MADAM: I read with interest the article regarding Lydford (“Rural Rides”, Winter 2016). William Browne’s 1644 poem about Lydford Law was quoted, however, the author of the article was mistaken in saying that the poem “summarised the tough justice meted out by the infamous Judge Jeffries”. It has nothing whatever to do with the so- called “Bloody Assizes” of Judge Jeffries, which followed the Monmouth Rebellion in the West Country. I would not for a moment wish to defend Jeffries and his reign of terror. In the name of common justice, however, surely we should not allow even the egregious Jeffries to be blamed for something that wasn’t his fault!
The Bloody Assizes did not begin until 25th August 1685 — a full 41 years after Browne wrote his poem. Judge Jeffries was not even born until 1645.
Summary justice in Lydford Castle goes right back to the years following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. The Norman Kings soon realised the importance of tin mining in the West Country. To ensure their control of the industry, the old customary laws were incorporated within a new set of laws specific to the area and known as the Assize of Mines. In addition, the whole of Devon was declared a Royal Forest and subject to the severe Forest Laws. The strict enforcement of both Forest and Stannary ( Tin) Law is mentioned in King John’s Charter to William de Wrotham on his appointment as Warden of the Stannaries in 1201.
The Charter gave William authority over both Forestry and Stannary Law. The Forestry Laws were more draconian than Stannary, having a terrifying number of capital offences — a man could be hanged for poaching a single rabbit, or even being caught setting snares in a Royal Park!
Anyone arrested under Forestry Law was brought first before the Court of Attachments, which administered Forest Law and sat every 40 days. Those deemed guilty were remanded for a hearing before the Court of Swainmote which met quarterly. If found guilty by the Swainmote, an offender would be sentenced to death, though the death penalty itself had to be endorsed by the Court of Justice Seat, which sat only once every three years. This meant that there were many on Death Row in Lydford Castle.
It often became necessary during the three- year gap between Justice Seats to make room in the castle dungeon for still more condemned men, and this was effected by hanging some of the men already there, in anticipation of the Justice Seat’s formal judgement. It was thus true that many unfortunate souls were not condemned to death by a Royal Judge until after the actual execution had taken place. This state of affairs lasted for centuries. During the reign of Henry VIII, Lydford Castle was described as “One of the most heinous, contagious and detestable places in the realm.”
So Browne’s Lydford Law was due, not to Judge Jeffries, but to the far older and tyrannical laws of Stannary and Forestry which, over the centuries, were responsible for far, far more judicial murders than the “Hanging Judge”. — REV. JONATHAN E. MOORE, GLOSSOP, DERBYSHIRE.