The Dorchester Assize

The Dorchester Assize, 5 – 8 September 1685

The Assize court at Winchester was a test for the Judges and their staff, as they had only one seventy-year old lady to prosecute. However, they faced a real trial at Dorchester where over 337 stood accused of high treason for waging war on the King. It was to Dorchester that many of the key rebels had been sent after their examination at the Tower of London. The lists included Colonel Holmes, Lieutenant Battiscombe, Captain Hewling and Captain Sir John Kidd. After the time it had taken to find Lady Lisle guilty, the Judges need a more efficient process the accused.  Without a more brutal approach it would take over week in session, especially if to many people pleaded not guilty. Therefore, a court official, Mr Pollexfen, was sent ahead to cajoling many of in the prison to plead ‘Guilty’.

After a brief Assize session at Salisbury at which no rebels were present, on 4 September, Judge Jeffreys setup shop in Dorchester. The following day the court was established, and a loyal Jury was selected and sworn in. The scene was ready for the big test of what King James II called, Jeffreys campaign in the west. There were 335 men and 2 women awaiting the Kings justice in the overcrowded prison and 34 of these had elected to pleading ‘Not Guilty’. Clearly it would be impossible to give everyman a fair trial therefore with the Jury ready, on Saturday 5 September batches of men were brought to the bar.

That evening Lord Jeffreys wrote the following letter to the earl of Sunderland:

‘Dorchester, September 5. 1685

My lord Sunderland,

I most heartily rejoice, my dearest lord, to learn of your safe return to Winsdor. On this day, I began with the trial of the rebels at Dorchester, and have dispatched 98. But I am at this time so tortured with the stone that I must beg your lordship’s intercession with his Majesty for the incoherence of what I have adventured to give his Majesty the trouble of, and that I may give myself so much ease by your lordship’s favour as to make use of my servant’s pen to give a relation of what has happen since I came here.

My dearest lord, may I ever be tortured with the stone if I forget to approve myself,

Your most faithful and devoted servant.


On the first day of the Dorchester Assize, 29 were sentenced to die by being hung, drawn, and then quartered with the sentence to take place on Monday. The other 60 awaited final sentencing. With the leading Judge in pain with the ‘stone’, it would not be a happy court on Sunday 6 September.

It was into this cauldron that one man stood and pleaded not guilty. His name was William Bragg and his crime to have his horse taken by some of Monmouth’s men. After which he entered the rebel camp, and demanded that his horse by returned, which is was. However, one of Mr Braggs enemies, told the justice of the peace that he’d been with Monmouth and now faced Judge Jeffreys. By trade, Bragg was a lawyer and started by presenting his case but was cut short by the rants of the enraged Judge. Without being about to defend himself, Bragg was found guilty with these words by Jeffreys, ‘he is a lawyer, hang him.’ Upon which Bragg was taken from the bar to be replaced by the next man. It quickly became clear that by pleading ‘Not Guilty’, the verdict was a speedy path to a painful death, while a ‘Guilty’ plea was to fall on the Kings mercy. But for some like those that landed at Lyme, the sentence was automatically death, while others would have to wait for the King’s final decision on their fate.

On the Monday, while sentence where still being pronounced, 74 men faced the gallows. The first to face Mr Ketch and his assistant Pascha Rose, was William Bragg. However, as the bloody day progressed it became clear that the executioners could not handle the hanging, drawing, quartering, and taring of more than 13 men in a day. Therefore, Jeffreys agreed that the executions should be spread across the county.  The thirteen Martyrs executed in Dorchester on 7 September were:

Matthew Bragg: attorney of Dorchester, not in Monmouth’s Army, pleaded not guilty

John Fawne: of Corscombe, pleaded not guilty

Henry Ford: pleaded not guilty

John Game: pleaded not guilty

Benjamin Gray: of Bridport, with Monmouth, pleaded not guilty

Samuel Hilliard: pleaded not guilty

Philip Levermore: tanner of Honiton, pleaded not guilty

Robert Pinney: clothworker of Thorncombe, pleaded not guilty

George Seaward: yeomam of Colyton, pleaded not guilty

Thomas Smith: constable of Chard, argued with Jeffreys, pleaded not guilty

Joseph Speed: shoemarker of Colyton, fought for Protestant religion

Thomas Welch: carrier of Bridport, informed on, pleaded not guilty

John Wills: trained soldier of Broadwindsor, in the rebellion, pleaded not guilty

By the end of the Dorchester Assize Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys issued the following sentences to the 359 men and 2 women convicted:

13 are executed in Dorchester on the 7 September

12 are executed in Lyme on the 12 September

9 are executed in Bridport on the 12 September

12 are executed in Sherborne on the 15 September

12 are executed in Weymouth & Melcombe Regis on the 15 September

11 are executed in Poole on the 21 September

5 are executed in Wareham on the 22 September

94 sold to Sir W. Booth for transportation to Barbados

60 sold to Jerome Nipho for transportation by the Queen of England

46 sold to Sir Christopher Musgrave for transportation to Jamaica

1 are to be whipped through the streets of Dorchester

1 woman shall be whipped in every market town of Dorset

1 is imprisoned for 7 seven year and whipped every year through all the market towns of Dorset

27 are discharged on production of the General Pardon

28 are offered for the Kings pardon

14 are discharged

15 are left in custody awaiting further evidence

From Dorchester the Assize court moved to Exeter where over 500 men awaited justice. However, on route the Jeffreys stopped at Lyme to watch the bloody executions.