Ruth Tyler Bryant
English Legal History
December 7, 2007
George Jeffreys, first Baron Jeffreys of Wem
the “Hanging Judge,” George Jeffreys was
II. Early Life
was born on May 15, 1645, the son of John and Margaret Jeffreys, at
short studentship at the
obtained his first judicial office at age 25 when he was elected as Common
Serjeant of London in 1671. This position carried with it the right to occupy a
substantial house in Aldermanbury, near
Jeffreys set his sights on becoming Recorder of London and began to work the
political circuit accordingly, wheedling his way into the good graces of
prominent courtiers. It was evident that Jeffreys would soon be promoted when,
in August 1678, King Charles II dined at Jeffreys’ house and drank to Jeffreys’
health no more than seven times. Observers thought that this meant Jeffreys was
to be either Lord Chancellor of Ireland or Recorder of London.
The latter guess was right. When the recordership of
Part of Jeffreys’ duties as Recorder required him to announce the sentence of the court. Jeffreys relished this part of the job and often lectured those on their wickedness as he pronounced the court’s sentence. His position would soon be threatened by the Whigs, however, after he opposed their efforts to petition the King to prorogue Parliament. In late 1680, the Whigs charged Jeffreys with falsely accusing and misrepresenting the Court of Common Council to the King and of menacing and threatening juries and witnesses. This was no doubt the result of the Whigs’ desire to have a bench with subservient judges who would carry out their will – a bench which clearly did not include Jeffreys. After an investigation, the House of Commons presented a resolution to the King, asking him to remove Jeffreys from office. Jeffreys instead resigned, saving the King from embarrassment, for, from the terms of the Commons’ resolution, it appeared that Jeffreys was going to be impeached for resisting the Whig petitioning. In April of 1680, the King named Jeffreys Chief Justice of Chester. With this position, Jeffreys gained extensive experience in civil litigation, adding to his command of the criminal process.
III. Lord Chief Justice
On September 28, 1683, King Charles II appointed Jeffreys Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Charles, however, was not without doubts as to appointing Jeffreys to this position, and for good reason. Jeffreys was a vicious and cruel judge. As historian Thomas Macaulay described, “to enter [Jeffreys’] court was to enter the den of a wild beast, which none could tame, and which was as likely to be roused by caresses as by attacks.” Those who appeared in his court were often intimidated by his hypnotic eyes and loud, penetrating voice. As Macaulay so eloquently puts it, “[Jeffreys’] yell of fury…sounded like the thunder of judgment day.” Jeffreys was prone to fits of angry outbursts and often lashed out at those unfortunate enough to appear before him, employing language that would make a sailor blush.
Jeffreys took great pleasure in pronouncing the punishments he imposed, and the weeping and imploring of those before him only seemed to titillate him more. Indeed, “there was a fiendish exultation in the way in which he pronounced sentence on offenders…; he loved to scare them into fits by dilating with luxuriant amplification on all the details of what they were to suffer.” Thus, when Jeffreys had the chance to order a woman to be whipped at the cart’s tail, he would shout, “Hangman, I charge you to pay particular attention to this lady! Scourge her soundly, man! Scourge her till the blood runs down! It is Christmas, a cold time for a madam to strip in! See that you warm her shoulders thoroughly!” Jeffreys’ delight in detailing the sadistic punishments he imposed was not limited to defenseless women either. As Macaulay notes, Jeffreys “always appeared to be in a higher state of exhilaration when he explained to Popish priests that they were to be cut down alive, and were to see their own bowels burned.”
Not only was Jeffreys seemingly drunk on power when he presided at trials, but he was literally drunk as well. Jeffreys has been described as showing up to trials late, not yet sober from the night before, with flushed cheeks and eyes “staring like those of a maniac.” One can only imagine the extent to which Jeffreys’ habitual intemperance exacerbated his already cruel disposition. Moreover, Jeffreys’ worsening health, due to chronic bladder stones, did nothing to improve his temperament.
Charles’ reservations, he appointed Jeffreys as Chief Justice after receiving
strong encouragement from Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland. Days later
Jeffreys was sworn into the Privy Council as well. Just days after Jeffreys was
sworn in, he presided over the trial of Algernon Sidney, the most famous of the
Rye House Plot trials.
On February 6, 1685, King Charles II passed away, and James II, the Duke of York, replaced him as King. Jeffreys, a long-time supporter of James, rose in rank as well. James raised Jeffreys to the peerage as first Baron Jeffreys of Wem on May 16, 1685. This was a significant event, for, as Macaulay notes, “since the judicial system of the realm had been remodelled [sic] in the thirteenth century, no chief-justice had been a lord of Parliament.”
