Jeffreys was one of a number of Welshmen who were prominent in law and government in the decades following the Restoration (eg, Leoline Jenkins, John Vaughan, John Trevor, William Williams).* He is also, of course, the most (in)famous.
He came from a notable Royalist Denbighshire family (mind you, most Denbighshire gentry families were strong Royalists…), and his grandfather had also been a professional judge. He was educated in Shrewsbury, then London, Cambridge and the Inner Temple. He courted a wealthy gentry woman, but after being thrown out by her father, married instead her companion, Sarah Neesham; their marriage was happy and produced seven children before Sarah’s death in 1678. (He married again, less happily, in 1679.)
Meanwhile, he was starting his legal career. He was called to the bar in 1668, and “became known as a master of cross-examination” at the Old Bailey and Middlesex sessions. He was evidently skilled in the art of gaining patronage (the biographer, Paul Halliday, who is broadly sympathetic, nonetheless uses words like “ingratiate” and “wheedle”, but it’s not clear to me that what he did was in any way unusual for the times). He made money, and bought himself estates in Buckinghamshire, where he played host to Charles II in 1678, who “reportedly drank his host’s health seven times”.
Soon after this he first became a judge, as Recorder in the Old Bailey. His style as a judge was decidedly interventionist (not unusual during that period, it should be noted, even if for moderns it represents another black mark against him). He was an early sceptic of the Popish Plot, and “a moderate in a year of immoderation”. Though evidently no great fan of Catholicism, he was already a strong supporter of the Catholic Duke of York (later James II), and amidst the anti-Catholic hysteria careful to “distinguish between Catholics generally and traitors specifically”. (For many, there simply was no difference.) However, he was already taking a severe line with ‘whig’ dissenters who criticised the government; and increasingly isolated amidst the whig tendencies of the governors of the City of London.
So it was possibly a relief to all concerned when he resigned as Recorder and was subsequently appointed Chief Justice of Chester (presiding over both the Great Sessions of Cheshire and of the Chester circuit of the Welsh Great Sessions – Flintshire, Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire). Nonetheless he continued to work as a lawyer in the London courts (in which he frequently clashed with his Welsh opponent William Williams), vigorously representing the king’s interests, including the prosecution of Lord Russell for treason.
(The biographer is not really interested in these more mundane matters, but during his stint in Cheshire and Wales Jeffreys also upheld the crown’s interests by pursuing coiners with the same energy that he brought to prosecutions for sedition and treason.)
In 1683 he became the Chief Justice of the court of King’s Bench. King’s Bench frequently dealt with weighty treason trials and within days of the appointment, Jeffreys was presiding over the trial of the whig ‘martyr’ Algernon Sidney for his involvement with the Rye House Plot (and in a sense sparring with William Williams again; although, since Sidney was charged with high treason he was not permitted legal counsel in court, he did take informal legal advice from Williams).**
In 1684, Jeffreys became an Assize judge, and his very first tour of duty was on the western circuit. In May 1685 he was elevated to the peerage as first Baron Jeffreys of Wem by the new king, James II. And it was probably inevitable that he would be among the judges appointed to return to the west for the trials following the Monmouth Rebellion: the ‘Bloody Assizes’.
And so to the events that forever sealed his reputation as Bloody Judge Jeffreys. His actions are entirely consistent in the light of his career to that point, his unwavering loyalty to the Stuart monarchy and his harsh attitude towards those who threatened it in any way. His treatment in court of Lady Alice Lisle, an elderly widow accused of treason simply for taking a few rebels into her house after their defeat, has been particularly condemned (although the biographer notes that there is some doubt about the reliability of the only account of the trial). Less often noted, perhaps, is that Jeffreys delayed her execution and recommended her to the king for a pardon; as the biographer says: “it was James who pointedly denied mercy in this and scores of other instances that September”.
Many of the rebels did receive a degree of royal mercy; those who confessed had their sentences routinely commuted to transportation to the West Indies (a relatively new penal practice at the time). And although James’s severity is emphasised by the biographer, he also notes that the outcomes were not very different to other rebellions of the early modern period, “an age that replied viciously to rebellion”. Of about 2600 prisoners, nearly half confessed. Most of the nearly 1400 who took their trial were convicted and sentenced to death; about 200 were in fact executed, and the rest were transported.
Jeffreys was rewarded by James with the post of Lord Chancellor. But his health was poor, although he continued to be active in the courts and in parliament. Nor can he have been happy with James’ pro-Catholic policies; James attempted to reconcile the whigs and dissenters by promoting them (eg, in commissions of the peace appointing JPs) alongside Catholics. (Not exactly a resounding success, it should be said.) And, despite Jeffreys’ loyalty, his influence waned as James preferred Catholic advisers at court.
Which did not protect him from retribution after the Revolution. Jeffreys made an attempt to escape after learning that James had fled the country: he disguised himself as a sailor and tried to take ship from Wapping. He was quickly exposed and arrested however, and committed to the Tower of London on charges of treason. But his health was rapidly deteriorating and he died in April 1689 in the Tower, a month short of his forty-fourth birthday. His effigy was gibbeted and burnt by a London mob some time later that year; he was specifically excepted from a general act of pardon in 1690; and his grotesque place in history was secured by a flood of condemnatory pamphlets.
It’s worth saying this: if it weren’t for the ‘Bloody Assizes’, Jeffreys would probably be rated as an excellent judge (by the standards of his times), certainly when no political interests were at stake, and as an outstanding lawyer-advocate. He would nonetheless be remembered as a severe and zealous judge when politics did enter into the question; he was without question harsh, often brutally so, on those – from coiners to peers of the realm – who represented a threat to the government to which he remained steadfastly loyal. Indeed, the problem, the biographer argues, is that he was too loyal, too committed to the Stuarts, “at a time when political survival required the kind of pliability that made it possible for Jeffreys’s rival, William Williams, to move from whig leadership to the inner circle of James II’s government and back again”.
It was loyalty that destroyed Jeffreys. His commitment to serve his king kept him at his post even longer than the king stayed at his. Like all tories, Jeffreys was loyal to the Church of England too and believed in its social and political primacy… Unlike most tories, Jeffreys placed his loyalty to the crown above his loyalty to the church when James II’s policies forced him to choose.
* Leoline Jenkins (from Glamorgan) was a lawyer, skilled diplomat and civil servant in Charles II’s reign; John Vaughan (of Trawscoed near Aberystwyth) is remembered as the Lord Chief Justice whose decision in the Bushell case of 1670 established jury independence (the principle of jury nullification, which I should probably add to the glossary); William Williams (of Llanforda, Denbighshire) was a famous lawyer and politician, who became speaker of the House of Commons (and was grandfather of the eighteenth century ‘Leviathan’ Watkyn Williams Wynn); and John Trevor of Trefalun (also Denbighshire), another politician who became Speaker, managed to get himself dismissed and disgraced for corruption (which did take some doing…) during the 1690s.
** Whereas John Hampden, also accused of complicity in the Rye House Plot, was prosecuted for the lesser charge of sedition, and as that was a misdemeanour, was permitted counsel: he chose Williams. Following the Revolution of 1688, and largely because of the notorious treason trials of the 1680s, the law was changed to allow defendants charged with treason to have legal counsel.