Is Judge Jeffreys Haunting the White Hart Inn?
Nicknamed the Hanging Judge, George Jeffreys was notorious for meting out his harsh punishments from an inn in the county town of Dorchester. But does his ghost haunt somewhere far less likely?
- Judge Jeffreys: the Man
- The Bloody Assizes
- The Dorchester Connection
- The White Hart Inn
- Local Accounts
Judge Jeffreys: the Man
Judge George Jeffreys (or Jeffries), 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem, was born in 1645 into a family tradition of law. His father and grandfather had been Chief Justice and High Sheriff respectively. During his early career Jeffreys was knighted, became a baronet and held many high positions in the English legal system in the seventeenth century. However, after being made Lord Chancellor in 1685, Judge Jeffreys would embark on a series of legal trials that would forever cement him in the dubious ranks of England's nastiest law enforcers, a viable massacre, the responsibility of which could have caused his spirit to become restless after his death in 1689.
The Bloody Assizes
When James II, who was unpopular amongst some Protestants, became King in 1685, the illegitimate son of Charles II gathered supporters and attempted to take the throne. This came to be known as the Monmouth Rebellion, after the illegitimate Duke of Monmouth himself, and was swiftly dealt with by King James and his then Lord Chancellor, Judge Jeffreys. After the Battle of Sedgemoor, Monmouth was executed and a huge number of his followers in the south west put to trial. At these trials, the Bloody Assizes, held mainly in Dorchester but also in Taunton, Jeffreys ordered executions, whippings, hangings and fines of over 300 people, 144 of them in only two days. The rest, mainly farmers and labourers, wage earners whom a large number of people depended on, were transported to the West Indies, leaving their communities bereft. Judge Jeffreys' cruelty left him unpopular with many of his own countrymen, but his harsh punishments satisfied James II and led to his promotion as Earl of Flint.
The Dorchester Connection
The ancient Oak Room in the Antelope Hotel in Dorchester was chosen as the site of the Bloody Assizes trials, where Jeffreys and his peers gathered to decide the fate of terrified countrymen. Jeffreys was staying in a nearby lodging house at the time, now called the Judge Jeffreys Inn, and had use of a secret passage connecting his room with the infamous Oak Room. Jeffreys ghost is said to pace the courtyard of the Antelope Inn, possibly still mulling over his victims' fate, or in regret at his inhumanity in life. Hundreds of visitors flock to Dorchester each year to be delighted and disgusted by the tales of the Assizes, but is there another side to the story they could be missing?
The White Hart Inn
The pub in Bishops Caundle, near Sherborne has stood for centuries. It used to be a monks' brewing house and was the centre of village life in the seventeenth century. Unremarkable except for its history of fine food and usual collection of pub esoterica, local legend says it was the scene of a curious brush with fame in the summer of 1685 when Judge Jeffreys visited the pub on his way to the Bloody Assizes.
Bishops Caundle straddles an important road which connects Sherborne to Sturminster Newton and smaller villages and would have been the main thoroughfare to Dorchester in the 1600's. It is certainly not unfeasible to imagine Jeffreys and his magistrates dismounting their horses after a long afternoon's ride and settling down to discuss matters of the court over a cold pint. No doubt the locals would have been in terror if they knew - Jeffreys may have had his on the house!
The pub's layout changed significantly in the centuries following Jeffreys. The door in which he would have entered is now situated in the middle of the restaurant and leads to nowhere, the pub having been extended shortly after. It is around the table directly in front of this old door, visible on the far left of this photo, that 'something' has brushed past restaurant-goers and a shadow suggestive of a man in a long dark cloak has been spotted out of the corners of people's eyes moving past the edge of a table. On the other side of the old door lies the ladies' toilets - a place where some regulars try to avoid. An eerie, unwelcome atmosphere is prevalent and an urge is felt to leave the room as quickly as possible, just as if you were being forced out.
The beer garden of the White Hart Inn boasts a stunning panorama view of Bulbarrow Hill. It backs directly onto a field where villagers regularly walk their dogs around the perimeter. It was here that one local witnessed his three dogs stop still on the track running alongside the wall of the nearby manor's garden. A figure was standing a little way off, a man in dark, indiscernible clothes, turned to the side in profile. The normally over-friendly dogs did not bound up to greet this stranger, instead they stayed where they were or clustered around the eyewitness's legs. As he neared the figure he saw it approach him then turn swiftly to the left, around the curve of the wall, disappearing into the unmanageable shrubs and undergrowth which lay there. The dark-clothed man had disappeared unnaturally quickly and there was no evidence of the shrubbery having been pushed aside or broken by any physical activity. Hundreds of pieces of clay tobacco pipe have been picked up in that area of the field, most dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, legacies of the days where you could pick up a tobacco-filled pipe for a few pence with your ale, smoke peacefully in the garden overlooking the Blackmore Vale countryside and dispose of the cheap pipe by throwing it into the crops. Any one of those pieces may have once touched the lips of Judge George Jeffreys.
Is this mysterious shadowed man one of the magistrates responsible for allowing the barbarity of the Assizes to develop? Or is he Jeffreys himself, swathed in his cloak to avoid being recognised by furious locals? Is he someone else entirely?
Though the eerie eyewitness accounts could be left to stand on their own as an unsettling suggestion of the paranormal, a further explanation of Jeffreys history adds a hint of sympathy for his character and may shed some light on his apparition's unusual choice of places to haunt.
King James II was forced to flee the country when the soon-to-be William III led the Parliamentarians to overthrow him in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Jeffreys clung on in London, being the only legal authority still remaining to implement James's laws. Jeffreys hung on until William's forces marched upon London, whereupon the judge attempted a desperate escape. He was easily recognised and captured, disguised as a sailor. Hated by the public who now welcomed William's kingship, Jeffreys was dragged to the Tower of London - for his own protection. He died there shortly after from an ailment of the kidneys. He was 44 years old.
After such a frantic and disgraced end, is it any wonder the noble-born son of a Chief Justice would experience restlessness in the afterlife? Some would say he thoroughly deserved what he got and more, that he was an alcoholic in life and his kidney discomfort only added to an inherent foul disposition. Yet some people say that he was a very different man in life than in legend, and despite the fact he wrought havoc on people's lives and the infrastructure of a rural community he acted out of a strong sense of justice and thoroughly believed that his actions were right.
When you take this into account, it isn't hard to imagine why the ghost of the Hanging Judge would prefer to haunt the small country pub where he enjoyed his last pint with colleagues before embarking on the disastrous chain of trials that would enshrine his hideous reputation and lead to the downfall and lonely, painful death of this middle-aged man. His ghost may reside in two places, with his presence being felt in the Antelope courtyard where the full barbarity of the trials unfolded.
A final, poignant footnote in the legacy of Baron George Jeffreys would be written two hundred and fifty two years after his death. Originally buried in a chapel in the Tower of London where he died, sympathetic descendants and friends obtained permission in 1694 to remove his remains and inter them with a fitting memorial in St. Mary, Aldermanbury. While repairs were carried out in the early nineteenth century, his coffin was temporarily put on display so people could gaze upon 'the box containing the mortal remains of the feared and hated magistrate'. The final blow came in the spring of 1941, when the church of St Mary, Aldermanbury was completely destroyed in the Blitz. The grave of Judge Jeffreys and his remains were dashed apart and lost.
His only solid memorial is the restaurant in Dorchester which bears his name. You can also find his memory in a made-for-TV movie and the many tours and guide books which tout his fearsome reputation, not to mention the unsettling glimpse of a shadow out the corner of your eye if you sit at a certain table or walk your dog anywhere near the White Hart Inn.