Jeffreys, George Jeffreys, 1st Baron

JEFFREYS, GEORGE JEFFREYS, 1ST BARON (1648-1689), lord chancellor of England, son of John Jeffreys, a Welsh country gentleman, was born at Acton Park, his father's seat in Denbighshire, in 1648. His family, though not wealthy, was of good social standing and repute in Wales; his mother, a daughter of Sir Thomas Ireland of Bewsey, Lancashire, was " a very pious good woman." He was educated at Shrewsbury, St Paul's and Westminster schools, at the last of which he was a pupil of Busby, and at Trinity College, Cambridge; but he left the university without taking a degree, and entered the Inner Temple as a student in May 1663. From his childhood Jeffreys displayed exceptional talent, but on coming to London he occupied himself more with -the pleasures of conviviality than with serious study of the law. Though he never appears to have fallen into the licentious immorality prevalent at that period, he early became addicted to hard drinking and boisterous company. But as the records of his early years, and indeed of his whole life, are derived almost exclusively from vehemently hostile sources, the numerous anecdotes of his depravity cannot be accepted without a large measure of scepticism. He was a handsome, witty and attractive boon-companion, and in the taverns of the city he made friends among attorneys with practice in the criminal courts. Thus assisted he rose so rapidly in his profession that within three years of his call to the bar in 1668, he was elected common Serjeant of the city of London. Such advancement, however, was not to be attained even in the reign of Charles II. solely by the aid of disreputable friendships. Jeffreys had remarkable aptitude for the profession of an advocate quick intelligence, caustic humour, copious eloquence. His powers of cross-examination were masterly; and if he was insufficiently grounded in legal principles to become a profound lawyer, nothing but greater application was needed in the opinion of so hostile a critic as Lord Campbell, to have made him the rival of Nottingham and Hale. Jeffreys could count on the influence of respectable men of position in the city, such as Sir Robert Clayton and his own namesake Alderman Jeffreys; and he also enjoyed the personal friendship of the virtuous Sir Matthew Hale. In 1667 Jeffreys had married in circumstances which, if improvident, were creditable to his generosity and sense of honour; and his domestic life, so far as is known, was free from the scandal common among his contemporaries. While holding the judicial office of common Serjeant, he pursued his practice at the bar. With a view to further preferment he now sought to ingratiate himself with the court party, to which he obtained an introduction possibly through William Chiffinch, the notorious keeper of the king's closet. He at once attached himself to the king's mistress, the duchess of Portsmouth; and as early as 1672 he was employed in confidential business by the court. His influence in the city of London, where opposition to the government of Charles II. was now becoming pronounced, enabled Jeffreys to make himself useful to Danby. In September 1677 he received a knighthood, and his growing favour with the court was further marked by his appointment as solicitor-general to James, duke of York; while the city showed its continued confidence in him by electing him to the post of recorder in October 1678.

In the previous month* Titus Gates had made his first revelations of the alleged popish plot, and from this time forward Jeffreys was prominently identified, either as advocate or judge, with the memorable state trials by which the political conflict between the Crown and the people was waged during the remainder of the 17th century. The popish plot, followed by the growing agitation for the exclusion of the duke of York from the succession, widened the breach between the city and the court. Jeffreys threw in his lot with the latter, displaying his zeal by initiating the movement of the "abhorrers" (?..) against the " petitioners " who were giving voice to the popular demand for the summoning of parliament. He was rewarded with the coveted office of chief justice of Chester on the 30th of April 1680; but when parliament met in October the House of Commons passed a hostile resolution which induced him to resign his recordership, a piece of pusillanimity that drew from the king the remark that Jeffreys was " not parliament-proof." Jeffreys nevertheless received from the city aldermen a substantial token of appreciation for his past services. In 1681 he was created a baronet. In June 1683 the first of the Rye House conspirators were brought to trial. Jeffreys was briefed for the crown in the prosecution of Lord William Howard; and, having been raised to the bench as lord chief justice of the king's bench in September, he presided at the trials of Algernon Sidney in November 1683 and of Sir Thomas Armstrong in the following June. In the autumn of 1684 Jeffreys, who had been active in procuring the surrender of municipal charters to the crown, was called to the cabinet, having previously been sworn of the privy council. In May 1685 he had the satisfaction of passing sentence on Titus Gates for perjury in the plot trials; and about the same time James II. rewarded his zeal with a peerage as Baron Jeffreys of Wem, an honour never before conferred on a chief justice during his tenure of office. Jeffreys had for some time been suffering from stone, which aggravated the irritability of his naturally violent temper; and the malady probably was in some degree the cause of the unmeasured fury he displayed at the trial of Richard Baxter (q.v.) for seditious libel if the unofficial ex parte report of the trial, which alone exists, is to be accepted as trustworthy.

