Ward's Book of Days.

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APRIL 18th

On this day in history in 1689, died George Jeffreys.

Jeffreys, known as the ‘hanging judge’, was a lawyer notorious for his sycophancy, brutality and corruption.  

Jeffreys was born in Wrexham, Clwyd, into the Welsh gentry. He was educated at Westminster School, and at Trinity College, Cambridge and was called to the bar in 1668. During the panic that ensued after the ‘Popish Plot’, an alleged conspiracy against the king, Jeffreys was leading prosecuting council in many of the trials of suspects. Despite flimsy evidence, Jeffreys often obtained convictions by ridiculing defendants and introducing suspect evidence. He drew the attention of James Duke of York, later James II, brother of Charles II, and declared to him that he would take any measures necessary to assist the king and his brother.  

Jeffreys quickly rose through the ranks of the judiciary. He became first a knight and a judge of the King’s Bench, then a baron and later Lord Chief Justice and finally Lord Chancellor. He presided over the trial of Algernon Sydney in the case of the Rye House Plot, an alleged conspiracy to kidnap the king, and convicted him on insubstantial evidence. Jeffreys became known for taking bribes and would release any defendant who paid him enough. Those who had no money, he hanged.  Jeffreys successfully opposed the Exclusion Bill, which would have barred James, a Catholic, from the throne. 

When James II became king and the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against him, Jeffreys presided over the trial of those who fought in the insurrection. The ‘Bloody Assizes, as the court was known, tried 1300 men, all of whom were convicted by Jeffreys, whatever the evidence. He hanged 320 and sent the remainder for transportation to the colonies as slave labour. On this occasion, he did not allow himself to be seduced by bribery, but sentenced all the defendants after finding them guilty. He sentenced the leader, Monmouth, to death by beheading and ordered the executioner to blunt the axe so that his head would not be severed in one stroke.  

When James was deposed in 1688, Jeffreys tried to escape the country, disguised as a sailor, but was captured and held in the Tower of London. He died before he could be indicted for his actions.  

The original room where the ‘Bloody Assizes’ were held still remains unchanged. It can be found in the Oak room, Antelope Hotel, Dorchester, Dorset DT1 1BA.

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