Despite Jeffreys’ abhorrent behavior up to this point, historian G.W. Keeton opines that “had Jeffreys died at the end of the summer term, 1685 … the name of Jeffreys would be transmitted to posterity as that of a great judge, of strong convictions and unusual range of intellect.” But as history and fate would have it, Jeffreys presided over the Bloody Assizes during this latter part of 1685, and it was his participation in the trials of those accused of participating in Monmouth’s Rebellion that earned Jeffreys the nickname as the “Hanging Judge,” for his appetite for blood during this time seemed to grow with each hanging imposed.
One of the most famous of these trials was that of Lady Alice Lisle, who was accused of harboring two men known to have been involved in the rebellion. Jeffreys, renown for his intense cross-examination skills, was reportedly very aggressive during this trial. Indeed, when prosecutor Pollexfen explained that one witness, James Dunne, was hesitant to testify against Lady Alice, Jeffreys warned the witness:
I would not by any means tempt you to tell an untruth, but provoke you to tell the truth … God is not to be mocked, and thoust cannot deceive Him, though thou mayest us. But I assure you if I catch you prevaricating in any the least tittle … none of the saints can save your soul, nor shall they save your body neither, I will be sure to punish every variation from the truth you may be guilty of.
The jury was reluctant to convict Lady Alice, for they were not satisfied that Lady Alice was aware that the men were rebels when she accepted them into her house. Jeffreys, “beside himself with fury,” repeated the evidence to the jury. They later returned with a guilty verdict. Jeffreys, satisified with the jury’s verdict, said to them, “If I had been among you, and she had been my own mother, I should have found her guilty.” Jeffreys sentenced Lady Alice to burn, but delayed the execution to give her time to appeal to James for clemency, who later ordered her to be beheaded.
and his colleagues continued to try those accused of participating in
Monmouth’s Rebellion. In total, 1381 people were tried, and most were convicted
and sentenced to die. Of this number, approximately 200 were hanged; most of
the remaining prisoners were transported to the
Despite his boasting of the number hanged, when people later spoke of the Bloody Assizes, “the wicked Judge [Jeffreys] and the wicked King [James] attempted to vindicate themselves by throwing the blame on each other.” When Jeffreys was imprisoned at the Tower, he argued that he had merely been following the orders of his King. In contrast, James argued that he had favored clemency and that Jeffreys had been the one who inflicted the harsh punishments.
IV. Lord Chancellor
his return to
One of the first trials Jeffreys presided over as Lord Chancellor was that of Henry Booth, Lord Delamere. Delamere was being tried for treason relating to his involvement in Monmouth’s Rebellion. For this trial, Jeffreys was appointed High Steward, who functioned as the sole judge of law and who selected all thirty members of the jury. All the thirty men chosen were in politics vehemently opposed to that of Delamere, but this selection was deliberate, for Jeffreys had an old score to settle with the prisoner.  Jeffreys had been Chief Justice of Chester when Delamere represented the county in Parliament. Delamere complained to the Commons that that his people were being entrusted to a “drunken jackpudding.” Thus Jeffreys, out for revenge, took to reminding the jurors that Delamere had objected to the bill for attaining Monmouth, a fact which Jeffreys knew was not allowed in evidence. Despite Jeffreys’ best efforts, Delamere was acquitted. This signaled to the townspeople that the reign of terror was over. Indeed, James’ power was beginning to crumble.
In November 1685, James met with Parliament and announced that he proposed to dispense with the penal laws which prohibited Catholics from serving in public office. This was met with strong opposition from both the Whigs and the Tories. Jeffreys, always faithful to his King, reportedly admonished the Lords for not supporting the King’s cause. As a result of Parliament’s opposition to his proposal, James prorogued Parliament on November 20, 1685, which would never meet again during his reign. After James prorogued Parliament, he was even more determined to enforce his will in the courts regarding his dispensing power. James dismissed judges who opposed his dispensing power and replaced them with judges who supported it. Jeffreys was one of the judges who supported the King’s dispensing power, but reportedly only in the hope of preserving sufficient influence to restrain James from further excesses. Jeffreys was torn between his loyalty to the King and devotion to his own Anglican faith, but in the end, he really had no choice, for “his career, his livelihood, his very safety, depended on his remaining in power.” And it was this unwavering loyalty to James that ultimately led to his downfall.
The beginning of the end began with the Court of High Commission, which James established in July 1686. This Commission was designed to punish attacks on the Catholic Church which were being broadcast from Protestant pulpits. Jeffreys was appointed to preside over the Commission as Chief Commissioner. This Commission was not governed by the rules of England – thus, given how unjustly and barbaric Jeffreys acted in courts where he was bound by the laws of England, “it was…not difficult to foresee how he would conduct himself in a situation in which he was at entire liberty to make forms of procedure and rules of evidence for himself.”
