George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys

Not to be confused with George Darell Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys (1878–1960).
The Right Honourable
The 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(1689-04-18) (aged 43)
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",[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.

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.

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.

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 University, in 1662, leaving after one year without graduating, and entering the Inner Temple for law in 1663.[2]


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 Bultrode Park built for him in 1686.


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.

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

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 at the time 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.

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

Main article: 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.[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] 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.[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, now named The Town of Ramsgate. Reputedly he was disguised as a sailor, and was recognized 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.[14]

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[15] 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.[16]

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 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.[17] 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

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. His political animus was displayed during his legal career. He suffered a from 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".

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.' [18]


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.[19]

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


  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.|British 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. Winn, p. 44.
  15. Mary II, daughter of the deposed James II. She ruled jointly with her husband William III, the former William of Orange.
  16. Leigh Hunt, "Memoirs of Judge Jeffries," in London Journal, Wednesday April 9, 1834. Vol I, p. 14.
  17. 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
  18. 'Intolerance' published by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill, 2008.


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