GEORGE JEFFREYS , 1st Baron Jeffreys

Posted: July 31, 2013 in Historic People
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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).
Jeffreys was born at the family estate of Acton Hall, near 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, Wales 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.
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. 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. 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 during the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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. At these trials, later known as the “Bloody Assizes”, Jeffreys issued harsh sentences to nearly all defendants. About 300 were executed, and between 800 and 900 were transported to the West Indies. On 18/19 September alone, he issued 144 death sentences. For his severity, he was nicknamed “the hanging judge”.
Though Jeffreys’ harshness alienated many Englishmen, it pleased King James, who considered making him Viscount Wrexham and Earl of Flint. James refrained only because Jeffreys remained a Protestant. Jeffreys never hid his contempt for the Catholic faith: in the last months of James’ reign, as the Government drifted without leadership, Jeffreys remarked “the Virgin Mary must do all”.
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. (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 later re-erected in Fulton, Missouri, in the United States.)
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 dated September 1692, to take his remains under their own care, and he was accordingly re-interred 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.
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.
John and Charlotte Jeffreys had one daughter, named Henriette-Louise after the two Kerouaille 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.
In The Revolution of 1688, the historian J. R. Jones refers to Jeffreys as “an alcoholic”. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in the majority opinion in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 67 (2004), wrote that “The Framers of the Constitution knew that judges, like other government officers, could not always be trusted to safeguard the rights of the people; the likes of the dread Lord Jeffreys were not yet too distant a memory.”
However, 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”.


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