NOWADAYS you are likely to see bunting hanging in the streets of Dorchester.

But during the time of the Bloody Assizes it would have been dead bodies and heads on spikes.

Sound gruesome? It was – deliberately so.

And it’s left its mark on Dorchester.

Because even now, 328 years after the judicial bloodbath, the name ‘Judge Jeffreys’ can still evoke fear and fascination in the heart of Durnovarians and is recognised throughout the world.

Town crier Alistair Chisholm said: “It’s surprising how far afield you can mention Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes and people will say ‘yes, I’ve heard of that’.

“They might not know much about it, but they have heard about it.”

There are tales of the ghost of the hanging judge still haunting the county town today.

During the Bloody Assizes, Judge Jeffreys sentenced around 250 rebels to death.

Although only 71 of them reached the gallows, it was ensured those that did met a particularly gruesome end.

They’d be hung, drawn and quartered – a row of heads on spikes outside St Peter’s Church in High West Street.

It’s said Judge Jeffreys attended many of the executions and boasted about the number of people he’d condemned.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of when the Bloody Assizes came to Dorchester.

On September 5, 1685, Judge Jeffreys entered the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel for the start of the trials.

But was this a man with a heart of stone, or was he just acting on orders?

Have we blown him up into a caricature of himself? Or was he really a bad-tempered brandy drinker whose illness made him lose his patience? And why was he here in the first place?

Well, in February, 1685, James II succeeded his elder brother Charles II to the throne.

But the crown on his head divided England – James II was a Roman Catholic and this didn’t please the Protestants.

There were a few attempts to overthrow the king, but on June 11, 1685, the exiled Duke of Monmouth – illegitimate son of Charles II – landed at Lyme Regis to mount his rebellion.

He planned to recruit troops, take control of the south west and march towards London.

But he was unable to compete with the king’s army and the whole episode culminated in the Battle of Sedgemoor in July, where Monmouth was defeated.

Monmouth was executed at Tower Hill — but there was also a heady price to pay for those who had supported him.

The king wanted to send a very clear message. And this message came in the form of the Assizes judges, led by the infamous Judge Jeffreys.

George Jeffreys, First Baron of Wem and Lord Chief Justice, was 40 years old when he led the trials.

But why was the hanging judge so blood thirsty?

Many accounts say he was suffering from gall or kidney stones.

He would drink brandy to quell the pain – but critics said he was drunk during the trials.

“He would have been very keen to appease and please the king and thought the best way was to hang lots of people.

“Whether his kidney stones made him angrier we don’t know, but by all accounts he was very bad tempered.

“He would boast that he had hung the most people since William the Conqueror,” said Alistair.

“It was a bit of a Catch 22 for the rebels. I think Judge Jeffreys said to them ‘I might be lenient’ if they confessed.

“But by that he meant sentence them to transportation.”

“It’s very debateable whether the sentence bore any correlation with what the prisoner had supposedly done.”

But one thing was not up for debate – you didn’t want to come up in front of Judge Jeffreys.

“The instruction was to erect the gallows in the most prominent part of town,” said Mr Chisholm.

“One can imagine that was probably at the town pump which would have been in the middle of the marketplace in those days.

“There seems to be a view that some of them would have had their heads stuck on spikes throughout the town.

“Some would have had their joints taken back and displayed in the villages from which they came as a deterrent to others.

“It was a bloody affair. There was precious little justice.”

Jeffreys died in Tower of London

FOLLOWING the Bloody Assizes, Judge Jeffreys was made Lord Chancellor ‘for the many eminent and faithful services to the crown’.

But after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, King James II fled to France.

Jeffreys tried to escape in disguise but was captured in a pub after he was recognised by a survivor of the judicial system, it is said.

He was taken to the Tower of London where he died on April 16, 1689, from kidney disease, aged 44.

He was originally buried in a chapel at the Tower of London but his body was moved to St Mary Aldermanbury, London, between 1692 and 1694.

The church had been rebuilt by Christopher Wren using Portland stone after the Great Fire of London.

But during the Second World War, Jeffreys’ grave was destroyed along with the church in a German air raid.

His lodgings in Dorchester are now the Judge Jeffreys Prezzo restaurant.

Trials began in 1685

The Bloody Assizes began in Winchester on August 26, 1685.

The first casualty was a 70-year-old widow named Alice Lyle who was found guilty of harbouring a rebel and sentenced to be burned alive.

But her life ended at the end of an axe and she was beheaded in Winchester marketplace on September 2.

Some 1,000 rebels were in custody and more than 1,400 were dealt with during the course of the trials. From Winchester, the court went to Salisbury, Dorchester and Taunton and ended in Wells on September 23.

Although it’s usually known as the Monmouth Rebellion it is also called the Revolt of the West or the West Country Rebellion.

Many of the guilty were sentenced to transportation – perhaps a fate worse than death which involved a hellish journey and exposure to malaria and tropical diseases.