Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes
and the impact on Weymouth
The year 1685 was a gruesome one in our history. James, Duke of Monmouth, nephew of King James II made an attempt to dethrone his uncle and claim the throne for himself. A proclamation was read out in towns all over the West Country, including Weymouth, stating that Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, was rightfully King.
The Duke of Monmouth had been born in Rotterdam on 9th April 1649, the son of Charles II and Lucy Walters. At this time Charles was living in exile at the Hague and Lucy was his mistress. On being moved to England by his father, he was in the care of Lord Crofts, a friend of the King and later in the care of Henrietta, the Queen Mother. His own mother died in 1658, Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and in 1662 James was brought to Court and a year later was created Duke of Monmouth. King Charles provided well for his son and both he and the Queen Mother held a great deal of affection for him.
Charles II had no legitimate heir and his son James, Duke of Monmouth was a firm favourite for succession with many eminent people, such as the likes of Lord Shaftesbury who wanted a Protestant king rather than Charles' younger brother James who was a Roman Catholic. In 1680 James set out on a tour of the West Country and was warmly welcomed by those he met. He made a great many friends who would later become his supporters. Alarmed by his popularity, his uncle James made a tour of the West Country two years later.
A plot that became known as the 'Rye House Plot' was hatched in 1683 to kill both the King and his brother, James, Duke of York to ensure the succession of James, Duke of Monmouth. The plot was foiled. Although Monmouth had nothing to do with it, he lost much of the affection he had had of his father. He went to Holland in voluntary exile and while there in 1685, his father died and James, Duke of York took the throne and became James II.
Monmouth and his many friends in Holland, Scotland and England planned a rebellion to dethrone James II. On 11th June 1685, Monmouth, landed at Lyme Regis and quickly proceeded to round up an army of supporters willing to fight the King's men. News of his arrival brought forth many willing men. After making their way up through Dorset and into Somerset where many bloody battles ensued, his army was finally overcome by that of the King in the battle of Sedgemoor on 6th July. It had taken just six weeks and before long, Monmouth was executed for High Treason on 15th July at Tower Hill.
Those that had supported and helped Monmouth were sought out, imprisoned and awaited their fateful trials. The King sent Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys to try the rebels, starting at Winchester on 25th August, moving on to Dorchester where the trials began on 5th September. The extreme punishment he handed out is what made his name known in history and the trials became known as the Bloody Assizes. He tried 312 at Dorchester, of which 74 were executed with the rest transported to Barbados and Jamaica in the West Indies for ten years as slaves. A few went to Virginia. Several rebels didn't survive the journey in the appalling conditions they travelled in, but most of those who did received a free pardon in 1691.
Two ships that sailed out of Weymouth transporting the convicts were the 'Happy Return' of Poole and the 'Betty' of London.
To Weymouth, an order was issued via William Lewis, Sheriff of Dorset, by Judge Jeffreys for the erection of a gallows in a convenient place within the Borough, for twelve men ordered to be executed. The Corporation decreed that the gallows were to be erected on or near Greenhill in the confines of the Borough. This was most likely at the parish boundary between Melcombe Regis and Radipole, the latter of which Greenhill was a part. The remains of these men were to be beheaded and divided up into quarters and exhibited on poles in prominent places within the locality. In Weymouth, the exhibits were placed at the Grand Pier: 1 head, 6 quarters; at Town end: 2 quarters; Near the Windmill (Esplanade) 1 head, 4 quarters; Weymouth Town Hall: 2 quarters; Melcombe Town Hall 2 heads, 1 quarter and on the Town Bridge 2 heads, 1 quarter.
The costs of all this were considerable for the town. In October it is recorded that the cost of the gallows, burning and boiling the rebels executed amounted to £15.14.3. For the erection of a post with the rebels' quarters at Weymouth Town end the cost was 1s. 6d.
Many rebels were whipped through all the towns in Dorset and one such of Weymouth was the young William Wiseman, aged just 14 years. His crime was to read the proclamation of Monmouth in the town.
It was not only within the Borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis that the gruesome remains of the 12 executed rebels were exhibited, for this was an exercise ordered by Jeffreys as a reminder of the fate that may befall any person who dared rebel against the King. Such remains were placed at prominent locations, most often at the entrance to a village or at a crossroads, in the surrounding villages and beyond. Local places included: Preston 2 quarters; Sutton Poyntz - 2 quarters, 1 head; Osmington 4 quarters, 1 head; Radipole 2 quarters, Upwey 4 quarters, 1 head; Wyke Regis 2 quarters. Other places to receive the men's remains were Broadmayne, Winfrith, Winterborne St Martin (Martinstown), Bincombe and Puddletown.
The names of the twelve men to be executed at Weymouth were: John Bevis, John Burridge, Tristram Elliot, Thomas Forte, John Hartley, William Lancaster, Edward Leggit, John Robbins, Roger Satchel, Robert Slade, George Smith, and George Wilmot.
Greenhill near the original boundary of the Borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis
All text and photographs on this page are my own and I therefore hold the copyright. Please respect this and if you wish to copy any of them or use them elsewhere, please ask permission first.