Shropshire History

Judge Jeffreys

Return

to Index

 

Judge Jeffries

 

George Jeffreys was born at Acton Hall near Wrexham in 1645. He was the 6th son of John and Margaret Jeffreys. His grandfather, John Jeffreys had been Chief Justice of the Anglesey circuit of the Great Sessions. His father John Jeffreys was a Royalist during the English Civil War but was reconciled to the Commonwealth and served as High Sheriff of Denbighshire in 1655. George went to Shrewsbury School from 1652-1659 and then to St Paul's School in London from 1659-1661 and Westminster School in London from 1661-1662. He went to Cambridge University in 1662 but left after one year without graduating. He then entered the Inner Temple in London in 1663 to study law.

 

In 1667, he married Sarah Needham and they had 7 children. It is said that Jeffries actually wanted to marry the daughter of a rich City merchant and wrote to her secretly, using Sarah (who was a relative) as a go-between. When the merchant discovered the plot, he refused to let Sarah into his house and George did a noble act by marrying her. He started working as a lawyer in 1668, becoming a Common Serjeant of London in 1671. In 1676, he tried to get the post of Recorder of London but this was given to someone else. He used his influence to become Solicitor General to the Duke of York instead and also to Albany (later King James II), the younger brother of Charles II. Despite his Protestant upbringing, he found favour under the Roman Catholic Duke and was knighted in 1677. His wife died in 1678 and, the following year, he was married again to Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who was an ex-Lord Mayor of London. She was the widow of Sir John Jones of Fonmon Castle, Glamorgan. Being only 29 at the time of her second marriage, she was described as a brisk young widow and there were some rumours about her. She was said to have a formidable temper and Jeffreys' family went in awe of her. It was said that she was the only person he was afraid of and a popular ballad at the time joked that while St George had killed a dragon and thus saved a maiden in distress, George had missed the maiden and married the dragon by mistake.

 

By 1683, he was Chief Justice of the King's Bench and a member of the Privy Council. In the former role, he presided over the trial of Algernon Sidney, who had been implicated in the Rye House Plot. Sidney was convicted and executed, Jeffreys' conduct of the trial causing some unease, in particular his ruling that while two witnesses were normally required in a treason trial, and the Crown had only one, Sidney's own writings on republicanism were a second "witness" on the ground that "to write is to act".  John Evelyn, meeting him at a wedding two days later, thought his riotous behaviour unbecoming to his office, especially so soon after Sidney's trial. Jeffreys' elevation was seen by many as a reward for the successful conviction of Lord Russell in connection with the same conspiracy as Sidney. Jeffreys, who had led for the prosecution at Russell's trial, replaced Sir Francis Pemberton, who had presided at the same trial and made clear his doubts about Russell's guilt, much to the King's displeasure. Jeffreys conducted the prosecution with far more dignity and restraint than was usual with him, stressing to the jury that they must not convict unless they were certain of Russell's guilt. This strange behaviour led him in 1865, at a trial in Bristol, to make the mayor of the city, then sitting fully robed beside him on the bench, go into the dock and fined him £1000 for being a kidnapping knave. Some Bristol traders at the time were known at the time to kidnap their own countrymen and ship them away as slaves.

 

After Monmouth's Rebellion in 1865, Jeffreys was sent to the West Country to conduct the trials of captured rebels. The trial was based at Taunton and about 170 people were executed for treason. From this, Jeffreys earned the title of the “hanging judge” and a reputation for cruelty. However, as the law at the time required a sentence of death for treason, Jeffreys was required to impose it and left it to the king to consider commuting sentence. It was thus King James II's refusal to pardon the men, rather than Jeffreys' actions, that made the sentences seem so savage. Alice Lisle was accused of sheltering some members of the defeated rebel army who had not yet been found guilty of treason. There was no evidence that she had taken an active part in the rebellion itself and she was not accused of this. When the jury asked whether her actions could in law be considered treasonable, Jeffreys replied that they could. The jury then returned a guilty verdict. The King's refusal to reprieve her gave rise to a belief that he was taking belated revenge on her husband.

 

After the trials, a grateful King created him Baron and he took the title of Lord Jeffreys of Wem. He then acquired Lowe Hall in Wem, as well as Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire. Jeffries began to have a series of important appointments. He was the Lord lieutenant of Shropshire from 1687-1689, Recorder of London in 1678, Chief Justice of Chester in 1680, as well as being Counsel for the Crown at Ludlow, Justice of the Peace for Flintshire. During the Popish Plot, he was frequently on the bench which condemned numerous innocent men on the perjured evidence of Titus Oates.

 

In 1687, his first major trial in King James' reign was that of Titus Oates. Whilst there is no doubt of Oates' guilt, Jeffreys' conduct was no more decorous than usual and the trial was described as such an exchange of insults between Jeffreys and Oates as to make it doubtful if proceedings could continue. Unable to impose the death penalty, Jeffreys and his colleagues apparently tried to achieve the same result by sentencing Oates to a series of whippings so savage that he might well have died. Jeffreys was also much criticised for his conduct of the trial of the old respected clergyman Richard Baxter.

 

During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when King James II fled the country, Jeffreys stayed in London until William III's troops were approaching. He then tried to escape but was captured in a public house in Wapping. He was apparently disguised as a sailor but was recognised by a surviving judicial victim, who claimed he could never forget Jeffreys' face. Jeffreys was terrified of the public when dragged to the Lord Mayor and then to the Tower of London. He begged his captors for protection from the mob, who intended to “show him that same mercy he had ever shown to others”. He died in 1689 of kidney disease while still in custody in the Tower and was buried in the chapel there. In 1692, his body was moved to St Mary’s Church in Aldermanbury. During repairs to the church in 1810, the coffin was uncovered for a time and the public queued to view the box containing the mortal remains of the feared and hated magistrate. His final ignominy was during the Blitz, when the church was gutted by a German bomb and all traces of Jeffreys's tomb were destroyed.