Not as black as he’s painted
Judge Jeffreys came to Dorchester for the ‘Bloody Assize’ after the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 and has been remembered ever since as one of the town’s most infamous villains. But Tony Burton-Page digs deep and finds that he was little more than a civil servant doing an unpleasant job.
Published in February ’12
Dorchester has had its fair share of distinguished visitors, from the Roman general Vespasian (a future Emperor) to Prince Charles (a future King – perhaps). Vespasian was probably the less welcome of these two, but the least welcome of all Dorchester’s visitors must surely be George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem, notorious for more than three centuries as ‘The Hanging Judge’ or ‘Bloody Jeffreys’. Even today it is a name synonymous with blood-lust and excessive cruelty.
His visit to Dorchester was an official one, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice. He had been sent by James II, the Catholic king, to punish those who had taken part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Popular history would have it that this was not so much a duty as a pleasure for Jeffreys, who was cast as the villain of the piece in the immediate aftermath and has remained so ever since. This reputation was foisted on him by a propaganda machine which makes 21st-century spin-doctors seem timid and toothless in comparison: it has been left to modern historians to reveal the unpalatable truth that Judge Jeffreys was not a combination of Hitler, Stalin and Voldemort rolled into one but merely an obedient servant of a ruthless king. And yet the mud still sticks: there is much wisdom in that old saw, ‘When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.’
The 17th century was perhaps the most remarkable in British history. A king was executed, a republic was created and dismantled, a monarchy was restored. The historical chronicles of any other country would talk of revolution and counter-revolution; but the concept of a ‘British Revolution’ is as alien as the idea of a tragic opera by Morecambe and Wise. Political thought at the time was dominated by three fears: Catholicism, France and arbitrary power. Charles II managed to keep all three at bay by clever (if not Machiavellian) manipulation, such as the Secret Treaty of Dover – the secret part being that he would declare himself a Catholic in return for grants of French money. But when Charles died in 1685, his brother James came to the throne, and he was openly Catholic, openly pro-French and openly in favour of absolute monarchy, thus embodying all three fears in a clean sweep.
By now the English political world had split itself into two factions: the Whigs, who had wanted to exclude James from the throne, and the Tories, who supported the Crown and the Establishment. Even before James’s accession, the Whigs had been desperate for an alternative to him, and they had found the ideal candidate in Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth, a popular and able military leader, who had been doted on by his father and who was a favourite at Court. The Whig faction, inspired by the Dorset-born Earl of Shaftesbury, promoted Monmouth constantly during the last years of Charles’s reign, and it was hardly surprising that a full-scale challenge was launched within months of the start of James II’s reign, even though Shaftesbury had meanwhile died.
Monmouth and his ‘invasion force’ (a mere three vessels) landed at Lyme Regis on 11 June 1685. He marched northwards, gathering support as he went, so that within a week his army was said to be 3000 strong, and on 20 June Monmouth was declared king. But none of this was unexpected by James II and his government, and they mobilised the part-time troops known as militias which every county had been equipped with since the days of Queen Elizabeth. They also had all the royal regiments at their disposal. The two sides met at Sedgemoor, near Bridgwater in Somerset, on 6 July, where the superior training of the King’s forces led to a rout of the rebels.
Monmouth himself was eventually captured, taken to London and beheaded at the Tower on 15 July. This was not enough for the King, however, who wanted an example to be made of the rebels, and he sent a team of five judges down to the West Country to exact vengeance on his behalf, led by the Lord Chief Justice, George Jeffreys.
The team began its Assizes at Winchester on 25 August and arrived in Dorchester after a session in Salisbury. Salisbury, being a Royalist town, had not detained them long, but at Winchester there was a foretaste of what was to come. Dame Alice Lisle, an elderly widow whose grandfather was William Bond of Blackmanston in Purbeck, was found guilty of treason for sheltering a member of Monmouth’s army after Sedgemoor and was sentenced to death. For a woman, this meant being burnt at the stake, as the hanging, drawing and quartering imposed on men for treason was considered offensive to public dignity since it would have involved a degree of nakedness. However, her sentence was commuted to beheading. What the contemporary populist accounts omitted was the fact that Jeffreys recommended her to write to the King for mercy (even providing her with pen and paper) and that it was the King, not Jeffreys, who insisted on her death.
Jeffreys was not a well man when he arrived at Dorchester on Saturday 5 September. He was suffering from kidney stones. It is often said that the pain involved in passing them is the nearest men ever get to the pain of childbirth; certainly anyone who has passed even one small stone can attest to an excruciating agony, even with 21st-century painkillers. Jeffreys was a habitual sufferer, and his only relief was alcohol. Contemporary reports frequently refer to his drinking, but the reason is never mentioned; in fact, it was kidney disease that finally killed him four years later.
Jeffreys stayed at 6 High West Street, which had been taken over by the Mayor and Aldermen in 1683 as a judge’s lodging. It was even then an old house and probably needed attention, but its discomfort would have been mitigated for Jeffreys by the excellence of the wines in the cellar. (Indeed, it is a restaurant now and has been for several decades, although the strength of today’s vintages would probably not have satisfied this particular oenophile.)
The trials began in what is now the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel. There were three hundred rebels to be tried, and that morning thirty were brought before the judges. They all pleaded not guilty, even though they had been caught with weapons in their hands. One of the quintet of judges, Sir Henry Pollexfen (who was the Chief Prosecutor – not Jeffreys), realised that if this continued, the Assize would take not weeks, but years. He took it upon himself to inform the prisoners that if they pleaded guilty they might escape execution, but if they pleaded not guilty and were subsequently convicted, they would be executed with the minimum of delay. That afternoon 68 prisoners pleaded guilty. Of the not guilty group, only one was acquitted, the rest being sentenced to die two days later. In fact only thirteen were executed that day, probably because hanging and quartering was not only physically demanding for the executioners but also time-consuming.
The next day was a Sunday, and Jeffreys went across the road to St Peter’s Church for the morning service. Legend has it that the profane judge burst into laughter when the preacher touched on the subject of clemency, but, given the nature of the man and his medical condition, it is beyond the bounds of probability. It is, admittedly, possible that he may at some stage have emitted a pained shriek as acknowledgement of renal colic, but it is hardly the same thing.
The following Monday a further 103 cases were heard, and 69 more on the Tuesday. In all, 251 were sentenced to death at Dorchester, but only 74 were executed in the end. Thirteen of those actually took place at Dorchester. The site of the gallows, at the junction of South Walks Road and Icen Way, is marked by Elisabeth Frink’s ‘Dorset Martyrs’, three striking bronze figures placed as a memorial to all those executed at Gallows Hill for ‘conscience’ sake. Other executions of those condemned at Dorchester took place at Lyme, Weymouth, Sherborne, Poole, Bridport and Wareham. The whole purpose of these hangings and the subsequent drawing and quartering was to strike horror into the countryside and to serve as a gruesome warning to would-be rebels: the preserved remains would be set up for public view all over
Jeffreys has had a bad press ever since the ‘Bloody Assizes’. All accounts agree that he played what seems to us today to be an improperly large part in many trials, but since the law of the time did not allow the accused access to counsel, the judge had to supervise both prosecution and defence and himself examine the witnesses. It was his duty to excavate the facts and present his discoveries to the jury. Jeffreys was no worse than other judges of his time. He was a servant of the King; the King had demanded vengeance, and his servants had to supply it.