Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes
James Scott was the illegitimate son of Charles II by his mistress Lucy Walter. As a king’s son, even one conceived on the wrong side of the sheets, he was given many titles including Duke of Monmouth. In 1685, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth rose in rebellion against the Catholic King James II of England; it proved a costly error for him and the rebels.
The Monmouth Rebellion
Charles II died in 1685 without having sired a legitimate heir to the throne, so the crown passed to his brother James. The new king was a Catholic and this did not sit well with the Protestants who saw the Duke of Monmouth as a champion for their cause.
A County of Somerset history website recounts that, “Monmouth, then living in Holland, was persuaded to lead an invasion, long planned but never properly prepared ... He sailed from Holland to Lyme Regis in Dorset with three small ships and 82 men, short of money, guns, and supplies.”
Several thousand men joined Monmouth’s army but they were mostly untrained peasants armed with farm implements, giving rise to the affair being called The Pitchfork Rebellion.
On July 6, 1685 the rebels met the king’s professional army at Sedgemoor in Somerset. Britain Express reports that the amateurs fought bravely but were overwhelmed: “Perhaps 1,300 rebels were killed in the battle and the pursuit that followed, and another 500 were captured and held in the Westonzoyland church.”
Battle of Sedgemoor Re-enactment
The Punishment of Dame Alice Lisle
James II appointed Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys to deal with the captured rebels. The first to taste the cruelty that marked Judge Jeffreys’s version of justice was Dame Alice Lisle. The 68-year-old member of the landed gentry gave shelter to a couple of fugitives from the Battle of Sedgemoor.
According to Executed Today, Dame Alice took in the men out of humanitarian concern and was not a supporter of the rebellion. No matter, she was charged with treason and the jury, under pressure from Judge Jeffreys to get a move on, reluctantly found her guilty.
The judge set the tone for what was to come by sentencing the elderly lady to be burned at the stake the same afternoon as the verdict was passed. She was, however, given a few days to compose herself and was granted the privilege of being beheaded instead; a sentence that was carried out in Winchester on September 2, 1685.
The Bloody Assizes
Judge Jeffreys then moved his court on to Dorchester to hear the cases of the rebels captured after the collapse of Monmouth’s Rebellion.
Bishop Gilbert Burnet in his History of His Own Time paints a very unflattering picture of the judge: “His behaviour was beyond anything that was ever heard of in a civilized nation. He was perpetually either drunk or in a rage, more like a fury than the zeal of a judge. He required the prisoners to plead guilty: and in that case he gave them some hope of favour, if they gave him no trouble; otherwise he told them, he would execute the letter of the law upon them in its utmost severity.”
Even so, hundreds who entered a guilty plea were ordered hanged and, says Bishop Burnet, the sentence was carried out immediately, “without allowing them a minute’s time to say their prayers.” There is confusion about exactly how many were executed but the number, in the hundreds, was sufficient to earn Jeffreys the title of The Hanging Judge.
Some of the hanged rebels were decapitated and their heads stuck on spikes outside the judge’s lodging presumably so he could enjoy the fruits of his day’s work while enjoying his supper.
Hundreds more who escaped the noose were banished to the West Indies with their papers marked “Never to Return.” BBC Radio 4 records that, “The ladies-in-waiting at James’s Court made a handsome profit out of the Monmouth rebels who were sold as slaves to Barbados. White slaves commanded good prices in the seventeenth century.”
The Victimizer Becomes a Victim
The Duke of Monmouth did not face Judge Jeffreys but was dealt with just as swiftly by parliament. Found guilty of treason, he was executed in a particularly grisly fashion at the Tower of London on July 15, 1685.
Not for the Faint of Heart
Jeffreys also found himself on the wrong side of history when James II fled England in 1688 as William of Orange succeeded where Monmouth had failed in returning the crown to a Protestant.
Jeffreys tried to escape London by disguising himself as a sailor, but his fondness for ale was his undoing. Before sailing to Hamburg he slipped into a pub called The Red Cow (it’s alleged the hostelry got its name because the red-haired barmaid had a fiery temper).
The patrons recognized the infamous judge and decided to exact mob revenge on the hated man. Apparently, he pleaded for mercy from the mob, something he had never extended to those who came into his court.
He was saved from a lynching by the army but they put him in the Tower of London, where he died of kidney disease in April 1689 at the age of 44.
A favourite haunt of Judge Jeffreys was the Prospect of Whitby pub in London’s East End. Overlooking the tidal River Thames, Jeffreys liked to quaff a pint or two while watching the execution of criminals across the water. Pirates were hanged at low tide and left to dangle until washed by three tides. The pub is still there to welcome revellers and outside a gibbet has been erected to remind patrons of its macabre past.
In 1692, the few remaining friends of Jeffreys dug him up from his grave in the Tower and replanted his remains under the communion table of St. Mary Aldermanbury Church. There he lay until 1940 when the church was destroyed by German bombs during the blitz. The fragments of Judge Jeffreys were vaporized in the attack. In the mid-1960s, the stones of the church were shipped to Fulton, Missouri where they were used in the construction of a replica of the original building as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill.
Today, there are numerous reported sightings of ghosts of Judge Jeffreys and some of his victims throughout Western England and around some of his London hangouts.
- “The Bloody Assize.” County of Somerset, undated.
- “The Battle of Sedgemoor.” David Ross, Britain Express, undated.
- “1685: Dame Alice Lisle, First Victim of the Bloody Assizes.” Executed Today, September 2, 2009.
- “Burnet’s History of His Own Time.” Gilbert Burnet, Chatto and Windus, 1875.
- “Judge Jeffreys.” This Sceptred Isle, BBC, October 3, 2014.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor