First posted 20030215
Conflicting views on the "Bloody Assizes" (1685)
George Jeffreys was born at Acton Park in 1648, the son of John Jeffreys and Margaret Ireland. His grandfather was a judge in North Wales and George eventually decided on a career in law much to his parents' disapproval. Educated at Shrewsbury and St Paul's Westminster and Cambridge. He began his studies in the Inner Temple in 1663 and was acting as an advocate before he was officially called to the bar. He entered Gray's Inn. He was appointed Solicitor General to the Duke of York later James II and was knighted in 1677. He became recorder of London in 1678. At the age of 33 he became Lord Chief Justice of England and a privy counsellor and two years later Lord Chancellor. In 1683 he was created Baron Jeffreys of Wem. He is known as Hanging Judge Jeffreys because of the punishment he handed out at the trials of the supporters of the Duke of Monmouth. In 1688 when James II fled the country, Jeffreys was placed in the Tower of London for his own safety. He died there the following year aged 44 of kidney disease.
--Courtesy Wrexham County Borough Council
After the death of Oliver Cromwell (1658), Charles II was "restored" (at the invitation of a newly-elected Parliament) to the English throne in 1660. Over the 25 years of his reign (1660-1685), England's political classes gradually split into "Whigs" (reliant on parliamentary power; distrustful of the Catholic Church, the Catholic heir to the throne Charles's brother James, and Catholic tendencies in the re-established Anglican Church) and "Tories" (sympathetic to royal power and to the established Anglican Church; hostile to Protestant "dissenters," eg Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers). Both sides relied on mobs, biased judges, and biased juries to have their way.
The Whigs overplayed their hand in 1678-1683, encouraging the flamboyant perjurer Titus Oates to lodge conspiracy and treason charges against James and other high officials suspected of Catholic sympathies; some were falsely convicted and cruelly executed. Like U.S. President Eisenhower in the McCarthy era, Charles II soon disbelieved the conspiracy-monger (Oates) but dared not confront him openly. Instead he resisted the blood-lust quietly, waiting for the Oates faction and their mobs to discredit themselves. In 1681 he was able to dissolve a Whig parliament and rule directly, with Tory support.
In 1685, Charles II died and his Catholic brother James II succeeded to the throne. He expressed no intention to impose Catholicism on an intensely anti-Catholic England, but militant Whigs distrusted him anyways. Some supported a revolt by Charles II's illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth (1685), but it was speedily suppressed, confined to the southwest of England. James II send Judge Jeffreys (and a couple of others) to try the defeated rebels; the resulting "Bloody Assizes," especially as written up by Macaulay (see below), would make Jeffreys's reputation in history.
James II now overplayed his hand, dismissing Parliament (1685), appointing Catholics as officials, allying himself with the cruelly despotic Louis XIV of France, dismissing Anglican clergyman who did not support his Catholic policy, and mobilizing large armies in both Ireland (largely Catholic, hence inspiring intense English distrust) and just outside London. In particular, his attack on the Anglican Church neutralized much of his support amoung "Tories."
The 1685 execution of the rebel Duke of Monmouth united Whig opinion behind the only remaining Protestant claimant to the throne, William of Orange, husband of James II's daughter Mary. In 1688, Whigs and disaffected Tories invited him to invade England, drive out James II, and assume the English throne with Queen Mary.
Since the Whigs won, they got to write English history. Those who had suppressed Whig rebels (eg Judge Jeffreys) now were illegitimate. Jeffreys, lodged in prison and soon dying of ill-health anyways, was also used as a convenient scapegoat by the exiled James II (still hoping for an eventual restoration), as well as James's principal advisor the Earl of Sunderland.
Macaulay on the character of Judge Jeffreys:
A prisoner affirmed that the witnesses who appeared against him were not entitled to credit. One of them, he said, was a Papist, and another a prostitute.
"Thou impudent rebel," exclaimed the Judge, "to reflect on the King's evidence! I see thee, villain, I see thee already with the halter round thy neck."
Another produced testimony that he was a good Protestant.
"Protestant! " said Jeffreys; "you mean Presbyterian. I'll hold you a wager of it. I can smell a Presbyterian forty miles."
One wretched man moved the pity even of bitter Tories. "My Lord," they said, "this poor creature is on the parish."
"Do not trouble yourselves," said the Judge, "I will ease the parish of the burden."
