October 01, 2009

Review: The Tyrannicide Brief, a life of Justice John Cook


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.

9 comments:

James Higham said...

Next step is to write to Robertson - hypothetically.

Gracchi said...

I'm not sure it would get a positive response! Thing is though that I don't think this book will have a massive effect on the literature about the civil war- it is useful for me because it has some material I can use in my own work because I work on people close to Cook but its unlikely to have an impact outside the fairly narrow world of those studying radicalism already and those people should be aware of its errors.

Rumbold said...

I enjoy reviews like this. Critical, but not disagreeing for the sake of it.

mercuriuspoliticus said...

Great review. I agree that it is depressing to find popular histories that are written seemingly only because of perceived parallels to the present day. The stories behind the regicide are more than powerful enough to stand on their own merits as narratives and it does seem a bit of a wasted opportunity. (Also completely agree with the point about footnotes - lots of similar books seem to use them almost as a condensed bibliography rather than as actual references).

edmund said...

Interesting review. Doen'st sound like a very good book at all- would be very interested to read any kind of defence of it. On James's points you could post this on Amazon and a few sites like that at least?Does anyone have

In a somewhat devils advocate system here are some questoins about your critisms / qualified defences

a) it stirme me however crude he may be about it Robertson has some points about the roots of a lot of those things.

b) More specifialy what doesh e say on the US Constituion-he may have a point! (though probaly in alrge part due to the dreaded presbyterians if he does)

c) On the tolerent i don't realy see how your point really stops them being tolerent (whcih is not to say a good book wouldn't make it anyway)it seems to be a point about reason for toleration rather than extent.

d) Is Crowell's comment ambiguos enough you could argue that in the next day he was being "reasonable" even if peole were still killed. (i have no idea!)

e) i thought there was an argumetn mary queen of scots was guilt of being complic in the murder (quite concining) or is your point he should have said that ratehr than "murder" ?

f) this isnt' realy a defence but an explanation. A lot of this seems to owe a lot to me to his very storng Marxist tendencies. What matters in history is it's telelogical future and who is "postive" and "negative". It's easy to leave Greys and the difference between you and the past with this kind of explanation.

Gracchi said...

Edmund I'll answer your points in turn.

a. I would agree that ultimately there may be a line which connects Cook to Robertson and Whitehall to the Hague- but I think the relationship is distant and complicated. My own view is that there would be an interesting study to be written on the concept of tyrannicide in early modern England nad how it evolved into today's ideas about state immunity- some sketches towards the first part of that statement were made in Von Freideberg's collection on the subject but this is not that book.

b. I'll chase up the entry on the US constitution, I know its there but can't find it this instant.

c. I disagree. I think toleration was part of radical calvinism but you cannot understand that toleration without seeing how different it was from today's. Calvinists believed roughly that anyone who disagreed with them should be exiled from the national church, and the toleration they advocated was in many cases strictly limited.

d. No not really. There is some evidence that more people were killed on the next day after Drogheda in cold blood. Also Robertson is really applying this comment to Cromwell's conduct during and after the seige as a whole. In context that is how I read the passage and I don't think there is a way you can say that unless you have a rabidly anti-Catholic hatred.

e. That was slightly unfair of me because he couldn't be expected to know this. John Guy though pretty much has shown that the evidence implicating Mary in Darnley's death was forged. I think a verdict of not proven is the worst that can be said in that circumstance.

f. I'm not sure that is uniquely Marxist- though as Skinner says in the interview I've linked to above one of the interesting things about rightwing historians in the mid-20th Century is that they all seemed to be Marxists! I think its a product of going to history and not really letting the past speak for itself but wanting to speak on behalf of the past. I know that is a problematic intention but its a pretty important one.

edmund said...

Thaks for the answers (with one understandably pending)


It strikes me that leaving aside the faked documents the evidence against Mary is fairly damning - even if not necessarily at a legal level in a modern courtroom.

On c) i think those are good points about the limits of toleration but very diffent ones from the one you made. On the natial church that goes for any natinal church does it (and states with natial churches aren ot necessaryily particualry intolerant) - say contemparoy Germany though their treatmetn of several religous minorities has implicaions for the notion tolereancei s that broad today. Obvious the limits of such toleration are important- though arguably none of their contempariries at least in England had any tolerance to limit :) (not quite true but close to)

edmund said...

oh and havne't read skinnmer would be interested whose he thinking of-i do think it explains a lot about robinson's errors (as reported by you)

Gracchi said...

To answer your last point first, Skinner argues in the youtube I posted below that various historians on the right in the mid-century- people like Hugh Trevor Roper- argued that Marxism was wrong not because it was deterministic but because it had in the seventeenth century recognised the wrong determinist mechanism. He also argues that someone like Namier who is interested in the substructure of history has a Marxist tone of thought.

John Guy, who knows more about the issues surrounding Mary than you or I do, disagrees with you. Personally I think there is no doubt that she disliked Darnley- but plenty of wives have disliked their husbands without committing murder and if there had been better evidence Cecil would have used it and Moray would have found it. As it was, they invented many of the casket letters.

I stand by my point in the paragraph above that Calvinism excluded those who were not saved from its church. I have repeated in my comment exactly what I said in my paragraph.

You misunderstand the point about the National Church. Presbyterians and Anglicans wanted a national church which forced everyone to conform. Independents believed in a national church which only admitted you if you conformed and all three groups agreed that political citizenship contained a sacral element.

Toleration did exist in the seventeenth century but it was on a different basis to our toleration, was a much more minor thing than some people like to think and is not identical to congregationalist religious thinking.