The Taunton Assize, 18-21 September 1685
From Exeter, the Assize court travelled across the Western Counties of England spreading death and widows in its path. When it arrived in Taunton. It was in the heart of the Green Ribbon country, the home of Protestant fervour it was already a town full of husbandless wives and fatherless children. It was therefore no surprise that the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys found so many willing martyrs.
It is recorded that the jail held over 500 men, all to be tried over the next two days. It is hard to understand how justice, for so many, could be delivered in such a short period of time. However, as the last courts had demonstrated, the first to be heard were those four men not prepared to bow their heads, but instead pleaded ‘not guilty’. In doing this they challenged the tyrant Judge. Of these one poor men was Mr Hamlyn, and was defended by the Mayor of Taunton, as was an innocent man. As brushed aside the plea, the bloody Judge responded “You have brought him on, if he be innocent, his blood be upon you”, he shall hang on the Monday. Following this all four men were Martyred in Taunton, these were:
Capt. Abraham Annesley, in Monmouth’s Army
William Cooper, joiner of Bridgwater, pleaded not Guilty
William Gatchill, yeoman of Angersleigh, assisted the Rebels
Simon Hamlyn, tailor of Pitminster, pleaded not Guilty, no with Monmouth
After this rough justice, the rest of those brought to the bar pleaded guilty, and the following verdicts were declared:
430 are found guilty and await sentence
20 produced the General Pardon
24 await the King’s Pardon
45 where not tried, to be moved to Wells
However, none received a sentence as Lord Jeffreys was ordered to send the list to the King. After the first executions, the King had written to Jeffreys demanding that he would pass sentence and not the court. With this King James II was to select those to be sold and those to die, he became the giver life and the taker of lives. That evening the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys wrote the following letter to King James II.
Your most gracious Majesty,
I most humbly beseech your Majesty to give me leave to use this opportunity by my lord Churchill, to give your Majesty an account that I have this day finished what was necessary for your Majestys service in this place. I beg leave that your Majesty may be graciously pleased to let me refer to the lord Churchill for the particulars, for I have not yet perfected my papers, so as to be able to do it so exactly as my duty to your Majestys service requires.
I received your Majesty’s commands by my lord Sunderland about the rebels and your Majesty design for transportation. I beseech your Majesty that I may inform you that each prisoner will be worth £10, if not £15 a piece, and that if your Majesty orders them as you have already designed, persons that have not suffered in your service will run away with the booty. I am sure that your Majesty will be continually perplexed with petitions for recompense for sufferers as well as rewards for servants.
Sir, I hope your Majesty will pardon this presumption, I know it is my duty to obey. I have only respited doing anything until I know your Royal pleasure is they should have the men, for upon my allegiance to you, Sir, I shall never trim in my obedience to your commands in all things.
Sir, had not your Majesty been pleased to declare your gracious intentions to them that served you in the soldiery and also to the many distressed families ruined by this late rebellion, I durst not have presumed to give your Majesty this trouble. Sir, I will when I have the honour to kiss your Majesty’s hands humbly acquaint you with all matters your Majesty hath been graciously pleased to entrust me with, and doubt not, Sir, but to be able to propose a way how to gratify all such as your Majesty shall be pleased to think deserving of it, without touching your Exchequer.
Your Majestys most dutiful and obedient subject and servant,
With this the Assize court in Taunton finished, Lord Chief Justice left for Bristol. The other judges moved to the Wells Assize to find an even greater number of prisoners waiting in the jail. Behind them the guilty waited in Taunton jail waiting for the King’s justice. The King now offered 850 rebels to his favourites, to be used as slaves in the sugar plantations.