A still more frightful sentence was passed on a lad named Tutchin, who was tried for seditious words.
He was, as usual, interrupted in his defence by ribaldry and scurrility from the judgment seat. "You are a rebel; and all your family have been rebels since Adam. They tell me that you are a poet. I'll cap verses with you." The sentence was that the boy should be imprisoned seven years, and should, during that period, be flogged through every market town in Dorsetshire every year.
The women in the galleries burst into tears. The clerk of the arraigns stood up in great disorder. "My Lord," said he, "the prisoner is very young. There are many market towns in our county. The sentence amounts to whipping once a fortnight for seven years."
"If he is a young man," said Jeffreys, "he is an old rogue. Ladies, you do not know the villain as well as I do. The punishment is not half bad enough for him. All the interest in England shall not alter it."
As it turned out, however, Tutchin came down with smallpox, which caused his sentence to be postponed. It was ultimately remitted "in return for a bribe which reduced the prisoner to poverty.]
P.J. Helm argues that Jeffreys was no worse than other judges of his time.
All were at work simultaneously, their courts marked out by low partitions, and the open space between them was thronged with people: idle spectators or interested parties, 'humming' their disapproval or cheering a popular verdict; students from the Inns of Court, busily taking notes; pampleteers, composing accounts, more or less inaccurate, in one of the newly constructed forms of shorthand; 'straw-men' waiting to destroy a man with their perjured evidence; solicitors, clerks and gaolers; men selling everything that might be wanted, from ink to food. All of them talking, jostling, clattering in and out. And over all, the stink of disease and unwashed bodies, so that the judges carried herbs to clear the air they breathed.
To control these courts successfully one had to combine the qualities and activities of leading actor, producer -- and sergeant-major. There was no other way.
Helm, pp. 15-16
(4) Many of the worst accounts of him are unreliable and partisan.
The "prophet" Lodowick Muggleton:
Helm points out that (1) Jeffreys, the lower-ranking "recorder," was simply transmitting the sentence named by his judicial superiors. (2) There is no record of what Jeffreys actually said, except from a highly dubious pamphlet by Muggleton himself. (Helm, pp. 24-26)
The trial of Alice Lisle:
Helm points out that the witness Dunne was obviously lying (trying to withhold evidence that would incriminate the defendant), and it was Jeffreys's duty (under legal standards of the time) to browbeat him into telling the truth.
Helm also points out the Jeffreys seems to have encouraged the defendant to petition for mercy after conviction; that did at least save her from being burned alive. Jeffreys had nothing to do with the case of Elizabeth Gaunt, who was burned alive. (Helm, pp. 134-138)
The case of John Tutchin :
Macaulay's account mirrors that of John Tutchin (1661-1707) himself, one of the three biased authors (the others were Titus Oates and John Dunton) of the Western Martyrology. Helms claims the records show that Tutchin had been sentenced to no more than 5 marks fine (3 1/3 pounds, about $17 in gold, or maybe $250 in the currency of 2003) or imprisonment, and one whipping, never delivered.
|date||description of revolt||Number of rebels||number executed||number transported|
|1569||Northern counties against Elizabeth I||9000 max.||600-800|
|mid 1600s||Scots vs. Cromwell||?||hundreds starved to death in Durham Cathedral||1800|
|1685||Whigs against James II||?||250-320||800|
|1745-46||Jacobites -- Scottish Highlands||?||80||1500|
English savagery toward defeated rebels worked over time: their communities were afraid of further hideous reprisals, and in any case were economically devastated by plundering armies and ruinous fines; many of their people would emigrate. The terrorization of Whig rebels in 1685 was an exception because its results were reversed only 3 years later, soon enough for their families and friends to retain their hatreds and place them in the national memory.
From a pragmatic viewpoint, Helm suggests that James II blundered by sending Jeffreys and other "hanging judges" to punish captured rebels, rather than letting his victorious commanders in the field do the dirty work quickly and take the blame. (Helm, pp. 132-133, 144-145). One is put in mind of Machiavelli's advice, :
Severities ... may be called properly used, if of evil it is lawful to speak well, that are applied at one blow and are necessary to one's security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects. The badly employed are those which, notwithstanding they may be few in the commencement, multiply with time rather than decrease.
--Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 8 "Concerning Those Who Have Obtained A Principality By Wickedness"