Dorchester is a beautiful English market town with a rich and varied past. Its history is linked with one of England’s most notorious judges, the “hanging judge” George Jeffreys, and the scene of his many trials can still be experienced by visitors today.
Judge George Jeffreys was born in 1648 on the family estate of Acton Hall, Wrexham in North Wales, he was the sixth son of John and Margaret Jeffreys. Educated at Cambridge, he was appointed Solicitor General to the Duke of York, and was knighted in 1677. He became recorder of London in 1678, and at age 33, he became Lord Chief Justice of England and a privy counsellor, later becoming Lord Chancellor. In 1683, he became Baron Jeffreys.
In 1685, Judge Jeffreys came to Dorchester and stayed in High West Street, (now the Prezzo Restaurant, Judge Jeffreys). It was built in the early 17th century, and is one of the few timber-framed buildings to survive Dorchester’s disastrous town fires. Here he sat in trial of the supporters of the Duke of Monmouth and their failed rebellion against King James II. The Bloody Assizes were held in the Oak Room (now a Tea Room) of the Antelope Hotel on the 5th day of September 1685 (an assize were courts originally initiated by King Henry II (1154-1189), where he would send judges all over the country to preside over local cases). Judge Jeffreys is said to have had a secret passage from his lodgings to the Oak Room. Jeffreys didn’t believe in half measures and hanged, transported, whipped and fined hundreds of the unfortunate accused.
Judge Jeffreys headed up the investigative team and became known as the Hanging Judgebecause of the punishments he had given to the supporters of the Duke. In Dorset a total of seventy-four people were condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered, the heads of some being displayed on spikes outside St. Peters church opposite the Judges lodgings. One hundred and seventy five of Monmouth’s supporters were transported abroad and only twenty nine were pardoned. Executions were also carried out in towns and villages close by. Monmouth himself was beheaded on Tower Hill in London on 15 July 1685.
Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, James II the Catholic King left for France. Jeffreys was the only high legal authority in James’s abandoned kingdom left to perform the political duties. When the armies of William were approaching London, Jeffreys attempted to flee the country disguised as a sailor. He was captured in a public house and was recognized by a surviving judicial victim. Jeffreys was sent to the Tower of London “for his own safety”, where he died on April 18, 1689 aged 44, as the result of kidney disease. The painful kidney disease may well have affected his unbridled temper and added to this reputation. He was originally buried in the Chapel Royal of Saint Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London. In 1692 his body was moved to St Mary Aldermanbury, which was destroyed along with all traces of Jeffreys’ grave in a 1941 German air raid.
Judge Jeffreys attended many of the hangings in person, and his ghost is said to haunt several West Country locations as well as his own home at Walton on Thames.
Why not visit Dorchester and follow the historic story of Judge Jeffreys for yourself. With lots of great hotel accommodation in Dorchester and B&Bs it is the perfect place to base your stay and explore the beautiful Dorset countryside.