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Anna Jane Vardill

Annals of Public Justice

The Western Assize Court in 1689

There was once in a village near St. David’s a pedagogue whose figure and furniture were worthy of comparison with Shakespeare’s apothecary. If the Bardic notion has any truth, “that the soul is an intelligence lapsed from the region of light and knowledge, and makes its progress in this world through a circle of transmigrations till it returns to its original state,” this good man’s spirit was very near its perfection, being almost divested of corporeal matter. He lived in a poor hut, attached to a still poorer garden, which furnished his meagre table with almost all its accompaniments. The riches of his house consisted of numberless traditionary volumes of Welch romance, especially a genuine copy of the Historia Brittonum ascribed to Nennius, and edited in the tenth century by Mark the Hermit; probably the original of that celebrated MS. lately discovered in the Vatican, after having graced the library of Queen Christina. He knew by heart all the Welch chronicle of St. Patrick, from his captivity among the Scots as a swineherd till he had baptized seven kings and seen the flock of birds which typified the number of his converts. He knew all the tales of Merlin’s ship of glass; and, in short, whatever proves the abundance of fiction in Wales: but his glory was a school consisting of about fourteen ragged boys, whose acquirements in Latin could be matched only by their devastations in leek-porridge. Emulous of what later days have boasted, Padrig qualified his pupils to perform a Latin play annually, to improve their prosody and their manners, though he himself (with the exception of the grey-headed vicar, who fasted and prayed with eight boys on thirty pounds per annum) was their sole audience. The expense of erecting a stage or providing scenery was obviated by his choice of a play which required none but what his hut afforded. Wiser than modern academicians, he rejected all the easy moralities of Terence, and chose from his old friend Plautus a drama which required no flippant valet, well dressed courtezan, or gallant young man. He had some thoughts of translating into pure Latin the scene of Bottom, Starveling, and Quince, in the Midsummer Nights’ Dream, as most likely to be suitably dressed by his actors; but he luckily remembered a scene in one of Aristophanes’ comedies, which even his own wardrobe could furnish forth, and this he selected as an interlude. The day of rehearsal was of immense importance, and Padrig prepared for it accordingly. The chief personage in the play is an old miser, who on his return with the broth which he has been receiving from public charity, finds his daughter’s lover with a troop of servants preparing for a wedding dinner in his kitchen, and going to take the soup kettle in which all his money is concealed. Padrig’s kitchen required no alteration to represent the miser’s, and no addition except the interment of a three-legged pot under the hearth stone. He had one of very antique shape, which he filled with pieces of tin and a few old copper medals, to represent the hoarded coin; and having placed it under the stone which served as his fire piace, Padrig went to his bed of chaff, little dreaming by whom the operation had been observed, and what was to follow.

The classic recitations of the next evening began by an interlude translated into Welch from the original Greek, which Padrig’s scholars could not yet compass: and he, acting at once as audience, prompter, chief Roscius, and stage-manager, came down to the door of his hut, which served on this occasion as a very suitable proscenium. According to the business of the drama, he sat wrapped in an old blanket folded round him in the style of Euripides, when a beggar of good height and very theatrical demeanor came over the ledge of the copse, exclaiming, in the genuine Greek, “Euripides! I am a distressed man, and need thy help to procure pity.” Padrig, enchanted and surprised by an actor so accomplished, but not doubting that the rector of St. David’s had sent his eldest son, as he had promised, to assist his theatricals, replied, in the language of Aristophanes, “Friend, thou hast need of no advocate more eloquent than thy scare-crow visage.”—“O Prince of Poets,” replied the stranger. “of what avail is misery unless suitably dressed?—give me thy rags in which thy Oedipus makes his appearance with such grand effect.”—All this being exactly in the business of the comedy, Padrig went into his hut, and brought forth a bundle of very genuine rags, which he gave with the air and speech assigned to Euripides. “But, master of the tragic art!” exclaimed the beggar—“I implore another boon—What would thy Oedipus himself have done without a basket?”—“Seest thou not that I am busy with a new tragedy?” said Euripides—“take that basket, and be gone.”—“Beneficent Euripides! of what import is a basket without picturesque contents? lend me the water-cresses which thy mother used to sell in our streets.” Euripides granted this boon also, and the petitioner finished his part of the farce by departing with his rags, basket and herbs, leaving Padrig to lament that all the learned of Wales were not present to own how well he had performed the wittiest satire composed by Aristophanes against his greatest rival.

