Remembering usurpation: the common lawyers, Reformation narratives and the prerogative, 1578–1616


  • The author thanks Charles Donahue, Paul Halliday, Mark Kishlansky, Ian Williams, Nicholas Popper, Louis Knafla, Ann Blair, Darryl Dee and John McDiarmid for their comments and advice on this article. Thanks are also due to Suzy Nelson for her support and to Harvard University for the financial aid needed to undertake the archival research. The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


In a number of historical accounts Sir Edward Coke and other lawyers claimed that the common law had been a bulwark against popish encroachment prior to the Reformation. Anxiety over a renewal of clerical usurpation and a desire to preserve royal authority continued to inform their attitudes to the reformed English church courts. Although the common lawyers who wrote these histories shared several underlying assumptions, they nonetheless reached very different conclusions. By exposing these divisions and explaining common law attitudes towards the church courts and the prerogative, this article challenges received views on the ‘common law mind’.