The Bloody Assizes
The Bloody Assizes were a series of
trials started at Winchester on 25 August 1685 in the aftermath of the
Battle of Sedgemoor, which ended the Monmouth Rebellion in England.
There were six judges - Sir William Montague (Lord Chief Baron of the
Exchequer), Sir Robert Wright, Sir Francis Wythens, (Justice of the King's
Bench), Sir Creswell Levinz (Justice of the Common Pleas) and Sir Henry
Polexfen, all led by the notorious Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys.
Over 1,000 rebels were in prison awaiting the trials, which started in
Winchester on 26 August. The first notable trial was that of an elderly
gentlewoman called Dame Alice Lyle.
The jury reluctantly found her guilty,
and, the law recognizing no distinction between principals and accessories
in treason, she was sentenced to be burned. This was commuted to beheading,
with the sentence being carried out in Winchester market-place on 2
Hanging Judge Jeffreys
A woman called Elisabeth Gaunt had the grisly distinction of being the last
woman to be burnt in England for political crimes.
From Winchester the court proceeded through the West Country to Salisbury,
Dorchester and on to Taunton, before finishing up at Wells on 23 September.
More than 1,400 prisoners were dealt with and although most were sentenced
to death about 300 only were hanged or hanged, drawn and quartered.
The Taunton Assize took place in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle (now the home
of the Somerset County Museum). Of more than 500 prisoners brought before
the court on the 18/19 September, 144 were hanged and their remains
displayed around the county to ensure people understood the fate of those
who rebelled against the king.
Some 800 - 850 men were transported to the West Indies where they were worth
more alive than dead as a source of cheap labour. (The novel Captain Blood,
and the later movies based on it, graphically portray this punishment.)
Others were imprisoned to await further trial, although many did not live
long enough, succumbing to 'Gaol Fever' (Typhus) which was rife in the
unsanitary conditions common to most English gaols at that time.
Jeffreys returned to London after the Assizes to report to King James II who
rewarded him by making him Lord Chancellor (he was only 40 years old), 'For the
many eminent and faithful services to the Crown'. Jeffreys became known as
"the hanging judge".
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Jeffreys was incarcerated in the Tower of
London where he died in 1689, the cause of death probably due to his chronic
medical history of kidney and bladder stones leading to an acute infection,
kidney failure and possibly toxaemia (blood poisoning).