George Jeffreys, first Baron Jeffreys (1645–1689)

George Jeffreys, or Hanging Judge Jeffreys as history has recorded him, is largely remembered for his cruelty in punishing those who played a part in a plot to overthrow King James II (1633-1701). This plot is known as the Monmouth Rebellion, named after James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685), the nephew of the king. Created Duke of Monmouth in 1663, James was the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress Lucy Walters (c.1630-1658). He was born in Rotterdam in April 1649, little over two months after his grandfather, Charles I, had been executed in London. The monarchy was restored in England in 1660, but Charles II had no legitimate heir, and a rumour circulated that he would announce he had been married to Lucy Walters, making James a rightful heir to the throne. There were many who encouraged this story because Monmouth was a Protestant, whereas the other contender to the throne, James Duke of York (Charles II’s younger brother) was a Roman Catholic. Tensions began to mount between Monmouth, his father, his uncle and their respective supporters. In 1684 Monmouth fled the country because of his involvement in a plot to kill his father and uncle. The following year, Charles II died and his brother was proclaimed King James II. Later that year Monmouth returned to England and joined forces with English and Scottish dissidents to overthrow the new king. A proclamation was read out in towns all over the West of England, stating that Monmouth was rightfully king. The rebel forces probably never amounted to more than 3,000 men and there was very little support from the landed gentry. The army was trounced by the royalist forces in the battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685. Six days later Monmouth was found hiding in a ditch, taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower. Three days later he was ordered to be executed on Tower Hill.

George Jeffreys was one of the judges sent by the James II in the autumn of 1685 on assizes to try the rebels who had supported Monmouth. The assize circuit started in Winchester and ended in Wells. 1,381 men and women were tried, and of this number about 250 people were hanged while around 850 were transported to Barbados and Jamaica. Hundreds more were fined, flogged or imprisoned. Corpses of men who had been drawn and quartered (the customary punishment for males found guilty of treason; women were burned alive) were boiled in salt and dipped in pitch for long-term exhibition. The trials became known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’. Jeffreys’s conduct of the trials was caricatured in pamphlets issued after his death (namely, the Western Martyrology (1689) and the Merciful Assizes (1701)), and this characterisation continued in accounts until the nineteenth century (his portrayal in Macaulay’s History of England (1848) could have been lifted from a novel by Dickens). In these Jeffreys is a demoniac figure, a “consummate bully” with a hardened heart, serving James II swearing and laughing over the defendants.

His reputation was recovered in the revisionist views of the twentieth century, which concluded that many of the worst accounts of him are unreliable and partisan, and that it must be remembered that it was the king who denied pleas of mercy on death sentences. Jeffreys was wound up by political crimes and did indeed badger his defendants with more zeal than others in similar positions, but the judge was the chief examiner and arbiter of the law, and Jeffreys was legally exercising the law as it was practiced at the time.

However, this sort of reasoning did not deflect the hatred many felt towards the man. After his death in 1689 a London mob hanged his effigy and set it alight, and there was pressure on Parliament to confiscate his family’s property. An anonymous owner of this mezzotint portrait print has made their feelings clear by amending the printed title, showing the level of animosity his memory provoked. The additional words are transcribed below in brackets:

"[A Roage in print.] The Right [dis]Hon.ble George Earle of Flint Viscount [wicked] Weikham Baron of Weim, [because he must mount tiburn] Ld. High Chancellor of England, one of his Ma.ties most hon.ble (last crossed out) [pernitious] Councell[ers]"

Museum Number P.47-1951

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