Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Bloody Assizes: Justice and Cruelty in 1685

by Tim Vicary

The first person brought before the court was a woman. She was seventy years old, partially deaf, and possibly senile. The charge was high treason, for which the penalty was death. Her name was Alice Lyle.

The judge was the Lord Chief Justice of England, the newly ennobled George, First Baron Jeffreys of Wem. In 1685 Jeffreys was 40 years old and had been England’s top judge for 2 years. He was a highly intelligent, ambitious man, renowned for his energy, hatred of criminals, and ferocious skill in cross-examination. He was also a sick man, suffering from a kidney stone. He frequently sipped what was thought to be brandy during trials, leading to accusations that he was drunk. This may have been true, but if so the brandy was probably medicinal, to dull the extreme pain he was suffering. And like most people in chronic pain, he was often in a filthy temper, searching for a scapegoat to vent his fury on.
If that was so, he had been given the perfect opportunity.  Earlier that year, James II succeeded to the throne, and his nephew James Scott, duke of Monmouth, rose in rebellion against him. Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, and gathered an army of Protestant rebels to depose King James, his Catholic uncle. But the rebels were defeated at Sedgemoor (the last battle on English soil) Monmouth was captured and beheaded, and King James sent Judge Jeffreys to the West Country to teach the rebels a lesson they would never forget.
The charge against Alice Lyle was that she had hidden a rebel fugitive named Hicks in a priest’s hole at her home.  Her defence (she was a wealthy widow, able to hire a lawyer) rested on two points:
a)      Hicks hadn’t even been tried yet, let alone convicted, so there was no proof that he actually was a rebel;
b)      She was too old and doddery to know anything about Monmouth’s rebellion; she thought he was a priest
Jeffreys was having none of it. Point a) – which would certainly have stopped the trial in its tracks today – he brushed aside as irrelevant; of course Hicks was a rebel, everyone knew he had been with Monmouth’s army, he said. For point b) the prosecution produced two witnesses, a man called Barter and a man called Dunne. Barter said he’d seen Dame Alice with Dunne about ‘the business’ by which he meant the rebellion. When Dunne refused to confirm this Jeffreys launched into a terrifying cross-examination.  Part of it went like this:
Jeffreys:  Come now and tell us, what business was that?
Dunne:  (After a long silence) Does your lordship ask what that business was?
Jeffreys: Yes. It is a plain question. What was the business that the lady asked thee, whether the other men knew?
Another long silence.
Jeffreys: He is studying and musing how he shall prevaricate ... But thou hadst better tell the truth, friend ... Now I would know what that business was.
Dunne: I cannot mind it, my lord.
Jeffreys: Oh, how hard the truth is, to come out of a lying Presbyterian rogue!
Dunne: I cannot give you an account of it, my lord.
Jeffreys: Oh blessed God! Was there ever such a villain upon the face of the Earth?
And so on, over half an hour. Very effective cross-examination, you might think, from a prosecution barrister.  But Jeffreys wasn’t the prosecution, he was the judge, whom we think of today as impartial. But that wasn’t how Judge Jeffreys saw his role, not at all. He was there to get convictions, as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that was what he did.
Alice Lyle was convicted and sentenced to be burnt alive. There was no appeal on legal grounds, as there would be today. The only appeal was to the King, for mercy. And King James was merciful, sort of.  Alice wasn’t burnt alive; she was beheaded.
Hers was just the first case in the Bloody Assizes; Jeffreys had well over a thousand more to deal with.  In Dorchester he found 300 prisoners crammed into a small jail, mostly men charged with fighting in Monmouth’s army. Clearly it would take months to try them all individually, but Jeffreys had a better idea. Dispensing with a Grand Jury, he sent his clerk into the jail to offer them mercy if they would confess (and inform on their friends) He repeated this in court:
‘If you will plead guilty, the King, who is almost all mercy, will be as ready to forgive you as you were to rebel against him, yea as ready to pardon you as you are to ask it of him.’
Does that sound familiar? It should: it is the basis of the ‘plea bargain’ which is, unfortunately, practised daily by district attorneys across the United States, and, slightly more discreetly, by the Crown Prosecution Service in England. In 1685 the main differences were:
a) it was the judge who was making a direct offer to the accused, rather than a deal being struck between prosecution and defence lawyers (but then few, if any, of the rebels had defence lawyers) and
b) the punishments the rebels were facing were much more extreme.
The choice was between being transported as indentured slaves to the West Indies, or being hanged.   A cruel punishment indeed, but Jeffreys was able to joke about it.  When Christopher Battiscombe was convicted, his mistress bravely pleaded with the judge to hand over his body, unmutilated, for her to bury after death. ‘Certainly, madam,’ Jeffreys laughed. ‘You shall have part of the body. I know what part you love best and will direct the Sherriff accordingly.’

In fact, of course, the men were not just hanged, but drawn and quartered too.  They were half hanged, then cut down and disembowelled while still alive, and chopped into four pieces. Captain John Kidd was the last of twelve men to be executed like this on the beach at Lyme Regis; he suffered the unimaginable horror of watching this happen to eleven of his friends before him. The courage of such men, many of whom met their deaths while singing a psalm, is as humbling as the cruelty of the executioners is appalling.
Jeffreys ordered all this, but he was not the only monster of cruelty around. At least he acted within the law. James Kirke, the colonel of ‘Kirke’s Lambs’ a royal regiment who wore white coats, was said to have hanged over a hundred rebels without any trial at all. When a pretty young woman begged him in floods of tears to save her father’s life, Kirke agreed on one condition: that she would spent the night in his bed, which she did. When she got up next morning and walked to the window, she saw her father, hanging from the signpost outside the inn.
Such stories, and the fact that the rebels’ arms, legs and heads of rebels were boiled, tarred, and publically displayed in towns and villages all around the West Country, had a terrifying effect. Judge Jeffreys’ Bloody Assizes didn’t make anyone love the King, but they surely made people fear him.
For the next three years, at least.  
Then, in 1688, King William of Orange sailed to England with a much larger army, and chased King James away. James fled abroad, but Jeffreys – now Lord Chancellor - was captured, thrown into prison, and died of kidney disease in the Tower of London.  In the West Country, his death was greeted with understandable delight.
Tim Vicary’s novel about 1685, The Monmouth Summer, which touches only briefly on the cruelties described here, was listed as one of the 10 top history books of 2012 by Samantha J. Morris ‘Lady Hertford’ in her blog ‘Loyaltybindsme’. It is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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