It was on this day in 1689 that England marked the passing of former Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor George Jeffreys, also the 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem. The original ‘Hanging Judge,’ his name became a byword for bias, ruthlessness, callousness and cruelty.
Few would have mourned his passing.
Granted, he may have had the worst legacy of any English judge, but he wasn’t quite as bad as he’s been painted. Before that, though, let’s look at his ‘finest (or darkest) hour, the notorious ‘Bloody Assizes.’
The Monmouth rebellion of 1685 had ended in failure and the destruction of the Duke of Monmouth’s ragtag army at the Battle of Sedgemoor in July, 1685. With the rebellion crushed and the threat with it, King James II could begin the backlash. It would prove a bloody backlash indeed.
The ‘Bloody Assizes’ were his response, a series of trials held in several towns in south-west England. With so many prisoners, James II’s vengeful desire to make examples and a mandatory death penalty for treason, they more than earned their name. Jeffreys was one of five judges appointed to preside at the assizes. With some 1400 prisoners condemned (of whom several hundred were actually executed), the assizes sent an unmistakable message to anyone who needed it;
Challenge the King’s right to rule and pay dearly for it.
The ‘Bloody Assizes weren’t, however, unusual for their time. Treason was a capital crime and exemplary justice the norm. Failed rebels could expect exile if they ere lucky and, more likely, execution if they weren’t. The only middle ground was transportation to forced labour in some colony far enough from England that they could never trouble England again. But those were the exceptions, and there weren’t many of them.
Jeffreys was really no different to any other judge of his era. He saw his role as being a guardian of the system as it then stood and the laws of the time were simply the rules of the game. Traitors were to be harshly punished. Threats were to be ruthlessly weeded out, hunted down and destroyed. Jeffreys was simply an instrument of state policy.
He set to work with a fury, as though he was personally outraged by the very idea of rebellion. Hundreds were hanged, some were hung drawn and quartered. All those who died did so in public, in full view of anyone and everyone who might aspire to a rebel’s fame died a traitor’s death.
Jeffreys, as judges do today, had to work within the system as it then stood. Death was mandatory for traitors and, after the rebellion, many hundreds were deemed guilty. King James II, a man known to possess a vengeful streak when roused, also had to send his message both at home and abroad. Lenin later remarked that ‘Mercy is for the weak.’ James couldn’t afford even being seen to be weak, let alone indulge in weakness itself. In the social, political and diplomatic culture of the time, compassion for one’s enemies was almost invariably regarded as weakness. Punishment, brutality and making examples were the norm.
The King’s retribution roadshow passed through several south-western towns, trying and condemning as it went. Jeffreys attracted particular loathing, seen as delivering law rather than justice and not even-handedly at that. He built a legacy that, perhaps unfairly, lasts to this day. It was a legacy of cruelty, vengefulness, naked bias and sadism, as though he revelled in mass executions and enjoyed taking centre-stage. Given the historical context, this isn’t entirely fair to him. As lawyer Brian Harris, QC later described his handling of Alice Lisle’s trial;
“Given that Jeffreys had to administer a largely inchoate criminal procedure and impose the bloody sentences that the law then required, a balanced judgement would regard Jeffreys as no worse, perhaps even a little better than most other judges of his era.”
Not perhaps, the cruellest, harshest, most severe judge ever to hold court, but certainly the best-known English judge of his or any other era.
It’s perhaps ironic that Jeffreys, who had given his life to law and order, should die in a cell like a common criminal, but die in a cell he did. Still, as befits a senior public figure, he did at least find himself incarcerated in a place as notorious as Jeffreys himself. James II fled the county after the Glorious Revolution and defeat at the Battle of the Boyne among other places. With his master and protector in exile, a backlash erupted against those best known for enforcing his rule. Jeffreys, naturally, was one of them.
While fleeing England and hoping to join James II in exile, Reputedly having disguised himself as a sailor, he was still recognised. Worse, it was by a former defendant who, having seen him up close while standing in the dock, was unlikely to forget or forgive his erstwhile judge’s excesses. Arrested for his own safety, Jeffreys was sent to the Tower in which he would later die.
Chronically ill, Jeffreys finally succumbed to kidney disease on April 18, 1689. He wasn’t much missed, nor has history been kind to him, but the dreaded ‘Hanging Judge’ has never been forgotten.
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