The Bloody Assizes and the Demon Judge, George Jeffreys

Historical Context 

With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the newly-elected Parliament “restored” Charles II to the throne of England. Charles II’s reign (1660-1685) was marked by political unrest. The ruling class split into two parties: the Whigs and the Tories. The Whigs supported Charles’s brother, James, the Catholic heir to the throne. They believed in constitutional monarchism and opposed absolute rule. The Whigs played a central role in 1688’s Glorious Revolution and were the standing enemies of the Stuart kings and pretenders, who were Roman Catholic. They took full control of England’s government in 1715 and remained in control until King George II came to the throne in 1760.  The Whigs were reliant on parliamentary power and distrustful of the Catholic Church.

Charles II

The Tories, on the other hand, remained sympathetic to royal power and the reestablishment of the Anglican Church. They were hostile to Protestant “dissenters,” such as the Baptists, the Quakers, and the Presbyterians.

Each side tried to outmaneuver the other in its power struggle. Unfortunately, the Whigs tried one too many manipulations when they encouraged Titus Oates to lodge conspiracy and treason charges against James and other governmental officials of Catholic sympathies. “God, King, and Country”

Charles II disbelieved Oates’s conspiracy theories, but he dared not to confront Oates openly. In 1681, he was able to dissolve a Whig parliament and rule directly, with the support of the Tories. Charles II’s reign saw the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665, as well as the Great Plague in the same year and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

James II

Charles II died in 1685 after being received into the Roman Catholic Church on his deathbed, and his brother James II came to the throne. Although he was a known Catholic, James II did not impose his beliefs upon his people, but most Whigs did not believe him. Therefore, a Whig faction supported a revolt by Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. The revolt was quickly dispensed, and James sent Judge George Jeffreys to deal out his “revenge.” The result was what is known as The Bloody Assizes.

Full of confidence, James II dismissed Parliament (1685) and appointed Catholic officials, even going so far as to ally himself with the much-despised Louis XIV of France. In 1686, James took measures to restore Catholicism in England and to set up a standing army of 13,000 troops. A like army was supported in Ireland, which created large pockets of distrust among the English. The execution of the Duke of Monmouth united James’s Whig opposition behind the only remaining Protestant claimant to the throne, William of Orange, husband to Mary, James’s daughter. In 1688, Whigs and disenchanted Tories invited William to England to restore English liberties and to drive James from the throne. In 1688, James abdicated and fled to exile in France.

The Bloody Assizes were a series of trials, which began on August 25, 1685, in the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor, which ended the Monmouth Rebellion. There were five judges: Sir William Montague (Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer); Sir Robert Wright; Sir Francis Wythens (Justice of the King’s Bench); Sir Creswell Levinz (Justice of the Common Pleas), and Sir Henry Polexfen. The group was under the direction of Dorset’s Demon Judge, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys.

George Jeffreys:

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

In June 1685, James Scott, the first Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of King Charles II, landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset, bringing with him a bloody swatch of rebellion. In the days that followed, horror filled the hearts and minds of those living in the area. Monmouth brought some eighty trained soldiers with him. When King Charles II died, his Catholic brother, James, the Duke of York, who became King James II, succeeded him. However, Monmouth, a Protestant, made a bloody bid for the throne.

Landing in Lyme Regis, Monmouth marched across the West Country towards Taunton, into Somerset, Devon, and back to Dorset, gathering support for his bid. The revolt soon became known as The Pitchfork Rebellion. When word reached James II of his “nephew’s” efforts to claim the throne, James II sent an army, commanded by Lord Faversham, to crush the revolt.

On July 6, the two armies clashed at the Battle of Sedgemoor, where Monmouth’s army, along with the Duke, fled. The following morning, disguised as a farm laborer and hiding in a ditch at a spot now known as Monmouth’s Ash, the Duke was captured near Horton Heath, about 8 miles south of the hamlet of Woodyates. Escorted immediately to London, Monmouth was tried for treason and, eventually, beheaded on Tower Hill on July 15, 1685.

George Jeffreys

As part of his revenge on those who stood with Monmouth, King James II sent his most ruthless judge, George Jeffreys, the First Baron Jeffreys of Wem, to deal with the rebels. Jeffreys held a reputation for swift justice and merciless sentences; he, eventually, rose to the position of Lord Chancellor, and occasionally served as Lord High Steward.  Some 1400 prisoners were brought before Jeffreys at the courts of Winchester, Taunton, and Dorchester. The court hearings were given the title of The Bloody Assizes, for some 300 men were put to death during the proceedings. Those found guilty by Jeffreys were hanged or drawn and quartered. Rotting bodies hung from makeshift gallows peppered the main highways and towns in the area. These gruesome sights were a clear warning to those who might force the king’s hand. Another 800 men were sentenced for transportation.

From his Prescript to the Sheriff of Dorset, Jeffreys leaves these orders: “These are, therefore, to will and require of you, immediately on sight hereof, to erect a gallows in the most public place to hand the said traytors on, and that you provide halters to hang them with, a sufficient number of faggots to burn the bowels, and a furnace or cauldron to boil their heads and quarters, and salt to boil them with, half a bushel to each traytor, and tar to tar them with, and a sufficient number of spears and poles to fix and place their heads and quarters; and that you warn the owners of four oxen to be ready with dray and wain, and the said four oxen, at the time hereafter mentioned for execution, and you yourselves together with a guard of forty able men at the least, to be present by eight o’clock of the morning to be aiding and assisting me or my deputy to see the said rebels executed. You are also to provide an axe and a cleaver for the quartering of the said rebels.”

Judge Jeffreys opened the Bloody Assizes at Dorchester on 5 September 1685 at the Antelope Hotel in the “Oak Room.” During his stay in Dorchester, Jeffreys stayed at a house in High West Street, a building, which is still known as his lodgings, and made his way to the courtroom by a secret passage in order to avoid the angry crowds. In one of his more infamous manipulations, Jeffreys convinced a young girl to spend the night in his bed in exchange for her brother’s freedom. When the girl woke the next morning, she peered out the window to see her brother hanging from the neck by a Bridport Dagger. (The town of Bridport was known for the production of netting and rope for the fishing industry and for use by the British navy. Bridport was also known for the production of the hangman’s rope. It was customary to say that those who were hanged were “stabbed by a Bridport Dagger.”) By the time, Jeffreys moved on to Lyme Regis, he had sentenced 74 men to death, sent another 175 to transportation, had 9 whipped, and pardoned 55.

On 11 September 1685, the Bloody Assizes opened at Lyme Regis. On the 12th of September, twelve men were executed on the beach west of the Cobb, and their body parts were displayed on spikes along the railings around the church. Two of the men’s heads were impaled on the iron gates of Chatham House. Jeffreys had dined at the great house on Broad Street the evening before the executions. Since that time, Jeffreys’ ghost is said to carry a bloody bone through the house.

This ghost tale is circumspect at best. After all, in reality, Jeffreys died some four years after the Bloody Assizes ended. During the Glorious Revolution, Jeffreys stayed in London when James II fled However, when William III’s troops marched into the city, Jeffreys disguised himself as a sailor and made his escape. He was captured at a public house in Wapping (now named The Town of Ramsgate). Fearing the public outcry for his “crimes,” Jeffreys begged for protection. On 18 April 1689, he died of kidney failure while in custody in the Tower of London.

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5 Responses to The Bloody Assizes and the Demon Judge, George Jeffreys

  1. thehistoryvault says:

    Such a fascinating period of history. It actually took five attempts before Monmouth’s executioner managed to chop his head off. He, supposedly, had to resort to his pocket knife. Very gruesome!

    • Wow! I learned something new today. I had no idea about the pocket knife. I knew there were multiple attempts to behead Monmouth.

      • thehistoryvault says:

        The executioner, John Ketch, actually had to print an apology for an earlier botched beheading to Lord Russell that had gone equally as wrong.

  2. I only have recently become familiar with these times/tales. Thanks for adding to my knowledge.

  3. Pingback: Britain: 1685 peasant rebellion in new poems | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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