunity granted to rulers by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.
The parliamentary forces, after having defeated Charles in the Civil War, was faced with the dilemma of what to do with him. It became patently obvious that he would never consent to having his kingly power limited, but would be prepared to wage further war to restore what he believed to be his God-given prerogatives, namely absolute power.
Independent, or Congregationalist, members of parliament were determined to abolish the monarchy on theological grounds. They used the First Book of Samuel to argue that monarchy was not of God's devising.
To ensure their desired republican outcome, Colonel Thomas Pride purged the House of Commons of Presbyterian members who were content to settle for a constitutional monarchy.
The purged House, nicknamed the "Rump Parliament", also determined that Charles should be put on trial.
Sensing the impending trial and being unwilling to prepare the prosecution brief, most lawyers fled London.
John Cooke, a Puritan from a humble Leicestershire background, who by talent had established a reputation as a good lawyer, accepted the brief that led to Charles's successful prosecution.
Robertson argues that Charles's trial was a fair one, although very short by modern standards. It must be remembered, however, that trials of the era were comparatively short.
The king having been beheaded and the monarchy abolished, it was only 11 years later, after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, that parliament invited Charles's son to return to England as monarch.
While Charles II had indicated that only a few individuals, including Cooke, would be tried for their involvement in his father's execution should he succeed to the throne, he considerably widened the list of those to be punished.
Cooke's own trial was hasty and motivated by political vengeance.
Robertson also explores other aspects of Cooke's fascinating legal career, with many of his ideas for legal reform being well ahead of their time.
The events discussed in The Tyrannicide Brief
, namely the putting on trial of a ruler for crimes against his people, are not, as Robertson argues in the prologue and conclusion, without their contemporary relevance. (In 2002, Robertson was appointed as an appeal judge for the new UN war crimes court in Sierra Leone).
He argues that the tumultuous events of 1641-1660, but particularly those of 1649, should be viewed with pride since many rights we now take for granted, such as the sovereignty of parliament, independence of judges, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, were forged during this period.
Recent years have witnessed the trials of former tyrants such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein who, like Charles I, have likewise been put on trial for crimes against their people.
This interesting monograph reflects Geoffrey Robertson's deep interest in these recent trials.