John Coke was born in 1563. He held office in the reign of James I and Charles I. He is sometimes described as “the last Tudor.” He was from a Derbyshire family. His father Richard Coke of Trusley married a Sacheverel heiress. He ensured that John was well educated first at Westminster and then at Cambridge. From there in 1593 he travelled in Europe – ostensibly on a sort of early Grand Tour, in practice it would appear that he had gained the patronage of Sir Fulke Greville who was in turn part of the 2nd earl of Essex’s affinity – demonstrating not only was it a question of what you knew but who you knew to make progress in Tudor and Stuart times – and was merrily admiring views and recruiting agents.
Obviously there could have been a rather tricky moment when the earl of Essex tumbled from power and Greville’s position and thus Coke’s weakened still further with the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 but Coke knew the way that the navy operated. Coke with his book keeping acumen had made himself indispensable as a navy secretary (think of him as a fore-runner to Samuel Pepys without the wit), or so he thought! The problem with having a patron though was that if they fell you fell as well – and this was what happened to Coke when Greville lost office at the start of James’ reign thanks to the machinations of the duke of Suffolk.
By 1614 Greville was back – this time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. By this time Coke was married to the daughter of another member of the Greville affinity but he felt unable to trust the political shilly-shallying between Greville and Suffolk. It was, therefore, only in 1618 that he returned to public life when another friend invited him to accept a job in the royal household – and that meant he came under the sway of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Greville and Villiers were looking at strategies to save money and Coke was returned to the navy office. Finally he began to climb the administrative ladder. He had the right education and the right social background. It helped that he was appointed to a board of enquiry for the navy which became a board of governors – at its own recommendation- it helped also that Coke was so good with figures because like Greville before him Villiers came to rely on him for information.
In 1621 Coke was elected MP for Warwick. He had became associated with the duke of Buckingham who was also at the admiralty at that point in proceedings. His career thus far matches to any other member of the gentry but by 1624 he had been knighted and in 1625 he had officiated as Master of Requests and from there became secretary of state – he held a number of other offices as well. He continued as an MP for various locations until Charles I decided that he did not require parliament any more. In his role as secretary of State, he was the man responsible for trotting along to Parliament and asking them for the money that King Charles I wanted. He was also responsible for defending Charles I’s and the duke of Buckingham’s disastrous foreign policy. It is perhaps not surprising that he wasn’t wildly popular with his colleagues in Parliament and his speeches did nothing to help the king’s position – he was an adamant royalist who believed in absolute monarchy and was fiercely anti-papist. He appears to have been a capable administrator – certainly he left the administration of the navy in a better shape than he found it and he could also be described as loyal to his two royal masters even when he wrote about the fact that there were insufficient funds to pay the sailors that Charles’ wanted to wage war on the Spanish. The volume of his correspondence also demonstrates how industrious he was.
By 1629 Sir John, industriousness and loyalty aside, had accrued sufficient funds to purchase Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire which had formerly, and somewhat bizarrely, been in the ownership of the Bishops of Carlisle according to Burke. Initially he leased the property but this expired during his tenure so was able to purchase Melbourne Hall through act of Parliament. He set about renovating it at vast expense but rather than the more modern European style favoured by his royal master he adhered to a more Elizabethan looking interior. In order to ensure that he got exactly what he wanted he sent very detailed instructions to his builder – 32 pages of instructions.
By 1639 the country or rather countries were on the verge of war. Charles insisted on imposing the English Prayer Book on Scotland. Suffice it to say the reforms imposed by Archbishop William Laud and the king did not go down well in either England or Scotland – for many of a more Puritan persuasion the changes looked remarkably like a return to Catholicism.
Coke retained his role as secretary of State during Charles I’s twelve years of personal rule without parliament. It was only in 1640 that it was decided that he needed to leave. Some historians say that he was the scapegoat for Charles I’s rather unfortunate Scottish War which resulted in Parliament being recalled but Coke himself always insisted that he had retired. He was replaced by Sir Henry Vane.
Somewhat unexpectedly John’s eldest son also named John was a Parliamentarian whilst it was his younger son Thomas who was a royalist.
Aside from shouldering some of the burden of Charles I’s not inconsiderable unpopularity History knows rather a lot about Sir John Coke because he kept his correspondence. He died in 1644 at his home in Tottenham.
Burke, John. (1838) A genealogical and heraldic history of the commoners of Great Britain and Ireland
Moody, T. (1939). The Last Elizabethan: Sir John Coke, 1563-1644. By Coke Dorothea . pp. xvi, 322. London: Murray. 1937. 15s. Irish Historical Studies, 1(4), 438-439. doi:10.1017/S002112140003193X