A brave and visionary alumnus

7th September 2021

News, Student news, Alumni news

A striking new portrait looks out over activities in the Senior Common Room, a gift from former Warden Ken Macdonald QC.

In effect, John Cooke invented the notion of crimes against humanity, which is used to this day to bring tyrants to account.  

Ken Macdonald QC, former Warden

  • Detail from portrait of John Cooke by Richard Twose (¬©Wadham College)

    Detail from portrait of John Cooke by Richard Twose (©Wadham College)

We have a portrait of Charles I staring down at us rather imperiously from a wall in the Old Library. I thought it time we had one of his nemesis, John Cooke, our brave and visionary alumnus, too

Ken Macdonald QC

The portrait of John Cooke (1624), painted by Richard Twose was commissioned by Lord Macdonald and presented to the College at his leaving dinner.

“Cooke was a man well ahead of his time… in my view he was one of our greatest alumni,” said Lord Macdonald.
 
“From a modest background, he became a lawyer and, even in the mid-17th Century, advocated for the abolition of the death penalty and the imprisonment of children, for lawyers to give free assistance to the poor, and for a right to silence which he did more than any other English lawyer to develop in his defence of John Lilburne the Leveller’s leader. 
 
“When Cromwell made him Solicitor General and asked him to lead the prosecution of Charles I, Cooke devised for the first time an indictment which accused a monarch of crimes against his own people. In effect, he invented the notion of crimes against humanity, which is used to this day to bring tyrants to account.  Contemporaneous commentators described Cooke’s conduct of the trial of Charles I as ‘the moment divine monarchy collided with human law and bowed before it’.
 
“After the restoration, Cooke was one of 12 people named by the new monarch as undeserving of a pardon. He was given a travesty of a trial and sentenced to death. Shortly before his execution he wrote to his wife, Mary: ‘We acted for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation, had the nation not delighted more in servitude than in freedom’.
 
“We have a portrait of Charles I staring down at us rather imperiously from a wall in the Old Library. I thought it time we had one of his nemesis, John Cooke, our brave and visionary alumnus, too.”