The Execution of a Prosecutor or a little-known Historical Fact…
H. Auden wrote his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” after viewing Brueghel’s painting of the tragic death of Icarus, a mythic legend who plummeted into the sea when the wax on his wings melted flying too close to the sun. But Brueghel depicts Icarus’ fall as nothing more than a distant, barely visible splash of white leg. He places in the foreground a homely ploughman who does not see the splash or even hear the cry of Icarus.
What the poem illustrates is a simple but dramatic point. Not just the Napoleons and Lincolns belong in the foreground of great events. Room must be made for those on the margins, the unheralded and unacknowledged who are shunted aside by the chroniclers of history. Such individuals who witness and often suffer the consequences of recorded events must be recognized as well if we are to illuminate the shadowy corners of time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, kings, too, are simply the slaves of history.
As a writer, I find myself drawn to those who provide new perspectives at the margins. Take the 17th-century regicide of England’s King Charles I. For the first time in Western history, a king was sentenced legally to death by common law. I was drawn to the drama of this monumental act, but while doing research in the rare book room of the New York Public Library, struggling with the inconsistent orthography of the fragile 17th-century manuscripts, I found the name of John Cooke, the reluctant Puritan lawyer who prosecuted the king. In the accepted history of that time, the focus seemed always on the king and his tragic execution along with the triumphant return of the king’s son, Charles II, to the throne.
Then I came across a book, The Tyrannicide Brief, by the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. Even the title suggests a new perspective. Instead of regicide, Mr. Robertson calls it tyrannicide: a trial of a tyrant, not simply a king. Mr. Cooke, a prominent and positive focus in Mr. Robertson’s account, emerges as a lawyer possessed of a rare sense of justice and humility, arguing truth to power when no other lawyer in London dared take on the assignment to try a king.
Even the king’s trial and execution are described in most chronicles as a majestic, divine ritual full of the pomp and circumstance associated with royalty, whereas John Cooke is tried and summarily convicted in a day in a kangaroo court controlled by Charles II, the newly restored king. Mr. Cooke is afforded no legal protection whatsoever and is quickly and brutally executed, first drawn and quartered alive before he is beheaded, to be remembered as a mere footnote in the annals of history.
But it became John Cooke’s character and tragedy that soon became the focus of my work, Vindication, a theatrical drama depicting, in the first act, the lengthy trial and the oddly magisterial execution of the king and, in the second act, the mock trial and brutal execution of Mr. Cooke.
For centuries, as in the case of John Cooke, historians often ignore the necessary and sometimes tragic perspective and turn a minor figure into a faint footnote.
In truth, Mr. Cooke, before his tragic and vengeful execution, published a pamphlet, “The Vindication of the Professors and Profession of Law,” that resulted ultimately in necessary changes to the common law that protect both defense lawyers and prosecutors from legal jeopardy in our courts today.