Jerome Alexander

Sir Jerome Alexander (c.1590–1670) was an English-born barrister, judge and politician who spent much of his career in Ireland, (after he had been professionally ruined in England), and became a substantial Irish landowner. He was a noted benefactor of Trinity College Dublin. As a judge he was so ruthless in securing guilty verdicts, and in imposing the death penalty, that for many years after his death "to be alexandered" was an Irish synonym for being hanged.[1]

Early career

He was born at Gressenhall in Norfolk, the eldest son of Jerome Alexander senior of Thorpland, an employee of Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel; the younger Jerome was also employed for a time as steward and bailiff to the Earl, and remained on friendly terms with him in later life. Elrington Ball states that the Alexander family were of Jewish origin.[2] He was educated at Aylsham school, and then at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1609.[3] He entered Furnivall's Inn and then proceeded to Lincoln's Inn in 1617, and was called to the bar in 1623.[4]


His career in England was destroyed beyond repair by a finding of professional misconduct against him, but, unusually, this did not arise from his services to a client. He was, unlike most barristers, very litigious on his own behalf, and in 1626 the Star Chamber found him guilty of tampering with evidence in one of his own lawsuits; he was disbarred, fined and given a prison sentence. He moved to Ireland, where he entered the King's Inn and began practice at the Irish Bar. It is unclear if the Benchers of the King's Inn were then aware of his criminal record; if not, they certainly learned of it within the next few years. In 1633 he received a Royal pardon, on condition that he did not return to legal practice in England. In 1644 he published his Breviate, a 100-page pamphlet in defence of his actions.[5] It gives a valuable, if inevitably slanted picture of his early life, and describes all his misfortunes as being due to the machinations of his enemies (this was to a constant theme of Alexander's throughout his life).[6]


He entered politics, and sat in the Irish House of Commons as member for Lifford in the Parliament of 1634–5 and that of 1639–49. He was a friend and client of the wealthy and influential young nobleman James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, who granted him the impressive Kilcooly Abbey in County Tipperary; he was also granted lands near Kells, County Meath.[7]

He was also a friend of other influential figures in Ireland, including James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh: but his hope of further career advancement was destroyed by the arrival in Ireland of the all-powerful Lord Lieutenant, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, who despised Alexander and described him with contempt as "a scurvy puritan". Strafford, who was well aware that Alexander had been professionally disgraced in England, vetoed his appointment as a judge of assize on the ground that he was unfit for any public office, and refused him leave to go to England. When Alexander went to England anyway he was imprisoned in the Fleet Prison, nor following his release was he able to return to Ireland until after Strafford's downfall. Given the enmity between the two men, it is not surprising that Alexander was active in the impeachment and execution of Strafford in 1641.[8]

Kilcooley Abbey, which was granted to Alexander.

Civil War

He returned briefly to Ireland after Strafford's death, but on the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 went back to England. He was an active Royalist, attempting to raise troops to subdue Ireland; at the same time he was among those who urged the King, if necessary, to make an alliance with the Irish Confederacy. For attempting to arrange such an alliance he was briefly imprisoned by Parliament in 1643, and on his release went abroad. He was in the service of Charles II at the Hague in 1650, and was active in raising money for his cause, but he returned to Ireland in 1655.[9] He lived quietly under the new regime, and acquired an estate in County Westmeath; but in view of the rewards he received in 1660, (even if they were not, at least in his own view, overly generous), there is no reason to doubt that he remained a Royalist at heart.[10]


At the Restoration of Charles II, Alexander claimed to have played a major part in securing the compliance of the Irish Government in the new regime (in fact there was virtually no opposition in Ireland to the Restoration), and he complained at length about the great losses he had suffered during the Interregnum. He was rewarded with a knighthood and a place on the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland), no doubt largely though the influence of the Duke of Ormonde, who had the last word on appointments to the Irish Bench at the Restoration, and was always loyal (even to a fault) to old friends like Alexander. Nonetheless Alexander was plainly dissatisfied at ranking only as second justice of the Court: he claimed that he should have been given the office of Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, and quarreled with Sir William Aston of the Court of King's Bench (Ireland) over which of them had precedence. Rumour had it that he challenged Aston to a duel on the issue, but to Alexander's disgust Aston refused the challenge.[11] He also acted as legal adviser to the future King James II on his Irish affairs.[12]


He was a stern enforcer of religious conformity: in his will he refers to the Church of England as "the best form of Government in all this world". On the Ulster circuit, to which he was regularly assigned, he became noted for severity against non-conforming Protestants: his ally John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry wrote that if the non-conformists "could not love him, they began to fear him".[13]

