Men, politics and a woman scorned. All is certainly not fair in love and war…

November 27th, 2021

Don’t you just love a road trip? My latest novel, ‘The Judge’s Apothecary’ took me on a truly interesting one – from Hampshire to Dorset, Devon and Somerset. It wasn’t all plain sailing; in fact I was following in the footsteps of a really rather macabre historical figure known as Judge Jeffreys, aka, ‘The Hanging Judge’.

In 1685 the name, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys, struck fear in many. He was the man who led the judicial party of lawyers, clerks and servants during the notorious ‘Bloody Assizes’, as they have come to be known. These assizes followed the failed Monmouth Rebellion which took place in the summer of 1685, when Protestants opposed to the newly appointed King James II, tried to put his nephew, James Scott (Duke of Monmouth), on the throne.

The King’s crown is threatened:

James Scott was the illegitimate son of King Charles II, born from a brief affair with a woman named, Lucy Walter. However, it was contested that Charles had in fact married Lucy in secret. On that basis, it was challenged that James Scott was the rightful heir to the throne. King James II was livid – this was a serious threat to his crown.

Afterall, James Scott was younger, more charismatic and handsome. In June 1685, he was shipped over from Holland and landed on English shores, at Lyme Regis. It did not take long before he had won the hearts of many across the West country and he was quickly declared King in Chard and then Taunton. There was not enough power and wealth behind the rebel army though. Known as the ‘Pitchfork Rebellion’, it was largely made up of peasants who had little or no experience in battle. It seems as though their fate was inevitable.

A Bridgwater pub with a vantage point…

My journey through the West country took me to the Somerset town of Bridgwater where I stayed in a lovely pub, The Old Vicarage, that inspired the coaching inn my historical protagonist stops in during her own journey in the ‘The Judge’s Apothecary‘. Like many places in Somerset, this pub claims that Judge Jeffreys stayed there. In my novel, the inn is the place where some of the King’s soldiers gather before a rather horrible and tragic event that has inspired a local ghost story – whether or not there is any truth behind what happened is lost in history. However, it is a famous legend that I have used in my novel.

The Old Vicarage, Bridgwater – great gins!

The Old Vicarage is overlooked by a lovely church. It was the spire of this church that enabled the Duke of Monmouth’s rather genius, yet doomed, battle strategy that took place on Sedgemoor…  

A genius or foolhardy plan?

After climbing the spire, Monmouth used a spyglass to identify where the Royal Army were setting up camp for the night. The men were to ambush the Royalists whilst they slept. Local men knew the wetlands of the Somerset levels well and so were  equipped with the knowledge that would help them silently proceed and find the appropriate crossings – because these were indeed treacherous marshlands. Under the cover of darkness this would have been next to impossible because they needed to successfully cross deep channels of water called rhynes. These rhynes were a drainage system for the wetlands. Whilst there were crossing bridges, in the pitch black it would have needed men with exceptional knowledge of the area to find them.

When I was walking the fields where the battle took place, I could not help but wonder, if it had not been for the evidently accidental misfire of a gun that had warned the Royalist camp of the approaching danger, would Monmouth’s army have succeeded? It is incredible that they got so far, marching in silence, horse hooves and boots wrapped and bound in cloth. After that gunshot was fired (by a man who was supposed to be on side with the rebels) their plan was thwarted and the rest is bloody history.

The King’s ‘campaign’ was vengeful and cruel. Those in the rebel army who managed to escape arrest or death that night went into hiding, but the King’s men were plucking them from all over the countryside.

One such dissenter was a man by the name of John Hicks, a non-conformist minister who had joined the rebel army. What Hicks did after escaping the fallout of the Battle of Sedgemoor led to the case that opened the Bloody Assizes…

A tangled web of historical vengeance:

Hicks was acquainted with an elderly noble widow by the name of Lady Alice Lisle. Lady Alice has a back story that creates a much more tangled web in history that sadly leads to her inevitable fate; I will feature this in another blog.

After the battle, Hicks wrote to Alice Lisle requesting that she provide shelter for him and a friend, to which end, she obliged. In my opinion, Lady Alice’s history with John Hicks is an emotive one. Their story spans back to decades before, when King Charles I was executed and there was an episode between Lady Alice and her husband that I believe gave her an emotional connection to Hicks. If you’re interested in that, tune in for a future blog. In short, it was the actions of her late husband that no doubt sealed her fate.

Back to July 1685: John Hicks and his companion, a lawyer named, Richard Nelthorp, were given food and shelter by Lady Alice Lisle, along with the man who had originally hidden them, a baker named James Dunne. In late July, they were all found hiding at Lady Alice’s New Forest house, Moyles Court. The man who led the ambush of the stately home was called, Colonel Penruddock. And this is where the plot thickens (and my blood boils)… Penruddock’s father was another who came to a sticky end as a result of the actions of Lisle’s late husband. More motives for a long awaited vengeance.

It is no surprise that, in spite of her protests that she had no knowledge of what Hicks and his companions had been involved in, Lady Alice Lisle was still arrested and taken to Fisherton, a gaol in Salisbury.

A shocking outcome at Winchester:

Now this is shocking. She was not only from nobility, but a lady of 71 years in age (considered elderly back then). She was held in that prison for weeks on end until her trial at the Winchester Assizes on 25 August 1685. This was the trial that opened the Bloody Assizes. The outcome sent shockwaves across the country. And this is pretty much where ‘The Judge’s Apothecary’ begins. – in Winchester during the summer of 1685, as news of her upcoming trial is sweeping across the country. I went into great detail to understand what happened at that trial, what was said, how it would have possibly been viewed by somebody who had been living in Winchester back then.

If you are familiar with Winchester, you will know the Great Hall, where the assizes courts took place. This is where Lady Alice Lisle faced the formidable Judge Jeffreys. I toured the Great Hall when I was writing my novel and I was lucky enough to be given access to the rooms where the jury would have made their decision following the hearing. Judge Jeffreys sent them back to reconsider their verdict several times. This in itself has been accepted as blatant abuse of position and power.

The magnificently gigantic door to Winchester’s Great Hall

When researching and writing this novel, it was so clear to me that Lady Alice Lisle’s trial was pure revenge for a vendetta that spanned decades. She suffered because of her association by marriage to a man heavily entangled in politics that play such a poignant part in history. It deeply saddens me when I think of what she must have gone through and I hope I have captured this in the novel. I think the people of Winchester were appalled by what happened to Lady Alice Lisle and I wanted to give a strong, accurate view of how Winchester must have reacted at that time. There is a line that I wrote into this novel that depicts how Lady Alice must have felt as she realised how it was all unravelling:

Once again, a woman would pay for the follies of men.

If you are visiting Winchester and you happen upon a lovely olde worlde pub called, ‘The Eclipse’, step in for a drink and take in your surroundings. This is the place where Lady Alice Lisle was held between her trial and sentence. It is a haunted place, with reports of a grey lady who has been seen silently watching customers and staff from the shadows. Sometimes the echoes of a wooden scaffolding being erected can be heard too. In spite of the spooky and tragic story attached to The Eclipse, with its beautiful Tudor style fascia, rich history and selection of gins and beers, it is well worth a visit.

Lady Alice Lisle was held in the room at the top of the building now known as The Eclipse. Whilst she was staying there the scaffolding that she stepped onto for her execution was erected. It chills me to the bone to think of this.

There is so much more to say, but I do not want to give anything away – you will need to read ‘The Judge’s Apothecary’ for that! Currently only £1.99!