The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke : 1552-1634
by Catherine Drinker Bowen
Yes I know this looks like a ridiculous book to read, but the only thing ridiculous is how hard it is to get the thing and how good it is. Actually it's not that hard. You can buy it on Amazon new for 170 bucks. I was working in the Law Library last summer and I came upon it in the stacks and thought it was probably the only book worth reading in the entire collection except for, of course, Gastonia 1929: the Story of the Loray Mill Strike (communists, murder, rednecks: the only book that has ever featured communists and rednecks together).
Sir Edward Coke was an extraordinary man. He pretty much upheld English common law single-handedly against the absolutist minded Stuarts. Because he fought tooth and nail we now enjoy freedom of speech, Habeous Corpus, procedure and jurisdiction and he can probably be accorded credit for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The prose is engaging and rich. The cast of characters is long and so is the important historical events that Coke was witness to and an actor in: the Spanish Armada, the Union of the Crowns, the Gunpowder Plot, the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh. the British Civil War, Sir Francis Bacon being a toady little jerk while also establishing the scientific method and creating the game "Six Degrees of Separation from Sir Francis Bacon" (not as fun as it sounds). You can easily see why it won the 1956 National Book Award, or at least I can.