We spent a few days earlier this week on a relaxing camping trip to Somerset. One of the advantages of having a wife who has sacrificed many evenings and weekends as a scout leader is that we can camp on scout sites, which are huge and cheap. We stayed near Taunton for £7.90 per night for 3 of us with a large wooded field to ourselves, complete with a covered kitchen area and a small black rabbit that sat close to the tent.
The area nearby was the epicentre of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, culminating on 6 July that year in the Battle of Sedgemoor, where the Duke of Monmouth and his locally-recruited army were defeated near Weston Zoyland. James, Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, was beheaded on Tower Hill on 15 July. He had been seeking to usurp James II who was seen as favouring Catholicism - 3 years later James went into exile abroad following the 'Glorious Revolution' of William III's invasion . The rebels who were captured were treated extremely harshly by Judge Jeffreys (George Jeffreys, first Baron Jeffreys (1645-1689), Chief Justice of the Kings Bench and Lord Chancellor from 1685, in the so-called ‘Bloody Assizes’ held in the district during September. 1381 were tried; most were convicted and sentenced to die; of these approximately 200 were executed; most of the remainder were transported to the West Indies.
For reading I took Somerset by Ralph Whitlock, one of a series of Batsford county guides published in the 1970s that I have collected over the years. On page 154 I found the following piece of folklore relating to Judge Jeffreys and the village of Stocklinch Ottersey. According to Whitlock, Jeffreys’ sister Mary lived there:
'It is said that she arranged to have the body brought down secretly, in a plain lead coffin, and buried there. Somerset people, however, got wind of what was on and waylaid the coffin. They broke it open, cut off Jeffreys’ head and hanged the body on gallows in Taunton market-place. By night, the body was retrieved and taken by stealth to Stocklinch, where it was placed, in its coffin, in the church vaults. In winter, the vault is flooded and then the coffin, leaden though it is, floats, always with its feet towards the entrance steps. The vault was sealed in 1934.'
This sounded intriguing – I then looked at the OS map and found that the village was less than 10 miles away, so we made a journey on Wednesday. The weather was gorgeous and the church was at the end of a quiet road in the middle of a sloping field with beautiful views that made for a perfect picnic spot (my photo above).
The name of the village comes from Old English ‘stoc’ meaning place and ‘hlinc’ a hill; in the 12th to 14th centuries the title or name ‘Ostricer’ (Hawker) was added to the place name, eventually evolving into Ottersey. Given its hillside location, St Mary’s was difficult to access in poor weather and eventually became redundant in 1973 - it was transferred to the care of the Redundant Chuches Fund, now the Churches Conservation Trust. It is occasionally used for special services and is still lit by oil lamps and candles.
Once inside I immediately noticed a memorial to Mary Jeffreys (d.1785) and there were other family plaques on the walls; the family burial vault is under the tower arch (my top photo above). According to the guidebook, ‘The Jeffreys family (unrelated to Judge Jeffreys despite local tradition) was prominent in the parish in the 17th and 18th centuries.’ I later found a family tree online. Clearly, the coincidence of surname was too good to resist the embellishments of local legend and folklore given the hatred felt towards Judge Jeffreys in the area.
In fact, following his capture in Wapping (more to follow) while trying to follow James II into exile, Jeffreys died in the Tower of London on 18 or 19 April 1689, a month short of his forty-fourth birthday. His body was laid in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, reportedly next to the Duke of Monmouth and it was not until 2 November 1693 that his remains were removed to St Mary Aldermanbury, London, and buried by those of his first wife, as he had requested. St Mary Aldermanbury was hit by an incendiary bomb on 29 December 1940 and all traces of Jeffreys’ grave were lost. The ruins of Wren’s church were reconstructed between 1964 and 1969 in Westminster College Fulton Missouri, where Churchill delivered his ‘iron curtain’ speech in 1946.
Jeffreys' ODNB entry informs us that his effigy was gibbeted and burnt by a London mob in 1689. ‘Though dead, he was excepted from a general act of pardon the following year… Most important, pamphlets of all kinds poured scorn upon him. In particular John Tutchin's mythologizing account, The Western Martyrology, or, The Bloody Assizes (1689), permanently attached ‘bloody’ to the western assizes of 1685 and thus to Jeffreys's own name. This all but obliterated the memory of any finer qualities the judge may actually have possessed.' It concludes that, ‘Jeffreys is better known for his caricature than for his character.’