Judge Jeffreys ranks alongside Thomas Hardy and William Barnes as one of the most important figures in Dorchester’s past. But in contrast to those other two former Dorchester residents, you will find no statues of Jeffreys anywhere in the town. His impact on the town was of an altogether darker tone, and his name is inextricably linked to one of the most notorious and controversial episodes in the history of Dorchester, known as the Bloody Assizes.
George Jeffreys was born in 1645 in Acton Hall near Wrexham, into one of the leading aristocratic families in Wales. In 1668 he began a career in the law, and quickly caught the attention of the movers and shakers of the day, including the Duke of York (later to become King James II). He became the Duke’s Solicitor General in 1676 and was knighted the following year.
With a knack for making powerful friends, Jeffries secured a series of promotions and honours over the following years, becoming Lord Chancellor in 1685 and taking the title Baron Jeffreys of Wem.
That same year, an uprising started in the West Country aiming to overthrow James II and replace him with the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of the previous monarch Charles II. The uprising, known as the Monmouth Rebellion, was defeated, and put down by the King’s troops, and Monmouth was executed for treason
The Bloody Assizes
The episode that would seal Jeffreys’ reputation came when the newly promoted Lord Chancellor was sent South to deal with the King’s rebellious subjects in the West Country and ensure order was restored to the region. He took up residence in Dorchester at 6 High West Street and presided over hearings for hundreds of supporters of Monmouth
The trials, known as the Bloody Assizes, were held in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel. Jeffreys was in no mood for clemency, handing down death sentences for 251 rebels, to the shock and outrage of many observers at the time. While only 74 of these sentences were actually carried out, the brutality of the executions ensured they would live long in the memory of Dorchester. As was traditional for those convicted of treason, the condemned men were hung, drawn and quartered, and their heads were taken and displayed on spikes in Dorchester and other towns around Dorset.
The remaining rebels were transported to the West Indies (which was more or less a death sentence in itself, given the vulnerability of Europeans to malaria and other tropical diseases at the time).
Historians have suggested the reason for Jeffreys’ severity during the trials was that he was a Protestant serving a Catholic king, and the Monmouth Rebellion was led by Protestants who trying to overthrow the Catholic monarchy. It is possible he felt he had to go the extra mile with his sentences to prove to the King that he had no sympathy with the plotters.
Others have pointed to his suffering from kidney stones, which that meant he was in constant pain for much of his later life, and only added to his brittle temper.
Whatever the reason, he made himself a hate figure amongst the local population, and earned himself the enduring nickname “The Hanging Judge”.
As a man with so much blood on his hands, it was always unlikely that Jeffreys would get to see out his life peacefully. His comeuppance came in 1688, when James II was finally ousted, and Jeffreys was forced to go on the run disguised as a sailor. In an ironic twist of fate, his disguise was rumbled after he was recognised by a victim of his Assizes who had been spared execution.
Such was the hatred of the population towards Jeffreys that the new regime felt compelled to put him in the Tower of London for his own safety. It was here that he died on 1689, finally succumbing to the kidney disease that had plagued him for much of his life.
Jeffreys’ Legacy In Dorchester
If you come to Dorchester to follow the story of Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes, the obvious place to start is at his old lodgings at 6 High West Street. The inside is now a restaurant, but the exterior retains the rustic timber look of the building as it would have appeared in Jeffreys’ day.
Opposite the restaurant is St. Peter’s Church. It was outside the church that the heads of several of the Monmouth rebels were displayed on spikes to strike terror into the local population and discourage them from further acts of rebellion.
A little further along the High Street is Dorset County Museum, home to a number of artefacts relating to the Assizes, including the chair in which Jeffreys sat as he handed down death sentences to many of the accused. The County Museum is said to be haunted by Jeffreys’ ghost, and in 2010 paranormal investigators captured a photograph that they claimed showed the ghostly figure of the Judge stalking.