John Cook was Soliciter General of England, Chief Justice of Munster, friend of Oliver Cromwell and several of Cromwell's allies and the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I for treason. He was also a key protagonist in pamphlet debates during the English Civil War, publishing a series of arguments about law reform and one of the most important republican pamphlets- Monarchy No Creature of God's Making- of the interregnum. He deserves a good biography- unfortunately the latest biography of him, by Geoffrey Robertson the human rights lawyer significantly fails to appreciate Cook's role in the English revolution. Robertson is dismissive of the period in which Cook lived, evaulates purely as a modern lawyer rather than demonstrating any political or historical nous and demonstrates at every page his ignorance of and contempt for the many great historical works written on the period. Some of his errors are mitigated: he briefly thanks George Southcombe of Lincoln College Oxford for doing some of the research as well as Ian Wilson- my guess is that Messrs Southcombe and Wilson are responsible for some of the better judgements and most of the research in Robertson's biography whereas Robertson himself is responsible for the overall tenor and some of the most lamentable mistakes.
To start with, Robertson draws a portrait of Cook that is heavily anachronistic and severely biassed. For him Cook was a modern law reformer: we are told that Cook anticipated modern ideas about debt, the NHS, the right of defendents, the union of equity and law and democracy itself. What Robertson never seeks to do is to ask why Cook believed in these things- whether they ressembled accurately what we have today and what Cook was responding to- for him the important thing about Cook is how he anticipated Robertson. This is perhaps the crux of the book for Robertson does not really see Cook as a figure in the historical past but as Robertson avant la lettre: Cook was we are told the man who lit a blaze under tyrants, a blaze that would continue to the days of Milosevic and Pinochet, that he argued that a military commission could not acquit someone of a crime (something Robertson directly relates to the former Yugoslavia) and that he destroyed sovereign immunity. No matter that nowhere in the trial of Charles I or of the rest of the royalists tried and executed in the early months of 1649 was the modern concept of war crimes mentioned, Robertson still beleives that they believed in war crimes in exactly the same way as we did.
Robertson is alert to the fact that Cook focussed on the Bible more than moderns did- a testament possibly to the influence of Southcombe and Wilson- but he is unwilling to note the concommitant, that Coke believed in a godly and not a secular order. Robertson for instance notes that independent Calvinism was a tolerant creed without noting that it was a creed which mandated the exclusion of those who were not saved. The distinction between a national Presbyterian or Anglican Church and the Independent Church supported by Cromwell and Cook was not purely the distinction between a Church which tolerated and one which did not, it was also a distinction between a church which said that all could be saved and everyone should be targetted for God's ministry and one that consigned those that would not hear to everlasting perdition. But there are worse blindnesses than that. Robertson does not understand the arguments for regicide, so much so that he ridicules the chief argument for regicide that the King had behaved against the public interest as an argument 'fit for a tavern'.
Perhaps most damagingly Robertson is incredibly partial. No perspective but that of the puritan (apparantly Presbyterians weren't puritans- a discovery we are all indebted to him for) gets a fair hearing. This is most evident in Ireland. According to Robertson at the seige of Drogheda in 1649 'Civilians were not killed' (p. 229). This is contrary not only to most modern historical opinion- John Morrill, Michael O'Siochru and almost every historian with the exception of Tom O'Reilly who has studied Drogheda agrees that civilians were slain- it is contrary to Oliver Cromwell's own evidence. Cromwell wrote to Parliament saying that many inhabitants were slain and there are accounts from the time that demonstrate that an atrocity did happen and that, contrary to Robertson's account, Cromwell did not act 'reasonably' the day after but the slaughter continued. Morrill and others including myself would argue that Cromwell was not neccessarily the uncomplicated ogre of Irish legend: but a human rights lawyer ought to be more wary of suggesting that there was no abuse. Furthermore though Robertson for instance is right to state that in his declaration of Clonmacnoise Cromwell vowed that Catholics might keep their private beliefs, he fails to quote passages in which Cromwell also said that they could not publically profess their faith. Priests were excluded from surrender terms explicitly. Robertson also passes over the Irish act of settlement with hardly a murmur- a Parliamentary act (of which Cromwell did not neccessarily approve but plenty of those close to Cook did approve of) which condemned the Irish to travel to Connaught in the harvest season. Cromwell in Ireland was not a pleasant man- he may not have been a demon but to paint him as an angel stretches credibility in ways that Robertson, in other contexts would condemn.
But this is of a piece with the rest of his work. Robertson is given to immature and snide comments about those who opposed Cook- the Rump Parliament in 1658-9 were 'good old boys supporting a good old cause'. He says those who opposed the army and Cook in 1647 were 'representatives of war profiteerers'. Bizarrely he even attacks their lack of a sense of humour- as though one might tell at the distance of several centuries! His attachment to his subject means that Robertson is the only author I have ever come across who says that John Cook wrote the Remonstrance of the Army, wrote the act that declared England a Republic, convinced Oliver Cromwell not to take the crown (to be fair he actually says it was Cook's arguments) and had an influence on the US Constitution! Every biographer falls in love to some extent with their subject, but this is infatuation. Robertson has very little perspective on Cook's place in the regime- he was an important lawyer but his arguments were not neccessarily original or unusual, he shared many with the group who employed him to charge Charles. Robertson also makes other mistakes- he mistakes Robert Lilburne for Richard Lilburne, he says that Mary Queen of Scots was guilty of the murder of her husband and says that Cromwell had decided on Charles's trial on the 16th December 1648, not knowing that a peace offer was made with Cromwell's permission by the Earl of Denbigh on the 18th. Such mistakes might be admissable: if Robertson was not also addicted to unfounded speculation, how he can know that John Cook's class decided that James I was a terrible King because he had executed Raleigh, how can he understand that Cook decided it would be better to marry than burn- presumably overcome with lust- and hence married his wife. Where is the evidence for either statement?
This is bad history and bad biography. It is redeemed by a couple of good judgements- Robertson does understand that English Republicanism was biblical and not always Machiavellian, he does understand the importance of the theatre of John Lilburne's trials but there is an arrogance and stupidity that wins out every time. Ultimately Robertson writes this book as a partisan hack might, someone who came to praise John Cook not to understand him. His understanding of the past is occasionally good but more often mistaken and his work is filled with errors. John Cook deserves a good biography- this unfortunately is not the biography he deserves. He was a crucial figure in the history of his period- the pamphlets that Robertson cites are important and in some cases Robertson treats them well- furthermore his record in Ireland deserves further study because Cromwell and Cook believed it was the model for England. But this is not the biography Cook deserves: I try in general when reviewing books to supply a summary of the argument and what it has added to my knowledge, in this case I was merely depressed by Robertson's false judgements and faulty understanding. Furthermore, he needs to learn how to use footnotes- they are used sparingly and randomly in his work and it is difficult to trace assertions back to a source.
There are some very good historians who were not academics- one thinks of Jonathan Sumption or Elliot Vernon in the present generation, Cecily Wedgewood in the previous- but Geoffrey Robertson is not one of them.