In August 1685 Jeffreys opened at Winchester the commission known in history as the " bloody assizes," his conduct of which has branded his name with indelible infamy. The number of persons sentenced to death at these assizes for complicity in the duke of Monmouth's insurrection is uncertain. The official return of those actually executed was 320; many hundreds more were transported and sold into slavery in the West Indies. In all probability the great majority of those condemned were in fact concerned in the rising, but the trials were in many cases a mockery of the administration of justice. Numbers were cajoled into pleading guilty; the case for the prisoners seldom obtained a hearing. The merciless severity of the chief justice did not however exceed the wishes of James II. ; for on his return to London Jeffreys received from the king the great seal with the title of lord chancellor. For the next two years he was a strenuous upholder of prerogative, though he was less abjectly pliant than has sometimes been represented. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his attachment to the Church of England; for although the king's favour was capricious, Jeffreys never took the easy and certain path to secure it that lay through apostasy; and he even withstood James on occasion, when the latter pushed his Catholic zeal to extremes. Though it is true that he accepted the presidency of the ecclesiastical commission, Burnet's statement that it was Jeffreys who suggested that institution to James is probably incorrect; and he was so far from having instigated the prosecution of the seven bishops in 1688, as has been frequently alleged, that he disapproved of the proceedings and rejoiced secretly at the acquittal. But while he watched with misgiving the king's preferment of Roman Catholics, he made himself the masterful instrument of unconstitutional prerogative in coercing the authorities of Cambridge University, who in 1687 refused to confer degrees on a Benedictine monk, and the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, who declined to elect as their president a disreputable nominee of the king.

Being thus conspicuously identified with the most tyrannical measures of James II., Jeffreys found himself in a desperate plight when on the nth of December 1688 the king fled from the country on the approach to London of William of Orange. The lord chancellor attempted to escape like his master; but in spite of his disguise as a common seaman he was recognized in a tavern at Wapping possibly, as Roger North relates, by an attorney whom Jeffreys had terrified on some occasion in the court of chancery and was arrested and conveyed to the Tower. The malady from which he had long suffered had recently made fatal progress, and he died in the Tower on the 18th of April 1689. He was succeeded in the peerage by his son, John (2nd Baron Jeffreys of Wem), who died without male issue in 1702, when the title became extinct.

