George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys

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The Lord Jeffreys

George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem by William Wolfgang Claret.jpg
Lord Chancellor
In office
Preceded by The Lord Guilford
Succeeded byIn Commission
Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench
In office
Preceded bySir Fraser Pemberton
Succeeded bySir Edward Herbert
Personal details
Born15 May 1645
Acton, Wrexham, Wales
Died18 April 1689(1689-04-18) (aged 43)
Tower of London, England
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge

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

Privy Council of England Body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England

The Privy Council of England, also known as HisMajesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, was a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England. Its members were often senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, together with leading churchmen, judges, diplomats and military leaders.

"Hanging judge" is a colloquial phrase for a judge who has gained notoriety for handing down punishment by sentencing convicted persons to death by hanging, or otherwise imposing unusually harsh sentences. Hanging judges are officers of the court with mandates, as opposed to extralegal lynch law.

Welsh people nation and ethnic group native to Wales

The Welsh are a Celtic nation and ethnic group native to, or otherwise associated with, Wales, Welsh culture, Welsh history and the Welsh language. Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom, and the majority of people living in Wales are British citizens.


Early years and education

Jeffreys was born at the family estate of Acton Hall, in Wrexham, in North 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.

Acton, Wrexham community in Wrexham County Borough, Wales

Acton is a local government community, the lowest tier of local government, part of the Wrexham County Borough in Wales. It lies in the north-eastern part of the market town of Wrexham. The area is largely residential and at its centre, lies Acton Park, the location of the former Acton Hall.

Wrexham Town in Wales

Wrexham is the largest town in the north of Wales and an administrative, commercial, retail and educational centre. Wrexham is situated between the Welsh mountains and the lower Dee Valley alongside the border with England. Historically part of Denbighshire, the town became part of Clwyd in 1974 and since 1996 has been the centre of the Wrexham County Borough.

North Wales unofficial region of Wales, United Kingdom

North Wales is a region of Wales. Retail, transport and educational infrastructure are centred on Wrexham, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Bangor. It is bordered to the rest of Wales with the counties of Ceredigion and Powys, and to the east by the English counties of Shropshire, Merseyside, and Cheshire.

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 to 1675. His younger brother, James, made a good ecclesiastical career, becoming Vice-Dean of Canterbury in 1685.

Consul (representative) diplomatic rank

A consul is an official representative of the government of one state in the territory of another, normally acting to assist and protect the citizens of the consul's own country, and to facilitate trade and friendship between the people of the two countries.

Order of Alcántara

The Order of Alcántara, also called the Knights of St. Julian, was originally a military order of León, founded in 1166 and confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1177.

Canterbury Cathedral city in Kent, England

Canterbury is a historic English cathedral city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, situated in the heart of the City of Canterbury, a local government district of Kent, England. It lies on the River Stour.

George was educated at Shrewsbury School from 1652 to 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 to 1661 and Westminster School, London, from 1661 to 1662. He became an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1662, leaving after one year without graduating, and entering the Inner Temple for law in 1663. [2]

Shrewsbury School independent school in Shropshire, United Kingdom

Shrewsbury School is an English co-educational independent school for pupils aged 13 to 18 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, founded by Edward VI in 1552 by Royal Charter. The present campus, to which the school moved in 1882, is on the banks of the River Severn.

Philip Henry English Nonconformist clergyman and diarist

Philip Henry was an English Nonconformist clergyman and diarist.

St Pauls School, London boys independent school in Richmond upon Thames, England

St Paul's School is a selective independent school for boys aged 13–18, founded in 1509 by John Colet and located on a 43-acre (180,000m2) site by the River Thames, in Barnes, London.


Jeffreys, presumably after being granted the title 1st Baron of Wem, took the residence of Lowe Hall in Wem, Shropshire. The extant Wem Hall was built in 1666, although it has subsequently been significantly remodelled. [3] He also had Bulstrode Park built for him in 1686.

Wem town in Shropshire, England

Wem is a small market town in Shropshire, England. It is the administrative centre for the northern area committee of Shropshire Council, which has its headquarters at Edinburgh House in the centre of Wem. Wem lies nine miles to the north of Shropshire's county town of Shrewsbury and sits on the rail line between that town and Crewe in Cheshire.

Bulstrode Park park and mansion in Buckinghamshire, England

Bulstrode is a large park and mansion to the southwest of the Buckinghamshire town centre of Gerrard's Cross in the English Home Counties. The estate, that spreads across Chalfont St Peter, Gerrards Cross and Fulmer, predates the Norman conquest and the name may originate from the Anglo-Saxon words burh (marsh) and stród meaning (fort).


In 1667, he married Sarah Neesham or Needham, by whom he had seven children; she died 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. [4] They married in the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower in the City of London.

Stoke dAbernon village in the borough of Elmbridge in Surrey, England

Stoke D'Abernon is a village and former civil parish in the borough of Elmbridge in Surrey, England. It is on the right bank of the River Mole contiguously south of Cobham, a larger settlement which is a post town and is east-southeast of Oxshott a large village founded in the 19th century from the higher, sandy forested part of its formerly expansive area. It shares a railway station with Cobham and is inside the M25 motorway. Cobham Training Centre, the training ground of Chelsea F.C., is within its traditional boundaries.

All Hallows-by-the-Tower Church in London

All Hallows-by-the-Tower, also previously dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and sometimes known as All Hallows Barking, is an ancient Anglican church on Byward Street in the City of London, overlooking the Tower of London.

