George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys

George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys

George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem, PC (May 15 1645 – April 18 1689), also known as "The Hanging Judge", 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).

Early years and education

Jeffreys was born at the family estate of Acton Hall, Wrexham in 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 and his father, another John Jeffreys (1608 - 1691) was a Royalist during the English Civil War and fought for Charles I but was reconciled to the Protectorate and served as a Sheriff in 1655.

His elder brothers were to become people of note; Thomas, later Sir Thomas (knighted in 1686) was to become British Consul in Spain, and William became a vicar at Holt from 1668 - 1675.

George was educated at Shrewsbury School from 1652-9, his grandfather's old school, where he was periodically tested by a friend of his mother's, Philip Henry; then 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 in 1663.


In 1667, he had married Sarah Neesham, by whom he had seven children before her death in 1678. He married secondly, Anne, widow of Sir John Jones of Fonmon, Glamorgan.


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

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. 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 presided over the trial of Algernon Sidney, who had been implicated in the Rye House Plot. Sidney was convicted and executed. He became Lord Chief Justice and Privy Councillor in 1683 and King James named him Lord Chancellor in 1685. James II, following his accession to the throne, elevated Jeffreys to the peerage as Baron Jeffreys of Wem.

He presided over the "Bloody Assizes" at which harsh sentences were handed out to the Duke of Monmouth's followers at Monmouth's Rebellion. Jeffreys held the assizes in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle, current home of the Somerset county museum.

In 1685, Judge Jeffreys went to Dorchester and lodged at 6 High West Street Dorchester, (now the restaurant, Judge Jeffreys). The Bloody Assizes were held in the Oak Room (now a Tea Room) of the Antelope Hotel on the 5th day of September in that year. Judge Jeffreys is said to have a secret passage from his lodgings to the Oak Room.

It was only his Anglican faith that prevented King James from making him Viscount Wrexham and Earl of Flint [ [ Welsh Biography Online] ]

Death and Reputation

Following the Glorious Revolution, he attempted to flee the country, following the King abroad, but was captured. He died of kidney disease while in custody in the Tower of London in April 1689. He was originally buried in the Chapel Royal of Saint Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London but in 1692 was moved to St Mary Aldermanbury.

Jeffreys's eldest son, John, succeeded to his peerage. He married a daughter of Phillip Herbert, 7th Earl of Pembroke.

Jeffreys's reputation today is mixed. His legal ability was undoubtedly high but he was also a personally vengeful man, as is shown by bitter personal and professional rivalries with Sir William Williams, whom he tried to ruin with a fine for publishing a libel, and his political animus 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 his book, "The Revolution of 1688", the historian JR Jones refers to Jeffreys as "an alcoholic". 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."

Literary references

*George Jeffreys is the colleague and nemesis of Neal Stephenson's fictional protagonist Daniel Waterhouse, in his 2003 novel "Quicksilver".
*The ghost of Judge Jeffreys acts as the villain in Peter S. Beagle's 1999 novel "Tamsin", which is set in modern-day Dorset.
*"The Devil in Wig and Gown" sits in judgement over the hero near the conclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle's historical novel "Micah Clarke".
*A Jeffreys-like figure haunts "The Judge's House" in Bram Stoker's short story, which was influenced by two earlier, similar stories by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street" (1853), which was revised and retitled "Mr. Justice Harbottle" (1872).
*Jeffreys sentences Dr. Peter Blood, main hero of Rafael Sabatini's novel "Captain Blood", for aiding wounded Monmouth rebels, with transportation. During the trial he is almost struck with apoplexy, due to the exchange with brave and quick-witted Blood.
*Jeffreys plays an important role in R. D. Blackmore's historical romance, "Lorna Doone", which was set during the time of the Monmouth Rebellion.
*Jeffreys presides over the trial of the murderer George Martin, in M R James' ghost story "Martin's Close".
* Jefferies is referenced in passing in Patrick O'Brian's 1986 novel, "The Reverse of the Medal" (the novel is set in the early 19th century; Jeffrey's notoriety as a judge 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)
* From Victor Hugo's 1869 "The Man Who Laughs", set in the 17th century, 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."
* Christopher Lee plays a character based on Jeffreys in the 1970 film "The Bloody Judge".


External links

* [ George Jeffreys at Find-A-Grave]

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