Baxter before Judge Jeffreys
The following remarkable scene—a scene which, in all its parts, tells most impressively to the honour of Baxter, and to the condemnation of Jeffreys—took place in the Court of King's Bench on May 30th, 1684. In a commentary on the New Testament, written by Baxter, he had complained with some bitterness of the persecutions which the Dissenters suffered; and the main charge was, that in some passages he had reflected on the prelates of the Church of England, and so was guilty of sedition. We will give our readers one of these passages, that they may judge of the nature of this charge. After explaining Matt. v. 19, he observes, "Are not those preachers and prelates, then, the least and basest that preach and tread down Christian love of all that dissent from any of their presumptions, and so preach down not the least but the great command?" "That men who, for not using the prayer-book," says Macaulay, "had been driven from their homes, stripped of their property, and locked up in dungeons, should' dare to utter a murmur, was then thought to be a high crime against the State and the Church." Roger Lestrange, the champion of the government and the oracle of the clergy, sounded the note of war in the "Observator." An information was filed; Baxter begged that he might be allowed some time to prepare for his defence. It was on the day on which Oates was pilloried in Palace Yard that the illustrious chief, the Puritan, oppressed by age and infirmity, came to Westminster Hall to make this request. Jeffreys burst into a storm of rage. "Not a minute," he cried, "to save his life. I can deal with saints as well as with sinners. There stands Oates on one side of the pillory, and if Baxter stood on the other, the two greatest rogues in the kingdom would stand together." "When the trial came on at Guildhall a crowd of those who loved and honoured Baxter filled the court. At his side stood Dr. William Bates, one of the most eminent Nonconformist divines. Two "Whig barristers of great note, Pollexfen and Wallop, appeared for the defence. Pollexfen had scarcely begun his address to the jury, when the Chief Justice broke forth, "Ah, Pollexfen! I know you well. I will set a mark upon you. You are a patron of the faction. This is an old rogue, a schismatical knave, a hypocritical villain. He hates the Liturgy. He would have nothing but long-winded cant without book." And then his lordship turned up his eyes, clasped his hands, and began to sing through his nose in imitation of what he supposed to be Baxter's style of praying, "Lord, we are thy people, thy peculiar people, thy dear people." Pollexfen gently reminded the court that his late Majesty had thought Baxter deserving of a bishopric. "And what ailed the old blockhead, then," cried Jeffreys, "that he did not take it?" His fury now rose almost to madness, he called Baxter a dog, and swore that it would be no more than justice to whip such a villain through the whole city.
Wallop interposed, but fared no better than his leader. "You are in all these dirty cases, Mr. Wallop," says the judge. "Gentlemen of the long robe ought to be ashamed to assist such factious knaves." The advocate made another attempt to obtain a hearing, but to no purpose. "If you do not know your duty," says Jeffreys, "I will teach you." Wallop sat down, and Baxter himself attempted to put in a word, but the Chief Justice drowned all expostulation in a burst of ribaldry and invective, mingled with scraps of Hudibras. "My lord," said the aged man, "I have been much blamed by Dissenters for speaking respectfully of bishops." "Baxter for bishops!" cried the judge, "that's a merry conceit indeed. I know what you mean by bishops—rascals like yourself; Kidderminster bishops, factious, snivelling Presbyterians." Again Baxter essayed to speak, and .again Jeffreys bellowed, "Richard, Richard, dost thou think we will let thee poison the court? Richard, thou art an old knave; thou hast written books enough to load a cart, and every book as full of sedition as an egg is full of meat. By the grace of God, I'll look after thee. I see a great many of your brotherhood waiting to see what will befall their mighty don." And then he continued, fixing his savage eye on Dr. Bates, "There's a doctor of the party at your elbow. But by the grace of God Almighty, I will crush you all."
Baxter held his peace, but one of the junior counsel for the defence made a last effort, and undertook to show that the words of which complaint was made would not bear the construction put on them by the information; with this view he began to read the context. In a moment he was roared down. "You shan't turn the court into a conventicle!" A noise of weeping was heard from some of those that surrounded Baxter. "Snivelling calves !" said the judge.
Witnesses to character were in attendance, and among them were several clergymen of the Established Church. But the Chief Justice would hear nothing. "Does your lordship think," said Baxter, "that any jury will convict a man on such a trial as this?" "I warrant you, Mr. Baxter," said Jeffreys; "don't trouble yourself about that." Jeffreys was right. The sheriffs were the tools of the Government; the juries were selected by the sheriffs from among the fiercest zealots of the Tory party, they conferred for a moment and returned a verdict of guilty.
"My lord," said Baxter, as he left the court, "there was once a Chief Justice who would have treated me very differently." He alluded to his learned and excellent friend Sir Matthew Hale. "There is not an honest man in England," answered Jeffreys, "but looks on thee as a knave."
The sentence was, for those times, it is observed, a lenient one. What passed in conference among the judges cannot be certainly known. It was believed among the Nonconformists, and is highly probable, that the Chief Justice was overruled by his three brethren. He proposed, it is said, that Baxter should be whipped through London at the cart's tail. The majority thought that an eminent divine, who a quarter of a century before had been offered a mitre, and was now in his seventieth year, would be sufficiently punished for a few sharp words with fine and imprisonment.
It is stated that Jeffreys thus summed up the matter to the jury: "'Tis notoriously known, that there has been a design to ruin the king and nation The old game has been renewed, and this has been the main incendiary. He's as modest now as can be, but the time was when no man was so ready at ' Bind your kings in chains, and your nobles in fetters of iron; and 'To your tents, O Israel.' Gentlemen, for God's sake, don't let us be gulled twice in an age."
He was sentenced to pay a fine of five hundred marks, and to lie in prison till it was paid, and bound to his good behaviour for seven years; and he continued in the court's prison in pain and languor for nearly two years; but at length the King changing his measures, he was pardoned. What a scene for a court of justice! and what a sentence after such a trial!