George Jeffreys: The Hanging Judge

LAST WEEK I made mention in a footnote of George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem, otherwise known as ‘The Hanging Judge’. Well, I thought I would elaborate. Was the ‘hanging judge’ a fair description of the fellow? And who was he?

His grandfather was John Jeffreys who had been Chief Justice of the Anglesey circuit of the Great Sessions, and his father, also John Jeffreys, served as High Sheriff of Denighshire.  His brother, Thomas, was the English Consul in Spain, and his other brother, William, became Vice-Dean of Canterbury. So authority and ambition was certainly in the family. George went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but only lasted a year, leaving without a degree. He entered Inner Temple (remember ‘My Cousin Ralph’, a couple of posts ago?) in 1663 and began his legal career in 1668.

George Jeffreys (1645-89)

In 1671 he was appointed Common Serjeant-at-Law of London (what?) [1]. Trust me , pretty fast promotion. He was knighted in 1677 and became Recorder of London [see fn 1, if you haven’t already] the following year.  By 1680 he had become Chief Justice of Chester and Counsel for the Crown at Ludlow and Justice of the Peace for Flintshire. Charles II created him a baronet in 1681, and by 1683 he was Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and a member of the Privy Council.  He was a busy boy (I would say he didn’t ‘hang around’ but that’s an awful pun bearing in mind his nickname … so I won’t say it).

It was when Jeffreys became Lord Chief Justice from 1683 that his conduct began to cause some unease. He presided over the trial of one Algernon Sydney who had been charged with conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II under the Rye House Plot. To establish treason two witnesses were required but the prosecution only had one. However, this didn’t seem to bother Jeffreys much and he ruled that Sydney’s own  writings on republicanism were a sufficient ‘second witness’.  Sydney was found guilty and executed. Good old 17th century justice.

Jeffreys as Lord Chancellor, 1685

By 1685 he had been appointed Lord Chancellor and this is when he picked up the ‘Hanging Judge’ tag. But really due to no fault of his own. He was also made a peer, Baron Jeffreys of Wem (Wem is near Shrewsbury in Shropshire … but you knew that).  In Autumn of 1685, in Taunton, he presided over the trials of the rebels of the Monmouth Rebellion (a West Country plot to overthrow James II – Charles II had died in February of that year). Of the 1381 defendants, it has been suggested that some 700 were found guilty and sentenced to death. In fact, it appears that the more likely figure is between 160 and 170. Regardless, Jeffreys sentenced them all to hang and this event became known as The Bloody Assizes.

Baron Jeffreys of Wem

Why ‘The Hanging Judge’ tag is a little unfair is because Jeffreys had no choice but to sentence them to hang as that was the law at the time for punishment for treason. If anything, the tag should be aimed at (I was going to say ‘hung on’, but …..) the king, James II. He had the Royal Prerogative to reprieve the sentences (which was not unusual) but he chose not to use it on this occasion.

Jeffreys was a very able lawyer but he did have a bit of a reputation as a bad tempered vindictive individual who was often a little worse for wear in court due to drink. He had a painful kidney disease which his doctor suggested he take alcohol to dull the pain (my kind of doctor!) and this may account for his behaviour.

I mentioned the Glorious Revolution in the Outlander post (last month). This is where Parliament passed legislation to prevent a Roman Catholic ruling as king of England and so deposing James II. Well, this took place in 1688 and was not good for Jeffreys, being a ‘James II man’. He tried to escape but was captured disguised as a sailor outside the ‘Town of Ramsgate’ public house in Wapping in London. He was sent to the Tower of London and died of his kidney disease the following year.

So, George Jeffreys, ‘The Hanging Judge’ – fair or what?    You judge …….



[1] The Common Serjeant-at-Law of London is one of the High Officers of the City of London (established in 1291 – the title not London). He is the second most senior permanent judge of the Central Criminal Court after the Recorder of London, acting as deputy to that office, and sitting as a judge in the trial of criminal offences. The 81st incumbent is His Honour Judge Richard Marks, QC, who was appointed on 3rd March 2015.


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have discovered another volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction). Here is another extract:

One of my students was telling me that neither he nor his parents had ever left their small village until last year.  They had saved money to travel to Oxford for the son’s interview. It was their very first time in a city. They visited a shopping mall and while the mother was shopping, the father and son were standing in awe in front of a lift (or elevator as some call it), having no idea what it was.

As they watched, an elderly lady walked into the strange silver doors and the doors closed. The father and son watched as the numbers went up, and then back down. When the doors opened a beautiful young woman walked out.

My student said that his father leaned over and whispered to the him, “Son, go get your mother!”



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