Reviewed: The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold, by Geoffrey Robertson (Chatto & Windus, London, 2006, paperback edn).
Geoffrey Robertson QC is among that select band of Australian expatriates who have scaled the commanding heights of the metropolitan culture without wholly abandoning their ‘colonial’ identity. While by no means the only Australian lawyer to pursue a successful career at the London bar in recent times, Robertson enjoys an unusually high public profile, in both Britain and Australia. This quasi-celebrity status is doubtless largely due to his former role as host of the popular ABC-BBC television series Hypotheticals. But he is also a prolific author and commentator on current legal and political issues, especially in relation to human rights and war crimes, as well as a prominent advocate (typically for underdogs and anti-establishment causes) whose courtroom exploits are the subject of a compelling autobiographical memoir, The Justice Game (1998). If all that were not enough for one mere mortal, his latest publication is a bold venture into seventeenth-century English history.
The Tyrannicide Brief is the first full-length biography of John Cook(e), solicitor-general and prosecutor at the trial of Charles I. Its appearance was a major literary event; if not quite on the Harry Potter scale, there were certainly at least three publisher’s launches (in Adelaide, Sydney and London), together with numerous authorial appearances at writers’ festivals, media interviews and so forth. This marketing effort was not wasted, judging by the extent to which the book was bought, read and discussed with enthusiasm by non-historians among my own acquaintance. Reviewers on both sides of the equator have also acclaimed The Tyrannicide Brief, as witness the selection of puffs from The Times and the Spectator in London to the Adelaide Sunday Mail and Launceston Examiner, helpfully posted on Robertson’s own website.
The popular—or middlebrow—success of The Tyrannicide Brief is well deserved, and Robertson’s erudition, flair, passion, compassion and ability to relate events of the distant past to the concerns of our own day have been justly praised. His hero is indeed a most appealing and intriguing figure, a man of high ideals, humanity, intense biblical religiosity yet fervent rationalism, caught up in arguably the most dramatic and portentous event in English history, the public trial of God’s anointed, by his subjects, as an enemy of the people. Cooke’s life story before, during and after the dramatic days of December-January 1649-50 is presented in crisp, lively, often eloquent and occasionally witty prose. The complex political narrative of civil war and interregnum is well integrated with the account of his subject’s personal, political and professional career, while the treatment of the king’s trial and those of the regicides eleven years later breaks new ground and will be the starting point for future work. Robertson’s forensic experience also facilitates mordant observations on aspects of lawyerly behaviour, while supporting a major interpretative theme, the claim that Cooke’s case against Charles I constituted the first ever challenge to the principle of sovereign immunity, ‘a forerunner to the prosecutions of Pinochet, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein’, as the blurb puts it.
All in all, The Tyrannicide Brief has many virtues. So I trust that my reservations about it arise from something other than narrow professional jealousy and amount to something more than an envious sneer from the academic sidelines. But as my own name appears among the author’s acknowledgements, I should perhaps explain that I first met Geoffrey Robertson towards the end of 2004, when he took me out to dinner in Adelaide, explained that he was writing a biography of John Cooke and proceeded to grill me—in the nicest possible way—about my own brief life of Cooke in the recently published Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. After that enjoyable evening I sent him photocopies of some material from my files, and responded by e-mail to his questions, largely about details of Cooke’s family history. We met again briefly at an Adelaide symposium on another subject some six months after the book was published, when I expressed some concern about the evidential basis of his account of the manner in which Cooke was put to death on 16 October 1660.
That The Tyrannicide Brief is very much a lawyer’s rather than a historian’s book might be regarded as a bonus, were historians’ history thought to consist solely of narrowly focused, densely footnoted texts on obscure subjects written for and read only by fellow specialists and graduate students. On the other hand, as the great English legal historian F.W. Maitland noted, lawyers’ history suffers from being used to support counsels’ argument before the courts. Maitland doubtless underestimated the extent to which all versions of the past are influenced by present-day concerns. But his point can be extended: the forensic tendency to present a case—any case—in relentlessly adversarial fashion is difficult to shake off.
Thus, according to my friend Robert Phiddian, who teaches in an English department, the later chapters of Robertson’s book were obviously written by a barrister, since ‘all the virtue and procedural cleanness’ are ‘exclusively on the republican side’, even though ‘by any contemporary standard Charles II and his ministers deserve some credit for slaughtering only a handful of their opponents’. This is not to say that historians of any kind or colouration can realistically aspire to present a wholly impartial, neutral, objective, unbiased view of the pasts about which they write. But a blatantly partisan or tendentious case is likely to be self-defeating, at least in the medium to longer term, if only because once credulity is strained on any particular point, doubts tend to arise about the reliability of the entire edifice.