James selected Henry Compton, the Bishop of
London, as the first case to be brought before the Commission.
Jeffreys’ heavy drinking continued throughout 1686 and 1687, perhaps in response to his growing discomfort with James’ actions. Jeffreys’ drinking only served to aggravate his bladder stones. After one particularly bad night when he passed 64 stones, it was thought that Jeffreys was nearing death. The King was distraught at the thought of losing a judge who suited him so well, for Jeffreys, as a judge who carried out the King’s every command, could not easily be replaced. Not one to let his illness get in the way of his duties, Jeffreys moved from the chancellor’s house to a house on Duke Street, Westminster in order to be closer to Whitehall. There he added a room in which he could hear chancery matters without leaving home.
V. Fall of Jeffreys
The trial of the seven bishops, more than any other occurrence, led to James’ downfall and, consequently, led to Jeffreys’ demise as well. On June 29, 1688, seven bishops of the Church of England were brought before the Privy Council on charges of seditious libel for petitioning against James’ Declaration of Indulgence. Jeffreys was relieved when the High Commission refused to hear the case, for he was troubled by the prosecution due to his Anglican faith. Jeffreys advised that the bishops not be prosecuted, but other counsel prevailed.
Thus, it was evident that Jeffreys began to lose more influence with the King as the King’s Catholic advisers gained more influence. More Catholics were put into office and sworn into the Privy Council. Still, Jeffreys remained in the King’s good graces and was present for the birth of the King’s son in June of 1688.
the fall of 1688, rumors were buzzing of a Dutch invasion. Jeffreys convinced
James to summon Parliament, and James agreed. On September 21, Jeffreys
convinced James to agree to issue a declaration stating that the King would
take the necessary steps to safeguard the position of the Church of England and
that at the general election, no Catholics would be allowed to join Parliament.
James had promised that
October 1688, Jeffreys sensed trouble. He settled his property with his wife
and son, and sent his wife and daughters to Leatherhead in
It was obvious to everyone that a revolution was imminent. Everyone was seeking to distance themselves from the toppling regime, except for Jeffreys. Even as other officers defected, Jeffreys remained at his post at the Court of Chancery and continued to attend Privy Council meetings. In the midst of all the national troubles, Jeffreys faced his own personal turmoil as well when he received the news that his youngest daughter Anne had died while in Leatherhead.
November, James summoned his remaining councilors and sought their advice as to
whether he should convene a Parliament. Jeffreys and others strongly advised
him to do so. The following day, James asked Jeffreys to prepare the necessary
writs. He also asked Jeffreys to move into his residence at
to Jeffreys, however, James was planning his escape. On December 8, 1688, the
King summoned Jeffreys and asked Jeffreys to give him the Great Seal and the
writs for the new Parliament. But after receiving the writs and the seal, James
returned to his room and burned the writs. In the early hours of December 11,
James secretly left
Jeffreys learned that the King had fled, he decided to escape as well. Jeffreys
knew that, without the King’s protection, he was in danger, for he was still
one of the most hated men in
A mob formed and rushed inside to find Jeffreys. When they realized that the man really was Jeffreys, they were “disposed to tear him limb from limb.” Indeed, the intensity of the public’s hatred for Jeffreys can be seen in one of the ballads sung on the streets at this time:
“Limb him they would, as boys at Shrovetide do:
Some cried I am for a wing, an arm; for what are you?
I am for his head, says one; for his brains, says t’other
And I am for his nose; his ears, another.
Oh, cries a third, I am for his buttocks brave;
Nine pounds of steaks from them I mean to have.
I know the rogue is fleshy, says a fourth,
His heart to me will be of greatest worth.
Yes, quoth another, but not good to eat, --
A heart of steel will ne’er prove tender meat!”
Jeffreys was saved from being tort apart by the mob when he was taken to the Lord Mayor’s house. Though Jeffreys was protected by the militia while being carried to the Lord Mayor’s house, the mob still pursued him with whips, halters, and cries of “Vengeance! Justice!”
When Jeffreys asked what he had done to anger the crowd so much, someone shouted “Remember Cornish!” referring to Jeffrey’s reign over the Bloody Assizes. Jeffreys, who had lost all sense of dignity at this point, cried out “For the Lord’s sake, keep them off!”
