A Cunning Defence: The Coventry Act Conviction of Coke and Woodburne

Sir John Coventry (d. 1682) was a member of the parliamentary opposition most known for the role that he played in the creation of the Coventry Act of 1671. Coventry, “during a [December, 1670] debate on playhouse tax […] hinted that King Charles II’s interest in the stage was confined to actresses.” Shortly following his comment in parliament, Coventry was attacked and had his nose slit. This attack on Coventry is generally considered to be retaliation by King Charles II: the assailants were given royal pardons to avoid punishment for their crimes. Parliament shortly thereafter passed a new Statute—known as the Coventry Act—making the act of causing injury, by a premeditated assault, a crime:

22 & 23 Car. II. c. 1 – An Act to Prevent Malicious Wounding and Maiming:

Any person on purpose and malice forethought, and by laying in wait, unlawfully cutting out or disabling the tongue, putting out an eye, slitting the nose, cutting off a nose or lip, or cutting or disabling any limb or member of any subject, with intention in so doing to maim or disfigure him; such a person, his counselors, aiders, and abettors, shall be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy.

Despite the fact that the Coventry Act describes an offence that would now be convictable under several criminal laws, there was not a documented indictment under this statute for over fifty years following its inception. Unfortunately, no data is readily available on how many cases were tried under the Coventry Act where the defendants were acquitted. However, on March 13, 1721, Arundel Coke (alias Cooke, Esq.), a lawyer, and John Woodburne simultaneously stood trial for “purpose[fully], and of malice forethought, and by lying in wait […] unlawfully and feloniously mak[ing] an assault” (Coke 4) on Edward Crispe. This trial marked the first conviction under the Coventry Act, resulting in the hanging of both men. Unlike many of the trials on this blog, this one had done no great injustice to anyone—both parties offered confessions during the trial and were subsequently found guilty by the jury. The sentencing hearing, on the other hand, was anything but monotonous. Coke presented a very cunning defence, though it ultimately failed. The rulings that are made in response to Coke’s defence, and the events of the trial, allow for some fascinating observations about the legal system of Britain in the 18th century:

(1) the ‘letter of the law’ was highly important to the jury in establishing whether a person was guilty of a crime.

(2) much like today, judges had the ability to make rulings about the ‘spirit of the law,’ setting legal precedents for subsequent trials.

After the defendants had been sworn in, the Clerk of Arraigns provided a—very long-winded—reading of the charges. John Woodburne plead ‘Not Guilty’ to the charge of:

article-0-0004001500000258-730_634x429 on Purpose, of Malice forethought, and by Lying in wait, ma[d]e an Assault unlawfully and feloniously upon Edward Crispe […and] Slit the Nose of the said Edward Crispe, with an intent in so doing to disfigure the said Edward Crispe (5).

Arundel Coke, likewise, plead ‘Not Guilty’ to the charge of “abetting the Fact, which by the [Coventry] act is made one and the same Offense” (5).

The official language of the Coventry Act is probably getting repetitive already—I attempted to count the amount of times some variation of this charge was read in the trial transcript, but I lost count after the first three pages. However, I promise that there is a reason why I continue to highlight the specificity of the law as it was written.

D28Z-DaiichiTrailerHookSeveral witnesses were called to testify against Coke and Woodburne in order to establish the events that unfolded on January 1st, 1721. According to Crispe’s testimony, Coke invited him to supper on January 1st. After supper, about ten o’clock, Coke proposed that the two men walk to a friend’s house. They started out, crossing through the Churchyard adjacent to Coke’s house, when Mr. Coke began making a loud whistling noise. Upon this signal, Woodburne approached Mr. Crispe from behind and gave him a blow to the head, causing Mr. Crispe to lose his senses. Woodburne then used a ‘hook’ to slash Crispe’s face causing severe damage that Woodburne thought had killed Crispe (17). Coke then returned home, according to the testimony of Mr. Brown (another dinner guest of Coke’s), approximately ten minutes later, “out of breathe, as if he had been walking faster than ordinary” (8). When Brown asked, Coke told him that Crispe had “gone home in the dark” (8). However, after a few minutes, Crispe returned to the house “very much wounded and bloody” (8). Crispe explained that he had regained consciousness after a few minutes and stumbled toward the closest source of people–Coke’s house.

The prosecution called Mr. Sturgeon, the surgeon, to speak next (he was destined to become either a surgeon or a fisherman with a name like that, right?). He was called to Mr. Coke’s house to aid Crispe on the night of January 1st 1721, ultimately saving Crispe’s life by stitching his wounds and providing other medical attention. Sturgeon (the surgeon) gave a detailed account of the injuries that Mr. Crispe had suffered. The Counsel focused on one very specific part of Mr. Sturgeon’s testimony though:


Serj. Selby:      Was his Nose slit?

Sturg:               Yes, Sir, the Nose was cut from without into the Nostril; the Edge of the Nose was not cut through, but there was a Cut or Slit in the Nose that went through. I sow’d it up: it was indeed but with one Stitch; it is yet visible, and the nose was cut through (9-10).

Having such a substantial amount of evidence against them, both Woodburne and Coke stood in front of the court, and gave detailed confessions of their crimes. Content with the amount of evidence, the prosecution and the judge sent the jury to deliberate—though it did not take very long to reach a decision. The jury returned in approximately thirty minutes with the verdict of “Guilty,” for both men (26).

