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Judge Jeffreys

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Judge Jeffreys

Not to be confused with George Darell Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys (1878–1960).
The Right Honourable
Lord Jeffreys
Lord Chancellor
In office
Preceded by The Lord Guilford
Succeeded by In Commission
Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench
In office
Preceded by Sir Fraser Pemberton
Succeeded by Sir Edward Herbert
Personal details
Born 15 May 1645
Acton, Wrexham, Wales
Died 18 April 1689
Tower of London, England
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Religion Anglicanism

George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem, PC (15 May 1645 – 18 April 1689), also known as "The Hanging Judge", was a Welsh judge. He became notable during the reign of King James II, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor (and serving as Lord High Steward in certain instances). His conduct as a judge was to enforce royal policy, resulting in a historical reputation for severity and bias.

Early years and education

Jeffreys was born at the family estate of Acton Hall, on the outskirts of Wrexham, in Denbighshire, Wales, the sixth son of John and Margaret Jeffreys. His grandfather, John Jeffreys (died 1622), had been Chief Justice of the Anglesey circuit of the Great Sessions. His father, also John Jeffreys (1608–1691), was a Royalist during the English Civil War, but was reconciled to the Commonwealth and served as High Sheriff of Denbighshire in 1655.

His brothers were people of note. Thomas, later Sir Thomas (knighted in 1686), was English Consul in Spain and a Knight of Alcántara. William was vicar of Holt, near Wrexham, from 1668–1675. His younger brother, James, made a good ecclesiastical career, becoming Vice-Dean of Canterbury in 1685.

George was educated at Shrewsbury School from 1652–1659, his grandfather's old school, where he was periodically tested by Philip Henry, a friend of his mother. He attended St Paul's School, London, from 1659–1661 and Westminster School, London, from 1661–1662. He became an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1662, leaving after one year without graduating, and entering the Inner Temple for law in 1663.[1]


In 1667, he married Sarah Neesham or Needham, by whom he had seven children before her death in 1678. She was the daughter of the impoverished vicar of Stoke d'Abernon, Thomas Neesham. A story is published, that Jeffreys sought to marry a daughter of a rich City merchant and had a secret correspondence with her, through Sarah, her kinswoman and companion. When the merchant discovered the plot he refused his home to Sarah and George did a noble act by marrying her.[2] They married in the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower in the City of London.

He married secondly, Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London in 1665-6 and 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: Jeffreys' family went in awe of her, and it was said she was the only person he was afraid of; a popular ballad called them St. George and his Dragon.

Early career

He embarked on a legal career in 1668, becoming a Common Serjeant of London in 1671. He was aiming for the post of Recorder of London, but was passed over for this in 1676 in favour of William Dolben. He turned instead to the Court and became Solicitor General to the future king James II (then the Duke of York), the younger brother of Charles II. Despite his Protestant upbringing, he found favour under the Roman Catholic Duke.

Jeffreys distinguished himself with black humour, for example noting that two brothers convicted of stealing lead from the roof of Stepney Church had "zeal for religion.. so great as to carry you to the top of the church", and noting that they had narrowly avoided committing a capital offence.[3]

Recorder of London

Jeffreys was knighted in 1677, became Recorder of London in 1678 when Dolben resigned, and by 1680 had become Chief Justice of Chester and Counsel for the Crown at Ludlow and 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. These condemnations were remembered against him in 1685 when he secured the conviction of Oates for his perjury at the same trials. Charles II created him a baronet in 1681, and two years later, he was Chief Justice of the King's Bench and a member of the Privy Council.

Lord Chief Justice

Jeffreys became Lord Chief Justice in 1683 and 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 caused 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.

Lord Chancellor

James II, following his accession to the throne, named Jeffreys as Lord Chancellor in 1685, and elevated him to the peerage as Baron Jeffreys of Wem. In 1687 he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire and of Buckinghamshire.[4] His first major trial in James' reign was that of Titus Oates: while there is no doubt of Oates' guilt, Jeffreys' conduct was no more decorous than usual; the latter part of the trial has been described as degenerating into such an exchange of insults between Jeffreys and Oates as made it doubtful if proceedings could continue[5] Unable to impose the death penalty, Jeffreys and his colleagues apparently tried to achieve the same result by sentencing Oates to series of whippings so savage that he might well have died; although as Kenyon remarks, it was arguably no more than he deserved.[6] Jeffreys was much criticised for his conduct of the trial of the aged and much respected clergyman Richard Baxter, but these criticisms must be treated with caution since the trial records have disappeared and all surviving accounts were written by partisans of Baxter.

