John Cowell was born in Swymbridge, Devonshire and died in Cambridge on 11 October 1611. He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge. He graduated BA in 1575, MA in 1578 and LL.D. in 1588. He was a Civil Lawyer and held the Regius Professorship of Civil Law at Cambridge from 1594 until his death. Cowell was a friend of Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the archbishop's vicar-general from 1608, and from 1605 served on the most powerful of the Church courts, the High Commission. In 1605 he published a Latin work on English law, the Institutiones juris Anglicani. This was an attempt to codify English law on lines suggested by Roman Law. The code was to be used as a basis for comparing English and Scottish law, with the idea of uniting the two systems – a union deeply desired by James I and disliked by the House of Commons. Far more famous than the Institutiones was Cowell's The Interpreter: or Booke containing the Signification of Words, which was printed at Cambridge in 1607. For the most part, this was a useful and uncontroversial law dictionary, but in a few articles Cowell expressed opinions which greatly annoyed members of the House of Commons. Some of the objectionable passages were critical of the common law and common lawyers, while others granted the king greater powers than many thought fit. Cowell made fun of the medieval lawyer Thomas Littleton, whose work on land tenures was widely regarded as a classic of common law literature, and praised by Sir Edward Coke as the most perfect book on any science. Discussing ‘Parlament [sic]’ (sig.3A3v), Cowell argued that although English kings graciously consulted the two Houses in legislating, England was an absolute monarchy in which the king was above the law, and he repeated the same ideas in his articles on the ‘King’ (sig.2Q1r) and the ‘Praerogative of the King’ (sig.3D3r). While Coke claimed that the common law had remained largely unchanged since the earliest times, Cowell asserted that it had been greatly altered (‘Law’, sig.2R2v). Coke frequently issued prohibitions, bringing cases out of the Church courts and into the common law courts. Cowell inveighed against the practice (‘Prohibition’, sig.3F3v), prayed that the Church's liberties would be better maintained in the future, and argued that the Church had decayed ever since representatives of the clergy had been excluded from the Commons.
From The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy in Oxford Reference.