Despite his high reputation, there is a lot not to like about Coke (gold-digger, involvement in some very abusive trials and persecutions, tendency to misrepresent and mis-cite medieval cases …). It is, therefore, always satisfying to be able to point out his grosser follies in the field of ‘legal fake news’. They don’t come much grosser than his much-quoted tale of the Great Lady and her sexual relationship with a baboon.
This comes in his discussion of buggery. [3 Co. Inst. 59] From buggery, he goes on to bestiality (grudging admission that this is justified by the statute he is discussing, which also does so), and this is illustrated by the story of the Great Lady who manages to become pregnant by a baboon. Coke places this some time before the passing of Henry VIII’s act against buggery [25 Henry VIII]. Neither the lady nor the baboon is named, and it is not clear whether a human-baboon baby was supposed to have been produced. Obviously this is biological nonsense, and it looks as if Coke is caught out either making things up or not checking his plea rolls to confirm the facts. Nevertheless, it is quoted over and over again, without any doubt being cast upon the tale – such was his canonisation. [E.g. in Anon., A Treatise of Femes Coverts or the Lady’s Law (London, 1732), 52; and there are examples at least into the 1820s].
If it is not absolute fabrication, the story might have its origin in some very unfortunate and misunderstood birth of a very disabled baby, given a back-story blaming the mother. We know such tales were told. If it is a fabrication, that fits in all too well with Coke’s striking, and sadly influential, misogyny, which damaged women’s chances of improving their legal position for centuries after his death: cases on areas including dower and the right to practise law frequently cited Coke to the disadvantage of women. And yet this was a man who alleged that a woman and a baboon could conceive a baby.
The anti-Coke backlash starts here!