The optimism, confidence and expectations that had filled the hearts of the West Country men during June 1685 vanished in the dawn light of July 6th. Monmouth’s rebellion ended when it was crushed by the efficiency and experience of King James II’s army. The remnants of Monmouth’s raggle-taggle band of farmers, apprentices and shop keepers were chased from the battlefield of Sedgemoor, into the fields, ditches and lanes of Somerset by James’s trained killers, where they were mopped up in their hundreds. Some were slaughtered on the spot, others were taken prisoner and marched or shipped in carts to local towns and villages.
The Earl of Feversham, commander of the King’s army, left Bridgwater in the command of Colonel Percy Kirke, a corrupt, merciless adventurer who had made his brutal reputation in Tangier, where he had ruled with a rod of iron. He brought his own regiment with him, called with cruel irony Kirke’s Lambs, from the paschal lamb on its badge, who were the most vicious, ferocious soldiers in the whole army. Kirke marched his train of prisoners from Bridgwater to Taunton, hanging men along the roadside as he went, and at Taunton he hanged the rest, some from the signpost of the White Hart Inn, others from trees and hastily erected gibbets.
|An improvised gibbet|
He set his trumpeters to sound, his fifers to play and his drummers to strike up a paradiddle as the rebels jerked and danced on the ends of their ropes, to watch them dance and to drown out their cries and those of their watching friends and relations. His executioner was ankle deep in blood as he quartered the dying, and a local ploughman, cruelly nicknamed Tom Boilman, was pressed into sealing the quarters of his neighbours’ bodies in a vat of boiling pitch. Local legend has it that, although he escaped the vengeance of the Lambs, Heaven punished him later, as he was sheltering beneath an oak tree during a storm and was killed by a bolt of lightning. Rumour says Kirke hanged one hundred men in the week following Sedgemoor and many more bought their lives with bribes paid to him, but when news of this reached London he was recalled, not for the bribery but because he was letting wealthier rebels escape with their lives.
|Judge George Jefferys|
Kirke’s place was taken by five judges sent from London; Sir William Montague, Sir Robert Wright, Sir Francis Wythens, Sir Creswell Levinz and Sir Henry Polexfen, all under the command of Lord Chief Justice Sir George Jeffreys. Jeffreys was the rising star in the legal world, although only forty at the time, he had already become Lord Chief Justice and had tried and sentenced Titus Oates for his part in the Popish Plot. The Western Circuit convened first at Winchester, as many rebels had fled into Hampshire, and one of their first cases was the trial of Lady Alice Lisle.
|The Arrest of Lady Alice Lisle|
This elderly gentlewoman carried her title by courtesy (her husband had been made Lord by Cromwell), and was known to be a pious and charitable widow. Two fugitives from Sedgemoor, John Hicks and Richard Nelthorpe sought sanctuary in her house, which was freely given, as might be expected by this virtuous lady. The following morning, the house was surrounded by soldiers and Hicks, Nelthorpe and their host were arrested. Lady Alice was brought before Jeffreys, who swore, ranted and raged at her and the other witnesses. Even though Hicks and Nelthorpe had yet to be found guilty, Lady Alice was tried for harbouring traitors, which made her guilty by association. With very great reluctance the jury, brow-beaten by Jeffreys, found her guilty, and although many people spoke on her behalf and pleaded for mercy, Jeffreys and even the King were resolute. In recognition of her status, her sentence was commuted from death by burning but nevertheless, on September 2nd 1685, she was publicly beheaded in Winchester market place, (one of the first acts of parliament under William and Mary, in 1688, was to reverse the guilty verdict, on the grounds of an irregular prosecution by Jeffreys).
|Judge George Jeffreys|
On the day following her execution, Jeffreys moved on to Dorchester, where he had the courtroom hung with scarlet, as if to presage his grisly purpose. He suffered from kidney and bladder stones, was in constant pain and consequently was always in an evil temper. He sentenced thirteen men to be hanged on the first day, followed by another two hundred and ninety two on a single day, although he hanged only seventy four in total, the rest being flogged, fined, imprisoned or transported to the West Indies, where they were sold into slavery on the plantations. By September 14th, Jeffreys had moved on to Exeter, where another thirty-seven were executed, and then made for Taunton in Somerset, the county at the heart of the rebellion. There were five hundred and twenty-six prisoners held there, and Jeffreys ordered the deaths of one hundred and forty-four.
|In Jeffreys' Court|
Bodies were quartered, boiled in pitch or pickled in brine, and placed in each place where Monmouth had formerly found supporters. The butchered parts of the rebels, stuck on spikes, pikes and poles, adorned every crossroads, every marketplace, every village green, and every church across Somerset. The stench of death was so bad on some roads that people stopped using them all together. Two hundred and forty-two men were transported, others were flogged or fined, with some imprisoned where many died from typhus, a condition so common that it was called ‘gaol fever’. Jeffreys laughed, joked, shouted and swore so much during these days that those who saw him believed that he was drunk from morning to night. He became known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ and the circuit was known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’.
|The Bloody Assizes|
From Tauton he went to Wells, where another ninety-seven were killed and another three hundred and eighty-five sentenced to transportation. Packed below decks in fetid slave ships, at least one fifth of those transported died before reaching the Indies; those that made it were sold, to work on the plantations. In all, Jeffreys executed over three hundred rebels, with over eight hundred more transported for life into slavery; on one day alone he issued one hundred and forty-four death sentences. For his zeal, James II rewarded him by making him Lord Chancellor, but following the Glorious Revolution he tried to flee to the continent but was arrested in a pub in Wapping, allegedly disguised as a sailor.
|Judge Jeffreys arrested|
He was placed in the Tower of London, largely for his own safety, as the public threatened to dismember him. He died in the Tower in the following year, in 1689, probably from kidney failure. History has not remembered him well, and he has the reputation of being one of the worst human beings who have ever lived.