The Bloody Assizes

Jeffreys' historical notoriety comes from his actions in 1685, after Monmouth's Rebellion. Jeffreys was sent to the West Country in the autumn of 1685 to conduct the trials of captured rebels. The Centre of the trials was based at Taunton. Estimates of the numbers executed for treason have been given as high as 700, however, a more likely figure is between 160 and 170 of 1381 defendants found guilty of treason. Although Jeffreys has been traditionally accused of vindictiveness and harsh sentencing, none of the convictions have been considered improper, except for that of Alice Lisle. Furthermore, as the law of the time required a sentence of death for treason, Jeffreys was required to impose it, leaving the king the option of commuting sentence under the prerogative of mercy. Arguably, it was James II's refusal to use the prerogative as much as was customary for the time, rather than Jeffreys' actions that made the government's reprisals so savage.[7]

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 affirmatively. The jury then returned a guilty verdict.[8] The King's refusal to reprieve her gave rise to a belief that he was taking belated revenge on her husband.

James considered making Jeffreys Viscount Wrexham and Earl of Flint. James refrained only because Jeffreys remained a Protestant.[9] Jeffreys never hid his contempt for Roman Catholicism: in the last months of James' reign, as the Government drifted without leadership, Jeffreys remarked "the Virgin Mary must do all".

President of the Ecclesiastical Commission

As Lord Chancellor, Jeffreys was given the presidency of the Ecclesiastical Commission, a body established by James II under the Royal Prerogative to control the governance of the Church of England and coerce it.[10] Despite his misgivings and concerns that James was being overly influenced by hardline Roman Catholics, the Ecclesiastical Commission took proceedings against various clergy including the Bishop of London and academics of Oxford and Cambridge universities considered by James II to be overly Protestant. The Ecclesiastial Commission's activities came to an end with the Glorious Revolution.

Fall, death and burial

During the Glorious Revolution, when James II fled the country, Jeffreys stayed in London until the last moment, being the only high legal authority in James's abandoned kingdom to perform political duties. When William III's troops approached London, Jeffreys tried to flee and follow the King abroad. He was captured in a public house in Wapping, now named The Town of Ramsgate. Reputedly he was disguised as a sailor, and was recognized by a surviving judicial victim. Jeffreys was in terror of the public when dragged to the Lord Mayor and then to prison "for his own safety". He begged his captors for protection from the mob.

He died of kidney disease (probably pyelonephritis) while in custody in the Tower of London on 18 April 1689. He was originally buried in the Chapel Royal of Saint Peter ad Vincula in the Tower. In 1692 his body was moved to St Mary Aldermanbury.

In his London Journal, Leigh Hunt gives the following account of Judge Jeffreys' death and burial:
Jeffreys was taken on the twelfth of September, 1688. He was first interred privately in the Tower; but three years afterwards, when his memory was something blown over, his friends obtained permission, by a warrant of the queen's[11] dated September 1692, to take his remains under their own care, and he was accordingly reinterred in a vault under the communion table of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, 2nd Nov. 1694. In 1810, during certain repairs, the coffin was uncovered for a time, and the public had a sight of the box containing the mortal remains of the feared and hated magistrate.[12]

During The Blitz, St Mary Aldermanbury was gutted by a German air raid and all traces of Jeffreys's tomb were destroyed. (The remains of the church were transported to the United States in 1966 and re-erected in Fulton, Missouri, as a memorial to Winston Churchill.)


Jeffreys's only son, by Sarah Needham, John (or Jacky as he was called at home) succeeded to his father's peerage. He married Charlotte, a daughter of Philip Herbert, 7th Earl of Pembroke, and later Henrietta de Kérouaille, sister of the Duchess of Portsmouth, a mistress of Charles II and a supporter of Jeffreys in the early stages of his career.[13] John and Charlotte Jeffreys had one daughter, named Henriette-Louise after the two Kérouaille sisters, but no son, so that the male line of George Jeffreys became extinct. There are descendants from the daughters.


Jeffreys' reputation today is mixed. His legal ability was undoubtedly high, and he was definitely good in all cases that required him to rule on questions of law, but not of loyalty. Some say he was a personally vengeful man. He had bitter personal and professional rivalries with Sir William Williams, whom he tried to ruin with a fine for publishing a libel. His political animus was displayed during his legal career. He suffered a painful kidney disease that may well have affected his unbridled temper and added to this reputation, and his doctors apparently recommended alcohol to dull the pain, which may have explained his often shocking conduct in court.

In The Revolution of 1688, the historian J. R. Jones refers to Jeffreys as "an alcoholic".

G. W. Keeton in Lord Chancellor Jeffreys and the Stuart Cause (1965) claimed the historical Jeffreys "to be a different person from the Jeffreys of legend".[specify]


One session of the Bloody Assizes was held in Dorchester on 5 September, in the Oak Room (now a Tea Room) of the Antelope Hotel. Jeffreys lodged nearby at 6 High West Street, and is said to have used a secret passage from his lodgings to the Oak Room.