The next day—March 14th, 1721—the men returned to court for their sentencing, and this is where the trial got interesting (and why I kept repeating the official charges). Woodburne declined to speak when asked why he should avoid the penalty of death. Coke, however, used his chance to speak, launching into a very clever defence. Coke claimed that the Coventry act was a:

penal statute, and consequently by the known Rule of Law, not to be carried beyond the express Letter of it; consequently no Crime, of what Nature Magnitude soever, can fall within the Purview of it, but such as is Identically the same in every Circumstance, with that described by the Words of the Statute itself…These circumstances must all concur to constitute that particular Crime described by the Statute; and where any of them are wanting, of what Magnitude soever the Offense may be, ‘tis not the Offense which the Statute has specified (28).

Coke argued that in order to be convicted, the details must rigidly concur with the defined parameters of the law as it is written. That is, if all of the elements of the crime do not match the wording of the law, then the crime is not punishable by that law. Coke continued his defence by quoting several legal precedents where a defendant had been acquitted because the crime did not follow the letter of the law exactly, and that a person must be tried for the most serious crime that his actions match (28-29). He then argued that:

In [his] case, if it be taken upon the Evidence of Mr. Crispe, nothing more appear[ed] than the Assault itself: if [Coke’s] Confession be read, the lying in wait, and the Malice forethought, will be proved; but then it will be likewise proved, that [he] had no other Intention but to Kill, and had no other Part, but by giving Orders to Woodburne for that Purpose; and [his] confession must be taken altogether (29).

Coke’s defence—simply put—is that he did not order Mr. Woodburne to maim Crispe, but to kill him. Furthermore, if the jury convicted him due to his confession of hiring Woodburne to murder Crispe, his statement must be taken as a whole. Therefore, because his intentions were to commit murder and not to maim, he must be acquitted of the conviction under the Coventry Act and tried for murder. Coke goes on to say that because Crispe is alive, he obviously cannot be convicted of murdering Crispe, rendering him innocent of any crime (28-29).

If we recall the prosecution’s constant repetition of the Statute parameters, we get the sense that in the 18th century legal system the letter of the law appears to have much more importance than it does today. Further, it allows us to deduce that the letter of the law was considerably more important to the jury than the spirit of the law. The prosecution not only had to prove the actions of a defendant, but prove that those actions fit the crime they were trying a person for; the prosecutors repeated the crimes in the language of this Statute to the jury over and over again:

on purpose and malice forethought, and by laying in wait […] with intention in so doing to maim or disfigure him; such a person, his counselors, aiders, and abettors, shall be guilty of felony.

The prosecutor also focused heavily on the part of Sturgeon-the-surgeon’s testimony that Woodburne had slit Crispe’s nose during the attack (9-10). This is because the Statute gives a series of examples of ‘maimings,’ one of which is “slitting the nose.” I initially wondered why Coke did not present his defence to the jury during the trial, especially if the jury’s decision is heavily dependent on the letter of the law. I have two hypotheses about this: the first is that, because of the mountain of evidence implicating Coke in the attack the jury would have been apprehensive to determine him innocent of any crime. Secondly, Coke felt that a barrage of legal precedents may have been over the heads of an jury uneducated in the minute details of the law—whereas, a judge may have been more inclined to rule that his objections had legal merit.

After Coke gave his impassioned plea for acquittal, the judge made two rulings:

(1)  “whether all the Circumstances of the Statute did not concur in [Coke’s] case, was a Matter of Fact, which the Jury…ha[d] tried; and on such trial they ha[d] found them all to concur” (Coke 35)

(2) despite the fact that murder was Coke’s intention, he would have had to maim Crispe in the process, based on how the conspirators had planned to murder Crispe; thus the intent to maim was integral in the intent to murder (35-36).

These decisions had the ability to provide several lasting ramifications on the judicial system of England in the 18th century. As can be seen with Coke’s defence, legal precedents were already being used to help determine the outcome of cases with similar circumstances—keep in mind that Coke was a lawyer, himself. By choosing to uphold Coke’s conviction—despite a rather witty use of precedents and deductive reasoning—the judge decided that the spirit of the law had still been broken and that Coke was guilty. Therefore, the judge decided that, in this case, the spirit of the law took precedence over the letter of the law. As this was the first ever conviction based on the Coventry Act: An Act to Prevent Malicious Wounding and Maiming, this judge set some very important legal precedents moving forward. It would now be possible for other judges and justices to use this case as a means to convict a person who premeditatedly attempted a murder, but only succeeded in wounding or maiming the person.

The court’s added emphasis on the spirit of the law has increased drastically in the years since 1721: so much so, in fact, that the letter of the law is no longer a widely known term. In what was a relatively minor court case in the 18th century, the Arundel Coke and John Woodburne case would have been monumental in our society because it was the first conviction under a new law. Court cases with such an ability to set legal precedents today gain an immense media following, and can be seen as intrinsic to the direction of a nation. These precedents are often quoted, used, and debated for years, if not decades. One can’t help but think of the historic Roe v. Wade case in the United States as a prime example of a judge setting a legal precedent, and the amount of attention that important cases like these can get. And on one final note: though he was justly convicted and eventually hanged for a heinous crime against a fellow human, one must give some credit to Mr. Arundel Coke; his failed defence was creative, if nothing else.

Works Cited

Coke, Arundel. The Tryal and Condemnation of Arudenl Coke alias Cooke Esq.; and of John Woodburne labourer, for felony, in slitting the nose of Edward Crispe Gent. London, M.DCC.XXII. (1722). 20 February 2014. Web.