The whiteheaded Welch striplings, who had gaped with great awe during the pompous Greek dialogue, were now called on to enact their parts in what they called the Howloluria of Plautus. All went on well till the last scene, when the pot was discovered under the hearth, and a great alteration in its weight appeared to have been made. But until the rehearsal was over, and Padrig uncovered his pot, intending to remove its copper contents and substitute a little broth for his supper, he did not perceive the wonderful transformation. All the pieces of tin and old medals had been removed, leaving in their stead more than eighty pieces of pure gold and silver! But what appeared most valuable in his eyes, was a quantity of medals of rare antiquity, and in exquisite preservation. He brooded over this prodigious treasure till daylight; and his simplicity, aided by his legendary learning, almost inclined him to believe it the gift of some second Merlin. In the morn he hastened to his neighbour, the good parish priest, and shewed him the prosperous pot of Plautus, specially pointing out a medal apparently of the days of Brenhim Oll, King of all Britain, and a series of coins from thence to Cadwallader. The reverend and learned man was deeply astonished at the whole adventure, particularly at the conduct of the stranger who had performed a part in the Greek interlude; and the schoolmaster was no less surprised when the vicar assured him that he knew nothing of the matter: that his son, whose aid had been promised, had been too much indisposed to recite his part, and had sent his excuse by an itinerant musician. Honest Padrig thought of his ancient romances, but the vicar saw mischief and danger lurking in his supposed good-fortune. The year 1688 had caused the removal of James II. and the agents of his cruelty or his folly were flying in all directions. The confusion, the intrigues, and the secret enmities of two parties suddenly changing places, were felt even in this remote district; and the friends of the Prince of Orange, scarcely yet proclaimed King of England, were starting from their former concealment to retaliate the hatred of their enemies. Therefore, the vicar of Padrig’s parish feared that the giver of the gold was some eminent fugitive, who had contrived to leave this recompense for the disguise which he had obtained by acting the part of the Greek poet’s mendicant. When the schoolmaster reflected on the singular fluency with which his unknown visitor had spoken a classic language, on the style of his features, which were evidently altered by art, and on the rich tokens left behind, he was of the same opinion; but his friend’s advice to keep the matter secret cost him some severe struggles. His gleeful heart ached with its fullness, and he could not forbear muttering hints of his good luck among his pupils, and sometimes taking his pot to the casement to inspect his treasures. The consequences were not slow in their coming.

There lived with Padrig under his roof, as a kind of inmate and assistant, a young man named Lisle, grandson of that unhappy lady whose misfortunes have a place in our history. She was widow of a man who had enjoyed Cromwell’s favour; and having fled, at the Restoration, was assassinated in Switzerland by three Irish ruffians, who hoped to obtain patronage by their crime. Lady Lisle was accused of sheltering two of Monmouth’s partisans after his defeat at Sedgemoor, and after a shameful trial was sentenced to death by Judge Jefferies, not withstanding the opinion three times expressed by the jury, in favour of her innocence. Her miserable descendant found a refuge in the bounty of the poor schoolmaster, who sheltered him from that year to the present, intending him for his successor, and calling him with harmless affectation of pomp his usher. Padrig could not conceal from Lisle, who had been absent on a journey when the adventure occurred, the contents of his iron pot, which still remained deposited under his hearth-stone. Lisle beheld it eagerly, and an evil spirit entered his thoughts. The Judges were expected in a few days to hold the county-sessions, and he might obtain this wealth, and perhaps court-patronage, by removing his benefactor. The means were easy. Padrig, in the simplicity of his heart, had often told that Jefferies, whose name has gained such dreadful immortality, had been, when an obscure boy of five years old, his favorite and most promising pupil. And being secretly proud that a chancellor and chief justice had sprung from his school, he had been often heard to say, that he could not believe Jefferies wholly without some good inclinations. Now it was strongly suspected that this distinguished culprit was endeavouring to make his escape from the Welch coast, and lurking about in disguise till he could find an opportunity. Lisle had shrewdness enough to see the possibility that he might have visited his old friend and tutor, and perhaps received aid from him. He yielded to temptation, and, rising at midnight, took the pot from its place of interment, and speeded his way to the inn where he knew one of the crown-lawyers had stopped to spend the night. Serjeant Beliasise was a politician too wary to miss any occasion of manifesting zeal to the new government. He heard the informer’s story, and was shewn the hoarding-pot, from which Lisle had taken all except the coins, medals, and a seal-ring, of which he did not know the value. “Fellow!” said the Serjeant, “this is not all. Bring the rest, or I shall know what to think of your information.” Lisle was taken by surprise, but he had to deal with a craftier and cooler politician than himself. Seeing that he hesitated, the crown-lawyer added, “You are yourself an accomplice in secreting a traitor. Show me the rest of the bribe, or my servants shall take you into custody.” The informer was taken in a trap he had not foreseen; and after a long demur, found himself forced to resign the pot, and all its contents to Serjeant Beliasise, who promised, upon this condition, to preserve him from all hazard, and ensure a due reward for his loyalty.

