Sunday, 22 July 2012

Face to Face with the Hanging Judge

Having deposited Son the Elder at his former college in Dilton Marsh to watch the Horse and Dog Show, it was off to Norton St Philip today to meet up with my friends, Jan and Helen.  We'd arranged to have lunch in the George Inn, reputed to be the one of the oldest inns in the country, having been built around 1223 with a continuous licence from 1397.

I'd been keen to visit for some time, having an interest in the Monmouth - or Pitchfork - Rebellion of 1685, in which the Inn played a key role. Following his ill-equipped and outnumbered army's defeat at Keynsham Bridge, Monmouth withdrew with his forces to what was then Philips Norton. He proceeded to make the George Inn his headquarters, while his men were billeted around the town.  On 27th June, Monmouth engaged the advance guard of the Royal Army.  The main fighting took place on North Street, and was reputedly so fierce that blood flowed down it and Chevers Lane, the latter still referred to locally as Bloody Lane.  Having lost 80 men, the King's army withdrew to Bradford-on-Avon.  Only 18 rebels were killed.


That wasn't the end of the town's involvement in the Rebellion.  After the slaughter of the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 6th, the King's men hunted down all those who had supported or were suspected of having supported the defeated Monmouth, to be tried by the notorious Hanging Judge Jeffreys. One of the places chosen to hold a session of what became known as The Bloody Assizes was the George Inn.  The accused were inevitably found guilty and were either sentenced to imprisonment, in which case they were taken to the dungeons in the inn, or to execution.  Twelve of those who were tried were marched out of the pub, over the road and down an alley way which now forms part of the main bar of another ancient inn, the Fleur-de-Lys.  Behind this establishment, in an orchard now known as Bloody Close, they were hanged, drawn and quartered.  

To give you some idea of the psychopathic savagery of Jeffreys, there is a local story of 'the wrongly hanged man' - an unfortunate who apparently opened a gate to allow the condemned men to pass through.  For this small act of respect he was summarily hanged with the others.

Both my parents have ancestors from various towns and villages in North Somerset and my father told me stories of the Hanging Judge when I was a child.  He is hated to this day in these parts.  In the Dining Room of the George I spotted this portrait of a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Jeffreys.  The fact that it has sustained considerable damage over the years, unlike the other portraits in the room, lends credence to this identification.    


After we'd eaten, we were given permission to poke around the pub - everywhere apart from the bedrooms.  The whole atmosphere of the place was electric, as you might expect of somewhere with such historical resonance.  One of my favourite parts was the courtyard, with its little mediaeval galleries leading to the bedrooms.  I was slightly less enchanted when I learnt that this was where the men waited to hear their fate from the Hanging Judge, who pronounced from on high in one of the galleries.

Such an irony that within three years, James II had been ousted from the throne anyway, and the Judge was languishing in the Tower of London.  

Lord Macaulay 
tells us that he died in agony a year later of kidney failure. I hope so.


An earlier visitor to Philips Norton was Samuel Pepys who passed through in 1668 on his way to Bath from Salisbury.  Like us, he dined very well at the George; also like us, he visited the Church of St Philip and St James where he 'saw the tombstone whereon there were only two heads cut, which, the story goes, and credibly, were two sisters, called the Fair Maids of Foscott, that had two bodies upward and one belly, and there lie buried.'

When Pepys saw the tomb, the effigy of the conjoined twins was cut in stone on the floor of the nave.  All that remains now are the two head themselves, which are set on the wall inside the tower, one clearly defined the other much worn.  


As usual, we had planned to do far more than we had time for, so a return visit is on the cards. In fact, I am so keen to spend the night in the George Inn that I might even have to take a lover to justify staying there ...  


5 comments:

  1. let the lover treat you to a night at the Greorge ? xx

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  2. That reminds me that George Nympton [near South Molton] used to be Nymet St George, I seem to know.

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    1. Wouldn't it be fun to write a novel with characters named after places. Devon is particularly rich in them - Mary and Peter Tavy, of course, Lew Trenchard, Brad Worthy, Petrock Stowe, Chris Stow, Brid Stow and my favourite, Penny Comequick ...

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