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Sir William Scroggs.

Sir William Scroggs (c. 1623 – 25 October 1683), Lord Chief Justice of England, was the son of an Oxford landowner; an account of him being the son of a butcher of sufficient means to give his son a university education is merely a rumour.[1]

Youth and early career

Scroggs spent his youth in Stifford.[2] He went to Oriel College, and later to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1640, having acquired a fair knowledge of the classics. There is some evidence that he fought on the royalist side during the Civil War; certainly his loyalty to the Crown was never doubted in later years. In 1653 he was called to the bar, and soon gained a good practice in the courts. He was appointed a judge of the Common Pleas in 1676, and two years later was promoted to be Lord Chief Justice.

Lord Chief Justice and the Popish Plot

As Lord Chief Justice Scroggs presided at the trial of the persons denounced by Titus Oates for complicity in the "Popish Plot", and he treated these prisoners with characteristic violence and brutality, overwhelming them with sarcasm and abuse while on their trial, and taunting them when sentencing them to death. So careless was he of the rights of the accused that at one trial he admitted to the jury when summing-up that he had forgotten much of the evidence.[3] He may at first have been a sincere believer in the existence of the Plot, along with much of the general public and Parliament, but he did nothing to test the credibility of witnesses like Oates, William Bedloe, Miles Prance and Thomas Dangerfield, even though he knew well that Bedloe and Dangerfield were leading figures in the criminal underworld, and that Prance had made his confession under threat of torture.

In November 1678 William Staley, a young Catholic banker, was executed for treason in that he had "imagined (i.e. threatened) the King's death". Staley, a heavy drinker, had made a threat against the King when drunk, but in less disturbed times he could have hoped to escape with a severe reprimand.[4] Scroggs, summing up, did tell the jury that in case of a man's life he would have no regard paid to "the rumours of the time" but the rest of his summing up was wholly in favour of a guilty verdict.[5]

A week later Edward Colman, former private secretary to the Duke of York, was executed for allegedly treasonable correspondence with Louis XIV of France. Again Scroggs drove hard for a conviction despite Colman's standing as a Government official. Colman's letters in which he urged Louis to press Charles II for a dissolution of Parliament, showed a grave lack of political judgement, but it was straining the law to call them treasonable. The correspondence, which apparently ended in 1674, had no effect on English policy, and was of such little importance that Colman until he was confronted with the letters had apparently forgotten writing them. Scroggs told Colman that he had been condemned on his own papers; this was fortunate for the Crown, since the evidence of Oates and Bedloe of overt acts of treason was so feeble that Scroggs in his summing-up simply ignored it.[6]

At the trial in February 1679 of the prisoners Henry Berry, Robert Green, and Lawrence Hill, accused of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, Scroggs gave a characteristic exhibition of his methods, indulging in a tirade against the Roman Catholic religion, and loudly proclaiming his belief in the guilt of the accused. When Lawrence Hill's wife boldly accused Miles Prance, the Crown's chief witness, of perjury in open court, Scroggs said incredulously "You cannot think that he will swear three men out of their lives for nothing?".[7] All three defendants were put to death. As Mrs. Hill correctly predicted, Prance later confessed that the three were wholly innocent.

It was only when, in July of the same year, Oates's accusation against the Queen's physician, Sir George Wakeman, appeared likely to involve the Queen herself in the ramifications of the plot, that Scroggs began to think matters were going too far; he was probably also influenced by the discovery that the court regarded the plot with discredit and disfavour, and that the country party led by Shaftesbury had less influence than he had supposed with the King. The Chief Justice on this occasion threw doubt on the trustworthiness of Bedloe and Oates as witnesses, and warned the jury to be careful in accepting their evidence. Wakeman and a number of priests who were tried with him were duly acquitted.[8]

This inflamed public opinion against Scroggs, for the popular belief in the plot was still strong. Scroggs continued in his poor treatment of Catholic priests who came before him for trial, as he showed when he sentenced Andrew Bromwich to death at Stafford in the summer of 1679 (although it must be said that he recommended Bromwich for mercy, and he was reprieved). Nevertheless his proposing the Duke of York's health at the Lord Mayor's dinner a few months later, in the presence of Shaftesbury, indicated his determination not to support the Exclusionists against the known wishes of the king. At the opening of the Michaelmas Term he delivered a speech on the need for judicial independence: "the people ought to be pleased with public justice and not justice seek to please the people... justice must flow like a mighty river... neither for my part do I think we live in so corrupted an age that no man can with safety be just and follow his own conscience." Kenyon remarks that whatever Scroggs's faults, this speech shows that he was far more than the "brainless bully" he is sometimes portrayed as.

Acting in the assurance of popular sympathy, Oates and Bedloe now arraigned the Chief Justice before the Privy Council for having discredited their evidence and misdirected the jury in the Wakeman case, accusing him at the same time of several other misdemeanours on the bench, including a habit of excessive drinking and foul language. In January 1680 the case was argued before the Council and Scroggs was acquitted. At the trials of Elizabeth Cellier and of Lord Castlemaine in June of the same year, both of whom were acquitted, he discredited Dangerfield's evidence, and on the former occasion committed the witness to prison. In the same month he discharged the grand jury of Middlesex before the end of term in order to save the Duke of York from indictment as a popish recusant, a proceeding which the House of Commons declared to be illegal, and which was made an article in the impeachment of Scroggs in January 1681. The dissolution of Parliament put an end to the impeachment, but in April Scroggs was removed from the bench with a pension; he died in London on 25 October 1683.

Personality and lifestyle

Scroggs was a judge at a time when the courts were considered corrupt and unfair and his temper and treatment of defendants were an example of the endemic problems within the judiciary, whose coarse and brutal manners shocked most educated laymen. He served on the bench during the same period as Judge Jeffreys who has been criticised for similarly poor treatment of defendants and witnesses. Kenyon notes that while their behaviour was "degrading and disgusting" by modern standards it was at the time apparently taken for granted: "the judges' manners were rough because they were a rough lot".[9]

Scroggs was the subject of many contemporary satires; he was reputed to live a debauched lifestyle and his manners during trials were considered 'coarse' and 'violent'.[10]Roger North, who knew him well, described him as a man of great wit and fluency, but "scandalous, violent, intemperate and extreme." Forty years after his death, Jonathan Swift in his celebrated attack on William Whitshed, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, called him "as vile and profligate a villain as Scroggs".

Legal writings

Scroggs was the author of a work on the Practice of Courts-Leet and Courts-Baron (London, 1701), and he edited reports of the state trials over which he presided.



  1. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot 2nd Edition Phoenix Press London 2000 p.202
  2. ^
  3. ^ Kenyon pp.184-5- Kenyon does point out that a judge's summing-up was then something of an ordeal since there was no facility for taking notes.
  4. ^ Wild speeches by Roman Catholics were not uncommon, but in normal times "most magistrates were sensibly content to bind the offenders over to keep the peace" : Kenyon p.13
  5. ^ Kenyon pp.112-3
  6. ^ Kenyon pp.131-143
  7. ^ Kenyon p. 166
  8. ^ Kenyon pp. 192-201
  9. ^ Kenyon p.133
  10. ^ Kenyon pp. 133-4
Legal offices
Preceded by
Richard Raynsford
Lord Chief Justice
Succeeded by
Sir Fraser Pemberton

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.