Cowell, Dr. John

, a learned and eminent civilian, was born at Ernsborough, in Devonshire, about 1554; educated at Eton school; and elected a scholar of King’s college in Cambridge, in 1570. He was afterwards chosen fellow of that college; and, by the advice of Bancroft bishop of London, applied himself particularly to the study of ci-vil law. He was regularly admitted to the degree of LL.D. in his own university; and, in 1600, was incorporated into the same degree at Oxford. Soon after he was made the king’s professor of civil law in Cambridge, and about the same time master of Trinity-hall. His patron, Bancroft, being advanced to the see of Canterbury in 1604, and beginning to project many things for the service of the church and state, put him upon that laborious, work the “Interpreter,” or an explanation of law-terms, which he published at Cambridge in 1607, 4to. It was reprinted in 1609, and several times since, particularly in 1638, for which archbishop Laud was reflected upon; and | it was made an article against him at his trial, as if the impression of that book had been done by his authority, or at least with his connivance, in order to countenance king Charles’s arbitrary measures. In 1677 and 1684 it was published with large additions by Thomas Manley of the Middle Temple, esq. and again in 1708, with very considerable improvements, by another hand: in all which later editions the exceptionable passages have been corrected or omitted.

In the mean time Bancroft was so satisfied with the abilities and learning shewn in the “Interpreter,” that he appointed the author his vicar-general in 1608: nor was this performance censured for some time. But at last great offence was taken at it, because, as was pretended, the author had spoken too freely, and with expressions even of sharpness, of the common law, and some eminent professors of it, Littleton in particular: and this irritated sir Edward Coke especially, who was not only privately concerned for the honour of Litileton, whom he had commented upon, but also valued himself as the chief advocate of his profession. Sir Edward took all occasions to affront him, and used to call him in derision Doctor Cow-heel; and, not satisfied with this, he endeavoured to hurt him with the king, by suggesting that Dr. Cowell “had disputed too nicely upon the mysteries qf this our monarchy, yea, in some points, very derogatory to the supreme power of this crown and had asserted that the king’s prerogative is in some cases limited.” This was touching James ia a most tender part, and had probably ruined Cowell, if the archbishop had not stood his friend. The common lawyers, however, whose contests with the civilians then ran very high, finding that they coukl not hurt him with the king, resolved to try what they could do with the people, and represented him now as a betrayer of the rights and liberties of the people; in consequence of which a complaint was carried up against him in the house of commons, and the author was committed to custody, and his book publicly burnt. The commons also complained of him to the lords, as equally struck at; and he was censured by them for asserting, 1. That the king was solutus a legibus, and not bound by his coronation-oath. 2. That it was not ex necessitate, that the king should call a parliament to make laws, but might do that by his absolute power: for that voluntas regis with him was lex populi. 3. That it vvas a favour | to admit the consent of his subjects in giving of subsidies. 4. That he draws his arguments from the imperial laws of the Roman emperors, which are of no force in England." The commons were therefore very desirous to proceed criminally against him, if the king had not interposed. But upon his majesty’s promise to condemn the doctrines of the book as absurd, together with the author of them, they proceeded no farther. In both prosecutions of this work, the malice of Cowell’s enemies was obvious, for the same book could not have had a tendency to infringe upon the prerogative of the king and the liberties of the subject.

Cowell retired after this to his college, where he pursued his private studies, but did not live long. It was his misfortune to be afflicted with the stone, the operation for which proved fatal to him Oct. 11, 1611. He was buried in his chapel of Trinity-hall, where there is a plain Latin inscription to his memory. Besides “The Interpreter,” he had published ifi 1605, “Institutes of the Laws of England, in the same method as Justinian’s Institutes.” He also composed a tract “De regulis juris, Of the rules of the law,” wherein his intent was by collating the cases of both laws, to shew that they are both raised upon one foundation, and differ more in language and terms, than in substance; and therefore, were they reduced to one method, as they easily might, to be attained in a manner with all one pains. But it does not appear that this last was ever published. 1


Biog. Brit. Wood’s Fasti, voi. I. Some ingenious remarks in D' Israeli’s Calamities of Authors. Prince’s Worthies of Devon. Fuller’s Worthies. Coote’s Catalogue of Civilians.