George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys, was a judge, notorious for “acting as an instrument of royal policy”.
Rapidly ascending through the legal hierarchy in the 1670s, to become Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Chancellor, he also tied himself to the coat-tails of James Stuart, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II, and rose accordingly to great power.
During the Popish Plot he was frequently on the bench which condemned numerous innocent men of taking part in catholic plots to overthrow the monarchy, on the perjured evidence of Titus Oates, a protestant Senator MacCarthy. When it suited the political needs of the times, Jeffreys backed the opposition condoning of Oates framing catholics for nebulous political crimes; however, when James became king, Jeffreys was quick to back the winner. (Showing his enthusiasm by procuring the conviction of Oates for his perjury at the same trials Jeffreys had presided over.) He is most famous for hs role as the hanging judge in the ‘Bloody Assizes’, the trials arising from the aftermath of Monmouth’s failed Rebellion against the new king.
In 1683 Jeffreys presided over the trial of Algernon Sidney, who had been implicated in the Rye House Plot, a plan hatched by republicans and opposition leaders to off the king and his brother. Sidney was convicted and executed: Jeffreys’ became infamous for his conduct of the trial, ruling that while two witnesses were normally required in a treason trial, and the Crown had only one, Sidney’s own writings on republicanism were a second “witness” on the ground that “to write is to act”. Jeffreys’ also successful convicted Lord Russell in connection with the same conspiracy as Sidney, replacing Sir Francis Pemberton, who had presided at the same trial and made clear his doubts about Russell’s guilt, much to the King’s displeasure.
Jeffreys’ historical notoriety comes from his actions in 1685, after Monmouth’s Rebellion. Jeffreys was sent to the West Country in the autumn of 1685 to conduct the trials of captured rebels.
Although the Duke of Monmouth’s uprising was nominally intended to replace the catholic king James with the protestant Monmouth, a substantial part of his support came from former levellers, republicans, veterans of the ‘good old cause’ and the Commonwealth… Around the campfires as they were on the march, Monmouth’s army discussed the possibilities of introducing a reforming program if James was defeated…
Even if the rebellion was very much doomed from the start, it was important to punish the participants, especially given the association with the radical underground. Jeffreys, as the pre-eminent establishment legal mind of his day, was co-opted to conduct the trials of the captured rebels after their defeat at the battle of Sedgemoor. The Centre of the trials was based at Taunton. Estimates of the numbers executed for treason have been given as high as 700, however, a more likely figure is between 160 and 170 of 1381 defendants found guilty of treason.
In the wake of King James succeeding to the throne, Jeffreys had been named Lord Chancellor; in the late 1680s he became in effect James appointed Dictator of London. But storm clouds were looming…
In 1688, as a burgeoning revolt against king James grew (mainly based on protestant opposition to James Catholicism), Jeffreys stuck by the king, even after other allies abandoned him. But after the king fled the country on 10th December, in the face of uprisings in London and the invitation of notables to rival candidate William of Orange to take over, Jeffreys decided it was time to leg it abroad…
“… lying concealed, he caused preparations to be made for his escape from the kingdom. It was arranged that a coal ship which had delivered her cargo should clear out the custom house as for her return to Newcastle, and should land him at Hamburg.
To avoid, as he thought, all chance of being recognized by those who had seen him in ermine or gold-embroidered robes, with a long white band under the chin, his collar of S.S round his neck, and on his head a full-bottom wig, which had recently become the attribute of judicial dignity, instead of the old-fashioned coif or black velvet cap, – he cut off his bushy eyebrows, wont to inspire such terror, he put on the worn-out dress of a common sailor, and he covered his head with an old tarred hat that seemed to have weathered many a blast.
Thus disguised, as soon as it was dusk he got into a boat; and the state of the tide enabling him to shoot London Bridge without danger, he safely reached he coal ship lying off Wapping. Here he was introduced to the captain and the mate, on whose secrecy he was told he might rely; but, as they could not sail till next day, when he had examined his berth, he went on board another vessel that lay at a little distance, there to pass the night….” Unfortunately, he also nipped over to a Wapping pub, now called the The Town of Ramsgate, to have a final drink… and was recognized by a sailor who had previously appeared in court before him. “But hardly believing his own senses, he entered the tap-room of the alehouse to examine the countenance more deliberately…. An immense multitude or persons were in a few minutes collected round the door by the proclamation of the scrivener that the pretended sailor was indeed the wicked Lord Chancellor Jeffreys… He was now in the greatest jeopardy, for… the persons here assembled were disposed at first to tear him limb from limb, and he was saved only the interposition of some of he more considerate, who suggested that the proper course would be to take him before the lord mayor.
… but before he could be secured in a carriage to be conveyed thither, they assaulted and pelted him, and might have proceeded to greater extremities if a party of the train bands had not rescued him from their fury. They pursued him all the way with whips and halters, and cries of ‘Vengeance! Justice! Justice!’ Although he lay back in the coach, he could still be discovered in his blue jacket, and with his sailor’s hat flopped down upon his face.”
Dragged to the Tower of London, Jeffreys was grateful for the protection of the authorities from the crowd… But he was to die, untried, in prison, in April 1689.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online