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The Bloody Assizes was the name by which the notorious series of trials of the supporters of Monmouth's failed rebellion headed by Judge Jeffreys were known on account of the sheer numbers of people convicted and executed.

Not content with the summary executions of the rebels and their supporters in the West Country by Colonel Kirke and seeking to make an example of the rebels, James II ordered a judicial commission headed by Judge Jeffreys (the Lord Chief Justice) to try them. The commission, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, comprised Barons Montague and Wright and Justices Wythens and Levinz.

The king's commission started its work in Winchester and proceedings here set the tone for the other assizes. A widow aged seventy, Alice Lisle, was tried at Winchester for harbouring a rebel, found guilty of treason and condemned to be burned at the stake. Judge Jeffreys hinted (for he was not allowed to do so openly) that Widow Lisle might plead to the king for mercy and this she did - despite her age she was beheaded rather than burnt alive.

An assize was then held at Salisbury but the extent of the State's vengeance upon the rebels would become fully apparent at Dorchester.

Jeffreys is believed to have been in great pain from his kidney stones throughout the court sessions in Dorchester where there was no dialogue whatsoever between the judges and the accused. It must be remembered that the commission waspressed for time and that the judges had little option in sentencing once the guilty pleas had been made.

Thirty men were tried at Dorchester on the morning of Saturday, September 5th, and all of them pleaded not guilty. To speed up the proceedings, judge Jeffreys made the remainder of the rebels an offer; those pleading not guilty but found guilty by the court would surely hang; those pleading guilty would be sentenced according to the severity of the treason they had performed. Jeffreys' intention of speeding the proceedings was successful - 103 of the prisoners were tried on the following Monday.

Jeffreys ordered the executioner, Jack Ketch, to carry out the sentence on the 29 men who had been sentenced on the Saturday on the Monday while the rials were still taking place. Ketch protested that he could only dispatch thirteen as this was as many as he could quarter in one day.

Of the original thirty men tried at Dorchester, only William Saunders was found not guilty. The other twenty-nine were all found guilty and hanged. Of the other 233 men tried there, all of whome pleaded guilty, eighty were sentenced to hang for their part in the rebellion. The commission left Dorchester on Wednesday, September 9th, leaving the executioner Jack Ketch (notorious for his bungling work), aided by a butcher named 'Pascha' Rose, to finish the work of the court.

On September 11th, the commission sat at Exeter and moved on to taunton in Somerset where 526 of the rebels, the largest number of any of the assizes, were tried. Of the 526, 139 were sentenced to hang at Taunton.

By the time the judicial commission finished its work, 480 persons were sentenced to death, 850 to transportation, 260 whipped or fined and 80 pardoned.

Many legends grew up about these Bloody Assizes, one such story claiming that eight hundred were sentenced in one day - seven hundred of them sentenced to death.

To ensure that all the counties of the south-west understood the penalty for rebellion, the convicted were executed using the full gruesome procedure of hanging, drawing and quartering provided for in the Treasons Act throughout the counties;

Lyme Regis

At Ilchester the executions were carried in full view of the prison so each of the convicts could see the execution of the man who preceeded him. The executions were overseen by the Sheriff or his deputy in each county and the sheriff's warrant for Bath is typical of the many which were issued.

Jeffreys was not above bribery; at Lyme regis Hannah Hewling, sister of one of the condemned (her 19-year-old brother William), paid the judge £1,000 not to spare her brother's life, but to spare him being drawn and quartered - the family were allowed to bury his body in the churchyard.

Not all of those sentenced to death faced the executioner; at Wells in Somerset six men were sentenced to be hanged. Their execution was posponed as four of them died of small-pox while in prison and the other two were still ill with the disease. It is not recorded whether their illness claimed their lives, whether they were hanged, or whether they were reprieved.

John Tutchin, a Weymouth man was sentenced to be whipped every year for seven years in a Dorset town. the cummulative effect of such a punishment was likely to be a slow and lingering death so Tutchin petitioned to be hanged instead. Astonishingly, the petition resulted in his pardon. In 1689 he published "The Protestant Martyrs, or the Bloody Assizes". The book was a mixture of truth and propaganda, including the last speeches of the condemned men (some of whom were never executed). The name, "Bloody Assizes" stuck and the infamy of Judge Jeffreys was guaranteed by Tutchin's book.

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