John Cook, 1608-60

The chief prosecutor at the King's trial and an active law reformer, he was executed as a regicide in 1660

Portrait of John CookThe chief prosecutor at the King's trial and an active law reformer, John Cook was the son of a Leicestershire landowner and educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and Gray's Inn. Although called to the bar in 1631, Cook found it difficult to set up a practice in London. He was admitted to the King's Inns at Dublin in November 1634 and remained in Ireland for two years, where he was employed by Lord-Deputy Wentworth to prepare a printed version of the Irish Statutes. Cook then spent several years travelling on the Continent.

By 1641, Cook had returned to London. He courageously spoke out in support of his former patron Strafford at the time of his impeachment and offered legal arguments for his defence. In 1646, he was counsel for John Lilburne in his attempt to gain compensation for his persecution by Star Chamber in the 1630s. Cook published several pamphlets advocating legal and social reforms. During the conflict between the New Model Army and Parliament of 1647, he was one of the few lawyers to side with the Army, writing pamphlets to justify the occupation of London and arguing that it was only through the Army that liberty of conscience and reform of the legal system were likely to be be secured.

As a radical lawyer and committed Independent, Cook was an obvious choice for the role of chief prosecutor at the King's trial in January 1649. He drafted the indictment against the King. The speech that he prepared for the prosecution was not used because the King refused to plead, but it was published after his execution. Cook was also involved in the prosecution of the Duke of Hamilton, and that of his former client John Lilburne and other Leveller leaders. In August 1649, Cook accompanied Cromwell on his expedition to Ireland, and in March 1650 he took up an appointment as Chief Justice of Munster. Cook worked vigorously to implement reforms in Munster and succeeded in improving the legal system to the extent that Cromwell remarked that Cook decided more cases in a week than Westminster Hall did in a year.

In February 1660, with the Restoration imminent, Cook was arrested by Sir Charles Coote and sent as a prisoner to the Tower of London. He was exempted from the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion and brought to trial as a regicide in October 1660. Cook skillfully conducted his own defence, but was inevitably found guilty of treason. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 16 October 1660.


Wilfrid Prest, John Cook, Oxford DNB, 2004


Extract from Geoffrey Robertson's The Tyrannicide Brief