But the crowd continued to harass Jeffreys. As one commentator wrote, “there was never such joy [at seeing Jeffreys apprehended]… not a man sorry that we could see.” When they finally arrived at the Lord Mayor’s house, the Lord Mayor was so shocked at Jeffreys’ appearance that he suffered a stroke and later died. Jeffreys was thereafter taken to the Tower, and the Council signed a warrant that evening charging Jeffreys with treason.
VI. The Tower
The people’s hatred of Jeffreys at this time cannot be understated. The press attacked Jeffreys “in a manner that showed how his cruelties had brutalized the public mind.” One such publication was a letter, addressed to Jeffreys, which advised him to cut his own throat. Another letter, entitled “A Letter from Hell from Lord Ch-------r Jeffreys” purported to be his “confession” and contained an inflamed description of all the cruelties Jeffreys had committed.
In deference to the public’s fervent desire that Jeffreys be brought to justice, the provisional government in place at this time issued an order for more a more rigorous confinement and suggested that Jeffreys should speedily be brought to trial for his misdeeds. But with the passage of time and the dawn of the new James-less era, the national indignation against James soon subsided, leaving him to spend his dying days in the Tower.
health continued to decline while he was imprisoned at the Tower. In April of
1689, Jeffreys sensed the end was near and summoned his wife and son to the
Tower and received the sacrament and spiritual counsel from the bishop of
Jeffreys’ family requested that his body be released to them, Jeffreys was
buried in the Tower chapel of St. Peter, reportedly next to the duke of
November of 1693, his remains were removed to St. Mary Aldermanbury,
VII. Jeffreys’ Legacy
reputation suffered even more after he died. His effigy was gibbeted and burned
Jeffreys was certainly vilified after his death, there can be no attempts to
whitewash Jeffreys’ character.
He was a drunken tyrant in the courtroom who took sadistic pleasure in
torturing those unfortunate enough to appear in his lion’s den. For this
reason, Jeffreys will always be remembered as a “monster of bloodthirsty
cruelty, blasphemous rage, and brutish intemperance”
and will live on in infamy as
Baynes, Thomas Spencer. The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Science, and General Literature (1888); available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=r8kMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA618&lpg=PA618 &dq=judge+jeffreys+raised+to+the+peerage&source=web&ots=TJEm2JLEnL&s ig=d2yApXmFlJaiVrQ8MkDcaRS0oOk#PPA618,M1
Lord Campbell. Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers
of the Great Seal of
Halliday, Paul D. “Jeffreys, George, first Baron Jeffreys (1645-1689)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, May 2006 (available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14702, accessed October 2, 2007).
Helm, P.J. Jeffreys: A New Portrait of
Humphrey W. Woolrych, The Life of Judge Jeffreys, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench Under Charles II, and Lord High Chancellor of England During the Reign of James II (1856).
Hyde, H. Montgomery. Judge Jeffreys.
Keeton, G.W. Lord Chancellor Jeffreys and the Stuart
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of
Woolrych, Humphrey W. The Life of Judge Jeffreys, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench under Charles II and Lord High Chancellor of England During the Reign of James II (1856).
 1 Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of
 G.W. Keeton, Lord Chancellor Jeffreys and the Stuart Cause 55 (1965).
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 1.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 117.
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 3.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 145.
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 6.
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 414-415.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 119.
 Macaulay, aupra note 1, at 413.
 Id at 413.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 272.
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 9.
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 416.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 301.
 Thomas Spencer Baynes, The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Science, and General Literature, 619 (1888); available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=r8kMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA618&lpg=PA618&dq=judge+jeffreys+raised+to+the+peerage&source=web&ots=TJEm2JLEnL&sig=d2yApXmFlJaiVrQ8MkDcaRS0oOk#PPA618,M1
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 13.
Helm, Jeffreys: A New Portrait of
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 582.
 Humphrey W. Woolrych, The Life of Judge Jeffreys, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench Under Charles II, and Lord High Chancellor of England During the Reign of James II 155 (1856).
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 14.
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 586.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 334.
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 46.
 Keeton, supra note 4, at 356.
 Helm, supra note 29, at 153-4.
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 95.
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 15.
 H. Montgomery Hyde, Judge Jeffreys 274 (1940).
 Helm, supra note 29, at 152.
 Macaulay, supra note 1, at 71.
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 15.
 Humphrey W. Woolrych, supra note 31, at 278.
 Hyde, supra note 43, at 304.
 Lord Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, From the Earliest Times till the Reign of Queen Victoria 376 (1880).
 Hyde, supra note 43, at 305.
 Helm, supra note 29, at 178.
 Halliday, supra note 3, at 17.
'William and Mary, 1689: An Act for the King and
 Lord Campbell, supra note 50, at 1.
 Baynes, supra note 27.