The Treasury building in London stretches from Whitehall to Horseguards Road on the edge of St James’s Park. Unknown to many of the civil servants who work there, it was built on the home of one of Britain’s most notorious characters. Not in this case a former Chancellor of the Exchequer but a judge – the notorious Judge Jeffreys (1645-1689), the original “hanging judge”.
His most infamous act was to preside over the “Bloody Assizes” that followed the failure of Monmouth Rebellion in July 1685, when James Scott, the first and last Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II, rose up against the government of Charles’s brother and successor James II. It is reckoned that up to 320 people were hanged and over 800 transported to the West Indies in addition to others imprisoned, fined or flogged.
The curious thing was that although Jeffreys has been accused of lots of things, from drunkenness to corruption, there was no technical irregularity in the brutal sentences he and his team doled out. The Monmouth rebels, whether you approved of them or not, were trying to overthrow a legitimate government. This was a treasonable offence, which carried with it the death penalty. Indeed, capital punishment for treasonable offences was only finally erased from the statute book at the end of the 1990s.
Defenders of Jeffreys – and they exist – argue that blame should be heaped not on the judge himself, who was merely carrying out the law, albeit in a very cruel way, but on James, who had the power to grant clemency but declined to do so. Take your choice.
Another curious fact is that Jeffreys was a Protestant and the rebels whom he executed were also Protestants, protesting against Monmouth’s Catholic uncle.
Jeffrey’s first major trial, three months earlier in May 1685, was that of Titus Oates, who was accused of having fabricated the existence of a “Popish plot” plot against Charles (who had died in February, converting to Catholicism just before he met his end).
The trial was characterised by so many insults exchanged between Oates and Jeffreys that it threatened the continuance of the proceedings. At one stage, Jeffreys said Oates was a “shame to mankind”, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had previously helped to condemn innocent people of being involved on the plot on the basis of Oates’ now perjured evidence.
Jeffreys couldn’t order Oates to be executed because perjury was not a capital offence. Instead, he imposed punishments so brutal that it has been suggested that the aim was to kill Oates by ill-treatment.
When James fled the country during the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, Jeffreys tried to follow him abroad but was captured in a public house in Wapping called The Town of Ramsgate, apparently disguised as a sailor and recognised by one of his surviving victims. He later died in the Tower of London, probably from a kidney disease.
His remains were later taken to St Mary Aldermanbury (named after one Alderman Bury), a church on the edge of the city. The church was bombed during the last war, and Jeffreys’ tomb was destroyed. The remains of the church were transported to the United States in 1966, to be reassembled at Fulton in Missouri as a memorial to Winston Churchill. It is just possible to imagine that some molecules of the notorious judge survive in that church.
By fair means and foul, Jeffreys, who was made 1st Baron Wem, owned a house at Wem in Shropshire and a mansion at Bulstrode Park near Gerrard’s Cross in Buckinghamshire as well his London abode. That dwelling was in Delahay Street, which was later absorbed into Duke Street and then redeveloped for government offices. His house is easily identified on old maps as Number 9 Duke Street, next door to a chapel (see above). It was the only house in the street with its own entry to St James’s Park.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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