Pondering British history: Judge Jeffreys – Fearsome Monster or Fearful Man?

December 10th, 2021

When writing ‘The Judge’s Apothecary’, the question I struggled with was:

‘Was George Jeffreys the monster that history painted him to be?’

Looking beyond the written word to find the balance…

There is no getting away from the fact that the severity of the sentences he dished out during the Bloody Assizes were shockingly harsh, even for those days. However, when I research, I try to explore the human emotions behind events that shaped history; the more I researched Lord George Jeffreys, the more I realised that his own fears could have contributed significantly to his outlandish behaviour in court and the punishments that he saw fit to mete out to people. Whilst there is much in my novel that really depicts the monstrous side of him – the way he walks in shadow, the beast-like growl that emanates from him as he is walking through a corridor whilst intoxicated and the thunderous boom of his outbursts – I wanted to explore his human side much more than, I think, has been considered in the past. It was a difficult balance to strike as I did not want my portrayal of Judge Jeffreys to be contentious but, rather, empathetic as to how things really might have been. And so I was able to explore this through the strangely dark relationship between him and our historical heroine, Kat, who becomes his personal apothecary.

At thirty seven years old, George Jeffreys was an ambitious man. He had risen high as the Lord Chief Justice and there was opportunity to rise higher still. There is no doubt in my mind that this will have been a driver behind the way he led the King’s campaign for vengeance so very ruthlessly.

Taken during visit to The Museum of Somerset. The archive of prisoners who were tried for their part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 – credit to Museum of Somerset – Rebellion Gallery

Driven by ambition, or something else?…

However, the more I read about George Jeffreys, the more I came to the conclusion that he was, in fact, a victim of his own success and status. As I read about his Protestant roots, it made me aware that the need to demonstrate his loyalty to King James II it was not only a requirement of his job, but he may have felt his life depended on it. After all, this was a very scorned King whom he was representing. King James was a bitter and cruel man, intent on a very public revenge. And the notoriety of George Jeffreys meant that if he gave any cause to be viewed as sympathetic to the Presbyterians who rose against the King, the punishment bestowed on him really would have been the very worst. When I thought of it like that, I imagined the severe stress and weight on his shoulders. History blames his awful outbursts and heavy drinking on the pain from a kidney stone, but I think stress also had its part to play.

Strangely spooked and terrified during my visit to the Rebellion Gallery in the Museum of Somerset – maybe because I knew what was going to happen to my modern-day protagonist, Ruth, when she visited!
The Rebellion Gallery gives you some great insight into this terrifying period of British History

As the story progresses, Kat gets hints of a certain vulnerability behind the monstrous façade of Judge Jeffreys. Their relationship is complex. Being responsible in part for his health during the assizes, Kat realises that she has power over him  – and she is scared too, for a number of reasons intricate to the plot. We see her change and we experience the darkness of her realised power engulf her.

I can’t begin to tell you how many rewrites I did to strike the perfect balance for depicting both fearful man and fearsome monster, but I do hope that I have achieved what I wanted to and it gives my readers a different view of history.

Peppered throughout this blog are some images from my ‘walking in the footsteps’ research.

‘The Judge’s Apothecary’ is available to buy now for only £1.99 on Amazon Kindle.