It is impossible to determine precisely with what justice tradition has made the name of " Judge Jeffreys " a byword of infamy. The Revolution, which brought about his fall, handed over his reputation at the same time to the mercy of his bitterest enemies. They alone have recorded his actions and appraised his motives and character. Even the adherents of the deposed dynasty had no interest in finding excuse for one who served as a convenient scapegoat for the offences of his master. For at least half a century after his death no apology for Lord Jeffreys would have obtained a hearing; and none was attempted. With the exception therefore of what is to be gathered from the reports of the state trials, all knowledge of his conduct rests on testimony tainted by undisguised hostility. Innumerable scurrilous lampoons vilifying the hated instrument of James's tyranny, but without a pretence of historic value, flooded the country at the Revolution; and these, while they fanned the undiscriminating hatred of contemporaries who remembered the judge's severities, and perpetuated that hatred in tradition, have not been sufficiently discounted even by modern historians like Macaulay and Lord Campbell. The name of Jeffreys has therefore been handed down as that of a coarse, ignorant, dissolute, foul-mouthed, inhuman bully, who prostituted the seat of justice. That there was sufficient ground for the execration in which his memory was long held is not to be gainsaid. But the portrait has nevertheless been blackened overmuch. An occasional significant admission in his favour may be gleaned even from the writings of his enemies. Thus Roger North declares that "in matters indifferent," i.e. where politics were not concerned, Jeffreys became the seat of justice better than any other that author had seen in his place. Sir J. Jekyll, master of the rolls, told Speaker Onslow that Jeffreys " had great parts and made a great chancellor in the business of his court. In mere private matters he was thought an able and upright judge wherever he sat." His keen sense of humour, allied with a spirit of inveterate mockery and an exuberant command of pungent eloquence, led him to rail and storm at prisoners and witnesses in grossly unseemly fashion. But in this he did not greatly surpass most of his contemporaries on the judicial bench, and it was a failing from which even the dignified and virtuous Hale was not altogether exempt. The intemperance of Jeffreys which shocked North, certainly did not exceed that of Saunders; in violence he was rivalled by Scroggs; though accused of political apostasy, he was not a shameless renegade like Williams; and there is no evidence that in pecuniary matters he was personally venal, or that in licentiousness he followed the example set by Charles II. and most of his courtiers. Some of his actions that have incurred the sternest reprobation of posterity were otherwise estimated by the best of his contemporaries. His trial of Algernon Sidney, described by Macaulay and Lord Campbell as one of the most heinous of his iniquities, was warmly commended by Dr William Lloyd, who was soon afterwards to become a popular idol as one of the illustrious seven bishops (see letter from the bishop of St Asaph in H. B. Irving's Life of Judge Jeffreys, p. 184). Nor was the habitual illegality of his procedure on the bench so unquestionable as many writers have assumed. Sir James Stephen inclined to the opinion that no actual abuse of law tainted the trials of the Rye House conspirators, or that of Alice Lisle, the most prominent victim of the " bloody assizes." The conduct of the judges in Russell's trial was, he thinks, "moderate and fair in general"; and the trial of Sidney " much resembled that of Russell." The same high authority pronounces that the trial of Lord Delamere in the House of Lords was conducted by Jeffreys " with propriety and dignity." And if Jeffreys judged political offenders with cruel severity, he also crushed some glaring abuses; conspicuous examples of which were the frauds of attorneys who infested Westminster Hall, and the systematic kidnapping practised by the municipal authorities of Bristol. Moreover, if any value is to be attached to the evidence of physiognomy, the traditional estimate of the character of Jeffreys obtains no confirmation from the refinement of his features and expression as depicted in Kneller's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of London. But even though the popular notion requires to be thus modified in certain respects, it remains incontestable that Jeffreys was probably on the whole the worst example of a period when the administration of justice in England had sunk to the lowest degradation, and the judicial bench had become the too willing tool of an unconstitutional and unscrupulous executive.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. The chief contemporary authorities for the life of Jeffreys are Bishop Burnet's History of my own Time (1724), and see especially the edition " with notes by the Earls of Dartmouth and Hardwick, Speaker Onslow and Dean Swift " (Oxford Univ. Press, 1833) ; Roger North's Life of the Right Hon. Francis North, Baron of Guildford (1808) and Autobiography (ed. by Augustus Jessopp, 1887) ; Ellis Correspondence, Verney Papers (Hist. MSS. Comra.), Hatton Correspondence (Camden Soc. pub.) ; the earl of Ailesbury's Memoirs; Evelyn's Diary. The only trustworthy information as to the judicial conduct and capacity of Jeffreys is to be found in the reports of the State Trials, vols. vii.-xii.; and cf. Sir J. F. Stephen's History of the Criminal Law of England (1883). For details of the " bloody assizes," see Harl. MSS., 4689; George Roberts, The Life, Progresses and Rebellion of James Duke of Monmouth, vol. ii. (1844); also many pamphlets, lampoons, etc., in the British Museum, as to which see the article on " Sources of History for Monmouth's Rebellion and the Bloody Assizes," by A. L. Humphreys, in Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural Hist. Soc. (1892). Later accounts are by H. W.Woolrych, Memoirs of the Life of Judge Jefreys (1827); Lord Campbell, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors (i 845), 1st series, vol. iii. ; E. Foss, The Judges of England (1864), vol. vii.; Henry Roscoe, Lives of Eminent British Lawyers (1830) ; Lord Macaulay, History of England (1848; and many subsequent editions). Most of these works, and especially those by Macaulay and Campbell, are uncritical in their hostility to Jeffreys, and are based for the most part on untrustworthy authorities. The best modern work on the subject, though unduly favourable to Jeffreys, is H. B. Irvine's Life of Judge Jefreys (1898), the appendix to which contains a full bibliography.

(R. J. M.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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