John Cowell 1554-1611

From Book Owners Online

John COWELL 1554-1611

Biographical Note

Born at Ernsborough, Devon. BA King’s College, Cambridge 1575, MA 1578, LL.D 1584 (he was persuaded to study civil law by Richard Bancroft, then Bishop of London). Member of Doctors’ Commons, 1590. Official principal to the archdeacon of Colchester 1602, vicar-general to Bancroft (as Archbishop of Canterbury) 1609. He was involved in various legal duties in London and Cambridge, and also pursued an academic career, as regius professor of civil law at Cambridge from 1594, Master of Trinity Hall from 1598, and Vice-Chancellor 1603-04. He published Institutiones juris Anglicani in 1605, and a law dictionary, The interpreter in 1607. This caused controversy with Parliament and other areas of the legal establishment, partly because Cowell was seen to overstate the absolute power of the monarch; James I formally suppressed the book, in order to keep the peace, despite his private sympathies for Cowell’s theories. The interpreter was reprinted numerous times during the 17th and 18th centuries.


Cowell’s will included a list of ca.20 legal titles, many noted as being “in my studie at London”, to be given to King’s College. The remainder of his books were to be given to Trinity Hall, except that any already held by the College should be held back by his executors, for the use of his nephew John Allen, then a student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (MA and fellow 1611, d.1626). Trinity Hall library was built and fitted out with seats and lecterns for chained books during Cowell’s Mastership, though the work may have been started during the time of his predecessor (Thomas Preston, 1585-98); it was also during Cowell’s time that a significant gift of books and manuscripts was given to the College by Robert Hare, in 1604.


  • Cowell’s will, Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor’s Court, 1611.
  • Crawley, C. Trinity Hall, 1976.
  • Dale, A. W. W. (ed), Warren’s book, 1911.
  • Jayne, S. Library catalogues of the English renaissance. Godalming, 1983.
  • Levack, Brian P. "Cowell, John (1554–1611), civil lawyer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.