Or so one would think. Of course, it may well be that Robertson’s readers happily accept the case he puts forward, on the basis of his ‘long professional life as a trial lawyer’ and the research he has undertaken, or commissioned, as documented in his endnotes and bibliographical ‘Note on Sources’. They are perhaps equally untroubled that Robertson treats the work of previous historians in the somewhat dismissively patronising manner a barrister or judge might adopt towards the evidence of expert witnesses, reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s famous adage that experts should be on tap, not top. Blithely acknowledging that he has ‘tiptoed across historical minefields’, Robertson tends to present himself as a giant standing on the shoulders of dwarfs—such as that ‘fine historian’ C.V. Wedgwood, who unfortunately ‘lacks the legal insight to understand John Cooke’. He even goes so far as to assert that ‘No life of Cooke has ever been attempted before’. Yet from C.H. Firth’s 1887 memoir for the original Dictionary of National Biography to more recent work by George Yule and Robert Zaller, Christopher Hill and Gerald Aylmer, Toby Barnard and John Adamson, Cooke has hardly been ‘passed over by historians’.
As for Robertson’s further claim, that his is the first endeavour to ‘draw together the strands of the remarkable, indeed sensational, life and death of Britain’s most radical lawyer’, Cooke’s right to that particular title might well be contested (by partisans of Daniel O’Connell and Wolfe Tone, for instance). Questions also arise about the composition and verisimilitude of the portrait presented here, especially in view of Robertson’s handling of the critical issue of Cooke’s religion.
All historical writing involves selection and simplification, the more so the wider the audience addressed. Hence Robertson’s scanty treatment of Cooke’s intellectual outlook and religious motivation could conceivably be justified on the basis that further elaboration of such matters would seriously clog his narrative and bore or mystify most intended readers. But the emphasis on Cooke the lawyer rather than Cooke the puritan leads to misleadingly dubious assertions, as in the account of his final moments before execution, where we are told that ‘he turned to members of his old congregation in Gray’s Inn’. Yet no mention of Gray’s Inn occurs in the relevant passage of the published compilation of pronouncements by the condemned regicides, The Speeches and Prayers of Some of the Late King’s Judges (1660). The text actually reads ‘And as for my Profession, I am of the congregational way … And if there be any here of that Congregation to which I was related in the time that I lived here, I would commend to them that Scripture …’ (p. 31). Cooke was plainly referring to the separatist gathering that he represented at a London meeting of Independent notables in May 1644, rather than (as Robertson infers) the Presbyterian-dominated congregation of Gray’s Inn chapel in the 1640s and 1650s.
This is no trivial misreading, for the intertwining of post-Reformation politics and religion made such denominational distinctions of crucial significance. It is still more worrying that Robertson fails to mention the opening lines of Cooke’s speech to the sheriff and spectators on this same grim occasion, with the self-justifying exaltation of zealous martyrdom, uncomfortably reminiscent of some modern religious militants: ‘The most glorious sight that ever was seen in the world was our Lord Jesus Christ upon the Cross; and the next most glorious sight to that, is to see any poor creature suffer for him in his cause.’
Even greater concerns are raised by the three paragraphs that purport to describe in detail how Cooke was finally put to death. In his case the surviving sources provide no physical details of the revolting ritual of hanging, drawing and quartering, then uniformly prescribed for those convicted of high treason. The most explicit account of this procedure, in John Bellamy’s Tudor Law of Treason (1979), states that drawing (or disembowelling) was effected by ‘slitting of the stomach’. Robertson, however, invokes a red-hot iron corkscrew, no less, which (we are told) ‘the hangman inserted … and expertly twisted out the lining of the inner bowel. Cooke was then bent backwards again …’ This gratuitously specific sadistic scenario—fantasy or fiction, not history—seems to be nothing other than a product of the author’s imagination.
We must nevertheless be grateful to Geoffrey Robertson for a highly readable biography of John Cooke, and for insisting upon the enduring relevance of his life story to our own present condition. It would be nice to think that, even despite the narrow vocationalism that currently blights Australian educational institutions, his work may inspire other lawyers to investigate the history of their profession, and its relationship to the larger world of public life. The Tyrannicide Brief should also encourage historians to look more closely at lawyers and their institutions. We plainly have something to learn from each other.