He married secondly in 1679, Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who was Lord Mayor of London 1665-6; 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: Jeffreys' family went in awe of her, and it was said she was the only person he was afraid of. A popular ballad joked that while St. George had killed a dragon and thus saved a maiden in distress, Sir George had missed the maiden and married the dragon by mistake.

Early career

Portrait of Judge George Jeffreys, First Baron of Wem Portrait of Judge George Jeffreys, First Baron of Wem.jpg
Portrait of Judge George Jeffreys, First Baron of Wem

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 Duke of York and of Albany (later King James II & VII), 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 great as to carry you to the top of the church", and noting that they had narrowly avoided committing a capital offence. [5]

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. 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.

A less well known act of Jeffreys occurred on assize in Bristol in 1685 when he made 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 were known at the time to kidnap their own countrymen and ship them away as slaves. [6]

Lord Chancellor

George Jeffreys was named Lord Chancellor and created Baron Jeffreys of Wem in 1685 George Jeffreys.jpg
George Jeffreys was named Lord Chancellor and created Baron Jeffreys of Wem in 1685

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. [7] 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 such an exchange of insults between Jeffreys and Oates as to make it doubtful if proceedings could continue. [8] 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. [9] 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 actual records have disappeared and all the surviving accounts of the trial 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 tried at Winchester. 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. [10]

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. [11] She was executed at Winchester by beheading (although the original sentence had been that she was to be burned at the stake). The King's refusal to reprieve her gave rise to a belief that he was taking posthumous revenge on her husband, the regicide Sir John Lisle, who had been one of his own father's judges at his trial in 1649. Lisle had been murdered by Royalist agents at Lausanne in 1664, but the King had a long memory and may well have felt that Alice should suffer judicial punishment in her husband's place.

James considered making Jeffreys Viscount Wrexham and Earl of Flint. James refrained only because Jeffreys remained a Protestant. [12] Despite his loyalty to the king, Jeffreys never hid his contempt for Roman Catholicism: in the last months of James' reign, as the Government drifted without leadership, Jeffreys remarked cynically that "the Virgin Mary is to 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. [13] 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 Ecclesiastical 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, [14] now named The Town of Ramsgate. Reputedly he was disguised as a sailor, and was recognised by a surviving judicial victim, who claimed he could never forget Jeffreys' countenance, although his ferocious eyebrows had been shaven. Jeffreys was terrified 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, who intended "to show him that same mercy he had ever shown to others".

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. [15]

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 [16] 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. [17]

During the Blitz, St Mary Aldermanbury was gutted by a German air raid and all traces of Jeffreys' 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 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. [18] 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 through his daughter and granddaughters.


Black and white oval frame portrait of Jeffreys Jeffry1753n061.jpg
Black and white oval frame portrait of Jeffreys

Jeffreys' reputation today is mixed. His legal ability was undoubtedly high, and he was definitely capable in all cases that required him to rule on questions of law, but not of loyalty.[ according to whom? ] Some say he was a personally vengeful man. He had bitter personal and professional rivalries with Sir William Williams. His political animus was displayed during his legal career. He suffered from 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 ]

After reviewing the Lisle case and contemporary opinion Brian Harris QC concludes that 'Given that [Jeffreys] had to administer a largely inchoate criminal procedure and impose the bloody sentences that the law then required, a balanced judgement would regard Jeffreys as no worse, perhaps even a little better than most other judges of his era.' [19]


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. In 2014 the passage was reportedly discovered and was found to be wide enough for three judges to walk through side by side. [20]

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 can still be seen there. Both portraits are reproduced in Keeton's Lord Chancellor Jeffreys and the Stuart Cause.


Jeffreys was portrayed by Michael Kitchen in Lorna Doone (2001) and by Christopher Lee The Bloody Judge (1969).

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  1. Tyler Bryant, Ruth. "George Jeffreys, first Baron Jeffreys of Wem". Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. Collection: Chief Justice George Jeffreys. University of Georgia School of Law . Retrieved 22 November 2015.
  2. "Jeffrys, George (JFRS662G)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. Listed Buildings website
  4. Woolrych,Humphry William. . The Life of Judge Jeffreys, Chief Justice of the King's Bench Under Charles II and Lord High Chancellor of England During the Reign of James II 1852, reprinted 2006. See also: Montgomery Hyde, H. Judge Jeffreys London, Butterworth & Co, Ltd. 1948, p. 27–28
  5. H Montgomery Hyde, "Judge Jeffreys", London, Butterworth & Co, 1948 p 62
  6. Patrick Medd,"Romilly", Collins, 1968, p149.
  7. The Complete Peerage, Volume VII. St Catherine's Press. 1929. pp. 83–84.
  8. Kenyon, J.P. "The Popish Plot" Phoenix Press reissue 2000 p.289
  9. Popish Plot p.289
  10. Judge Jeffreys p. 222–224
  11. Judge Jeffreys p.215
  12. Welsh Biography Online
  13. Judge Jeffreys p.262
  14. "No. 2409". The London Gazette . 13 December 1688. p. 2.
  15. Winn, p. 44.
  16. Mary II, daughter of the deposed James II. She ruled jointly with her husband William III, the former William of Orange.
  17. Leigh Hunt, "Memoirs of Judge Jeffries," in London Journal, Wednesday April 9, 1834. Vol I, p. 14.
  18. Wynne, S. M. "Kéroualle, Louise Renée de Penancoët de, suo jure duchess of Portsmouth and suo jure duchess of Aubigny in the French nobility (1649–1734)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 14 Nov 2010
  19. 'Intolerance' published by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill, 2008.
  20. "Uncovered: hidden tunnel where the infamous Judge Jeffreys walked more than 400 years ago". Bournemouth Echo.

Further reading

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