THE BLOODY ASSIZE

History Contents Page
The Monmouth Rebellion and the Bloody Assize
The Autumn Assizes of 1685 at which Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys presided and was assisted by four other judges, has gained such dreadful notoriety as the 'Bloody Assize' and has been the subject of so much vivid and exaggerated writing that it is difficult to find the truth about what really happened. The king was anxious that an example should be made to deter any other attempts at rebellion; Jeffreys was a sick man, suffering from an extremely painful illness; many of the accused were persuaded to confess, hoping for mercy after a plea of 'Guilty'. These facts, and the great differences in the legal system of that time in comparison with today, make it almost impossible to arrive at a fair and balanced view of the trials.

The Assize began at Winchester, where Dame Alice Lyle was condemned to death for helping two of the rebels-a harsh and terrible judgement on an old and kindly lady. At Dorchester the full horror of the Assize began to be felt as between 300 and 350 rebels were accused. A few were acquitted, some were fined or sentenced to be flogged, but the majority were condemned to death and handed over for execution as soon as possible. This horrifying spectacle included public hanging, disembowelling and then quartering, after which the heads and quarters were dipped in pitch and salt and sent to villages around to be displayed in public on poles. Many who were condemned to death had their sentences reduced to transportation-in effect, long years of slavery in the colonies. The judges passed on to Exeter where about 40 men were tried, and of those condemned, 12 or 13 were executed and their quarters sent for display into towns and villages in Devon.

The judges began their work in Somerset on September 17 at Taunton, in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle, and completed their work in two days. About 500 men were brought to trial and almost all were sentenced to death, but by now it was clear that transportation was to be the fate of the majority, especially as each man transported would be worth more than 12, a source of considerable profit for the Crown, The final decision was delayed for some time while the judges moved on to Bristol where there were no rebels held for trial. On September 23 they came to Wells, where, in a makeshift court held in the space under the Market Hall, shut in by wooden screens, in one day's sitting over 500 men were tried and the majority sentenced to death. Jeffreys returned to London where he and his fellow judges were formally thanked by the King.


Sketch of The Market House, Wells

It was now decided how many should die, and the warrants for execution were sent to the High Sheriff who was responsible for seeing that the dreadful sentence was properly carried out. The list contained 239 names, but some of these were reprieved. Executions took place in towns and villages throughout the county, and though we shall never know exactly how many died in this way-estimates vary from 150 to 230-the effect on relations and friends as well as the numerous spectators was to last for their lifetime, while stories and legends continue to be told and retold, Those condemned to transportation-800 to 850 in all-were sent off for a period of ten years to the West Indies. Others who had been involved in giving support of almost any kind to the rebellion were fined heavily and had their land or property confiscated. The relatives of the schoolgirls, the Maids of Taunton, who had presented Monmouth with a banner, had to pay a heavy ransom to have them set free.

This rebellion and its consequences made a deep and lasting impression on the minds and memories of Westcountry folk, but it was in Somerset that the most lasting bitterness remained. The King had raised a far larger standing army to be ready to face any similar threat to his position, and this added another factor to the growing antagonism in the country. Only three years later he was faced with another invasion, this time by William of Orange with a well equipped army. Somerset people, vividly recalling the horrors of the Monmouth Rising, did not hasten to join his forces.