Bloody Assizes

Bloody Assizes

The Bloody Assizes were a series of trials started at Winchester on 25th August 1685 in the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor, which ended the Monmouth Rebellion in England.

There were five 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, led by Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys.

Over 1,000 rebels were in prison awaiting the trials, which started in Winchester on 26th 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 September 1685.

From Winchester the court proceeded 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 18th/19th September, 144 were hanged and their remains displayed around the county for all to see and know what happened to those who rebelled against the king.

Some 800-850 were transported to the West Indies where they were worth more alive than dead as a source of cheap labour. Others were imprisoned to await further trial although many did not live long enough, succumbing to 'Gaol Fever' (Typhus) which was rife in the insanitary conditions common to most English gaols at that time. A woman called Elisabeth Gaunt had the grisly distinction of being the last woman to be burnt in England for political crimes.

Jeffreys returned to London after the Assizes to report to King James who rewarded him by making him Lord Chancellor (at age of only 40), 'For the many eminent and faithful services to the Crown'.

After the Glorious Revolution Jeffreys was incarcerated in the Tower of London where he eventually 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.


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