Word of the Week: Assize

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly) and how about… assize?

Yeah. Uhm. It is not what you’re thinking. You pronounce it uhh-SIZE.

As in, “You need a size before you can buy underwear in here, Bub.”

So, assize, from the Latin assidere, “to assist in the office of a judge,” smack in Webster’s Fourth between associable, that which can be associated, and Assiut, an alternate spelling for the Egyptian city of Asyut.

What’s it mean?

Well, Webster’s defines assize as “a legislative assembly or any of its decrees” or “court sessions held periodically in each county of England to try civil and criminal cases.” There also is the ancillary “time or place of such sessions” and “an inquest, the writ instituting it, or the verdict.” But what is going to concern us here today is the historical English system of justice, if we can in fact call it systematic or just. (Excuse our republican sensibilities.)

Basically, an assize was a periodic English criminal court that literally had its roots in the time before the Magna Carta and was not really discontinued until just before “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was canceled by the BBC. The idea was to provide a mechanism of justice more stable and reasonable than the so-called trial by ordeal, in which acquittals were granted on the basis of whether defendants had survived a comically dangerous stunt.

Assize cropped up, for me, in a deliciously ghoulish way in “The Glorious Revolution,” by Edward Vallance (Pegasus 2008), which I’ve only just started. Mr. Vallance sets the stage for the succeeding, presumably revolting, glory by, among other things, describing what have become known as the Bloody Assizes.

The Duke of Monmouth was involved in plots aga...

The Duke of Monmouth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What happened was, the bastard son of Charles II, the English king, was goaded into starting a rebellion after the death of his father and the accession of the Presbyterian-hating, Catholic fop James Stuart, the former Duke of York.

The revolt was a profound failure, something like the New York Jets’ season, with unfortunate blunders (the rebels counted on allies who chickened out) compounding with inane strategies (they struggled against a much-larger army) to create a spellbinding national drama lasting several painful months. Thousands of rebels were slaughtered in a mismatched, climactic battle. And the king’s bastard son, known as the Duke of Monmouth, had his head lopped off — by an executioner who needed several tries and a couple of pep talks before he was able to finish the job.

Which brings us to the Bloody Assizes.

Despite the battlefield carnage, there were still thousands of rebels left. And King James instituted a Stalin-style reactionary purge that employed a five-headed circus of traveling criminal courts, or assizes. The star of the bloodletting was George Jeffreys, a baron and the top judge in merry old England. Not known for his mirth in normal circumstances, Baron Jeffreys gained notoriety after the rebellion for the severity of his sentences. To give you an idea of his courtroom demeanor, it is said that he suffered from enormous kidney stones throughout the proceedings.

Almost no defendants escaped his wrath; out of more than 1,000 to face his gavel, or whatever, more than 300 were executed. The balance were shipped off to virtual slavery in the West Indies. Only a handful were still alive a decade or two later.

Now. In those days, a death sentence for treason meant not only that a person was hanged but that the executioner would cut down the victim (hopefully) before he or she died, gouge out the jubblies (or what have you), carve open the abdomen, and hack off the head. The body was then cut in four pieces, and the whole lot was boiled and covered in tar. The gruesome results were displayed in public places, apparently, as a warning.

English: Portrait of Judge George Jeffreys, Fi...

George Jeffreys. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It might have been overkill. There were so many defendants thusly treated that one wag winked that the countryside had been turned into a “vast anatomical museum.”

But when they weren’t sniggering, most folks were not amused by Baron Jeffreys’s enthusiastic adjudicating, and he came to be known as the Hanging Judge. Perhaps not the first to be given the nickname, and certainly not the last, but one of the earliest, well-publicized examples.

The assizes played an important role in the historiography of the Glorious Revolution, too, with the baron’s excesses being cast as an example of King James’s venality. But that is a topic for another week.

To the Web:

The visit of the Assize judge was one of the social highlights of the year and a spectacle involving great pomp. Punishments were frequently brutal and often far outweighed the seriousness of the offence. via No mercy in grim saga of crime and punishment | This is Nottingham.
The council says the Bodmin Conservation Area has great historic and cultural significance, reflecting the towns many-layered past as medieval religious centre, former county town and home of the Duke of Cornwalls Light Infantry and an assize court. via How can towns heritage be kept safe in future? | This is Cornwall.

And, intriguingly:

You can use this guide to find assize court records from England and Wales, to understand how they are arranged and what information you may find in them. via Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971 | The National Archives.

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One thought on “Word of the Week: Assize

  1. Pingback: Word of the Week: Puissant « Patos Papa

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