Prezzo plc now operates the "Judge Jeffreys" restaurant at 6 High West Street.

After his fall from power, a portrait of Jeffreys was taken from Gray's Inn and left in the cellar of Acton Hall (the family home). When Acton Hall was demolished in the 1950s, that painting and one of his brother Thomas were acquired by Simon Yorke, Squire of Erddig (Erthig) and hung in the entrance hall of Erddig Hall. They still can be seen there. Both portraits are reproduced in Keeton's Lord Chancellor Jeffreys and the Stuart Cause.

Literary references

  • In the 1999 novel Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle (set in modern-day Dorset) the ghost of Judge Jeffreys is the villain.
  • In the 2003 novel Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, George Jeffreys is the colleague and nemesis of the protagonist Daniel Waterhouse.
  • In the 1889 historical novel Micah Clarke by Arthur Conan Doyle, Jeffreys ("The Devil in Wig and Gown") sits in judgement over the hero. According to Conan Doyle in his memoir, Memories and Adventure, his conception of Jeffreys as a "fallen angel" type deeply impressed Oscar Wilde.
  • In the 1891 short story "The Judge's House" by Bram Stoker, a Jeffreys-like figure haunts the title building.
  • The 1853 short story "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street" and its 1872 revision "Mr. Justice Harbottle" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu were similar to Stoker's story and influenced it.
  • In the historical novel Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, the hero, Dr. Peter Blood, is sentenced to transportation by Jeffreys for having treated wounded Monmouth rebels, and provokes Jeffreys to near-apoplexy with his spirited defense.
  • In the short story "The Wedding Gift" by Sabatini, Jeffreys acts as a benefactor.
  • In another Sabatini short story, The Remedy, Jeffreys is a victim.
  • In the 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Mr. Stryver, Darnay's defense attorney during his treason trial, has a portrait of Jeffreys in his chambers.
  • In the 1869 historical romance Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore, set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion, Jeffreys plays an important role, and is presented in a villainous light.
  • In the 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, set in the 17th century, Hugo wrote in chapter 2, "English legislation did not trifle in those days. It did not take much to make a man a felon. The magistrates were ferocious by tradition, and cruelty was a matter of routine. The judges of assize increased and multiplied. Jeffreys had become a breed."
  • In the ghost story "Martin's Close" by M R James, Jeffreys presides over the trial of the murderer George Martin.
  • In the 1924 short story by James, "The Neighbour's Landmark", Jeffreys is mentioned in connection with the famous Lady Ivy's trial, over which he presided in 1684.
  • In the 1930 mystery novel Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, a judge who seems to want to have the heroine Harriet Vane convicted of murder (so that he can sentence her to death) is described by Harriet's future husband Lord Peter Wimsey as "an old Jeffreys of a judge" .
  • In the 1970 film The Bloody Judge (also known as The Night of the Blood Monster) Christopher Lee plays a character based on Jeffreys.
  • In "Doing the Honours" a 1981 episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker's describes Sir Humphrey Appleby's verbose obfuscation as "Some of his sentences are longer than Judge Jeffreys"
  • In the 1983 novel The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser, the foul-mouthed and bad-tempered Jeffreys is made to argue against an equally foul-mouthed prostitute in his courtroom.
  • In the 1986 historical novel The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian, set in the early 19th century, Jeffreys is given by Dr. Maturin as an example of why Captain Aubrey shouldn't blindly assume that his trial for stock fraud will be entirely fair)
  • In the Doctor Who Big Finish audio dramas Dead London and The Glorious Revolution, Jeffreys is a minor character. He had previously been mentioned in the unfinished and unaired Fourth Doctor serial Shada.


External links

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Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Job Charlton
Chief Justice of Chester
Succeeded by
Sir Edward Herbert
Preceded by
Sir Fraser Pemberton
Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench
Succeeded by
Sir Edward Herbert
Political offices
Preceded by
The Lord Guilford
(Lord Keeper)
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
In Commission
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Earl of Bridgewater
Custos Rotulorum of Buckinghamshire
Succeeded by
The Lord Wharton
Preceded by
The Earl of Bridgewater
Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire
Succeeded by
The Earl of Bridgewater
Preceded by
The Earl of Bradford
Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire
Succeeded by
The Earl of Bradford
Peerage of England
Preceded by
new creation
Baron Jeffreys of Wem
Succeeded by
John Jeffreys
Baronetage of England
Preceded by
new creation
(of Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire)
Succeeded by
John Jeffreys

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