Religious beliefs and attitudes

It has been suggested that he had an equally harsh attitude towards Roman Catholics, but that he was unable to show similar severity towards them, due to the relaxed attitude of the Duke of Ormonde, now Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who recognised that since Catholics were a large majority of the Irish population, a generous if unofficial measure of toleration of that faith was inevitable.[14] However Alexander's attitude to Roman Catholics was perhaps more complex than it seemed: he was, for example, on friendly terms with the well-known Catholic barrister Patrick D'Arcy, who offered to act as his second in the abortive duel with Sir William Aston.[15] Through marriage Alexander himself had Catholic connections: his wife Elizabeth Havers belonged to a staunchly Roman Catholic family . Her ancestor Mr Havers of Thelton Hall built a chapel on the grounds of Thelton Hall which became the hub of the Catholic community in and around Diss, Norfolk, before during and after the oppression. Elizabeth's elder brother William Havers, who inherited Thelton in 1651, and who died in 1670, was a known recusant. This suggests that Alexander, like many staunch Protestants of his time, was prepared to turn a blind eye to recusancy when it was practiced by his own friends or relatives.[16]


The Duke of Ormonde, who was a merciful man by the standards of the time, disapproved of Alexander's notorious severity in criminal trials, which was in notable contrast to the conduct of most other Irish judges of the time who were, like Ormonde, inclined to clemency. Where Ormonde would always reprieve a convict where he could, Alexander, it was said, would hang as many convicted men as he could : on one occasion he sentenced fourteen men to death at a single assize. His reputation for severity became such that for many years after his death "to be alexandered" was widely used in Ireland as a synonym for "to be hanged".[17]

Death and will

He died in the summer of 1670, and was buried in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. Much of his property, including Kilcooley Abbey, passed to his daughter Elizabeth, on condition that she did not marry an Irishman (in the event she did not); he also left £100 to each of the three children of his eldest surviving daughter Jeromina Langham. His law books and other texts he left to Trinity College Dublin, with enough money to pay for a librarian,[18] (the King's Inns, of which he was a senior member, had no facilities for storing books at the time, and had to wait till 1788 for the foundation of its own library).[19] His friend Sir Edward Massey received many of his personal valuables and curiosities, such as "my cane with the silver head of a rhinoceros".[20] As he had done in his Breviate, he dwelt on the machinations of his enemies, and rejoiced that God's grace had enabled him to triumph over them. More humanely he noted that God in return required him to help the poor and needy.[21]

Ball suggests that he would have been most unhappy had he known that his place on the Bench would be taken by Oliver Jones, who was noted as a judge for his impartiality towards Roman Catholics, and was widely suspected of being a secret Catholic himself. However it seems that Alexander, whose wife was born into a notable Roman Catholic family, may have been more tolerant of the Catholic faith in private than his severe public stance suggested .[22]


Alexander married Elizabeth Havers,[23] a daughter of John Havers of Shelfhanger, a noted recusant, who like Alexander's father was employee of the Earl of Arundel, and his wife Elizabeth Tindal; she died in 1667.[24]They had sixteen children, many of whom died young; but at least three of his daughters survived their father:


Elrington Ball describes Alexander as a "strongly complex character".[26] He was a bitter enemy but a good friend; merciless towards criminals but said to be very charitable towards the poor. Throughout his life he was inclined to blame his misfortunes on the machinations of his enemies, even those misfortunes which to any detached observer would seem to be entirely his own fault. As a young barrister he was found guilty of misconduct, but as a judge prided himself on not taking bribes.[27] He publicly called for the persecution of Roman Catholics, but married into an openly Catholic family. Burke called him a man of strong passions, but also a man of great integrity and public spirit.[28]

Published works


  1. Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol.1 p.282
  2. Ball p.348
  3. Biographical Dictionary of Gonville and Caius College 1349–1895 (1897) Vol.1 p.203
  4. Ball p.348
  5. Ball p.348
  6. Ball p.266
  7. Ball p.348
  8. Ball p.348
  9. Ball p.348
  10. Ball p.279
  11. Ball p.279
  12. Ball p.349
  13. Ball pp.282–3
  14. Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue 2000 p.224
  15. Burke, Oliver Anecdotes of the Connaught Circuit Hodges Figgis Dublin 1885 p.64
  16. cf. Kenyon Popish Plot p.7
  17. Ball p.282
  18. Kenny, Colum King's Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland Irish Academic Press Dublin 1992 p.193
  19. Kenny p.193
  20. Ball pp.284–5
  21. Ball p.284
  22. Ball p.286
  23. The Will 1651 of John Havers of Shelfanger, names his daughter Elizabeth Alexander and his son in Law, Jerome Alexander
  24. Cokayne The Complete Baronetage Reprinted Gloucester 1983 Vol. IV p.74
  25. Cokayne p.74
  26. Ball p.284
  27. Ball p.283
  28. Burke Anecdotes p.64
  29. Ball p.266
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