Not many hours after, Padrig was taken from his quiet abode, and lodged in the town gaol on a charge of high-treason. If any thing could have comforted him for the treachery of his adopted guest, it would have been the affectionate lamentation of his little flock of pupils, who followed him from the school he had ruled thirty years to his place of confinement, as if it had been a triumphal procession. Padrig’s story had become a subject of very general question, and those who knew the bent of public affairs had but little hope of his acquittal. Besides, the spirit of the new government was yet untried; and though Chief Justice Herbert and his colleagues were dispossessed of power, their successors might be equally blind and riotous in their new authority. The day of Padrig’s trial assembled a croud as anxious as any that ever filled a court, even in these times of sacrifice and peril. Had he been one of the five hermits once sanctified in Wales, he could not have been more respectfully greeted by the spectators, nor could his appearance have been more venerably simple. His long surcoat of brown camblet, belted round his waist, his leathern sandals, and the thick grey hair which fell on each side of his face down to his shoulders, shewing his broad forehead and large mild eye, gave him the aspect of a St. Kentigern, or of his favorite Hermit Mark, the chronicler of Wales. But the Judges were strangers, and the leading counsel of the crown a man new to his office, and to this remote district. His countenance promised little, for the abundant flow of his hair was even beyond the ordinary fashion of the times, and indicated more coxcombry than wisdom. The accused and accuser were both in court, and the murmur which would have attended the latter was hushed by fear. Few, very few, of Padig’s friends ventured to think of testifying in his favor, lest the friend of a fallen man should involve them in his danger. Padrig stood alone, left to Providence and innocence which he trusted, and his eye did not lose its firm fixture when the crown-lawyer rose. There was a pause of deep fear and expectation till he addressed the court.

“My lord, you have heard the indictment of this man—I have permitted it to be read, though the instructions in my hand are to withdraw the prosecution. I permitted it, I say, because it is fitting that they who dragged him to this bar, and the people who have held him in reverence till now, should be shewn to justice, and witness its dispensation. You have heard this grey-headed old man accused of abetting a refugee’s escape, because a few pieces of old gold have been found in his possession, and because he was once a teacher of grammar to Jefferies. You are surprised at the name. Who ever thought of befriending Jefferies? He has had his flatterers and his advocates when he sat on the bench as a chief justice and a chancellor, and held his sovereign’s commission with such men as Kirke, who instigated and besotted him. But he had no friends, and those who had not courage to remonstrate against his violence, will have enough now to show him the bitterness of his disgrace, when he is weak and desolate. No, my lord, in this land and in this year we need not be afraid to find places of refuge open to Jefferies: he has neither brother nor father, wife nor children—he has nothing here but enemies and hunters. If he was here, who is in this court that would not be ready to mock him now as much as they feared him once? They would bid him go and ask mercy from the woman whose brother perished before her eyes after she had sold herself to save him; or from the mother of that unhappy soldier whose speed was matched with a war horse’s. These things were done, not by Jefferies, but by men more wicked than he; yet which of these things is greater in cruelty than the accusation lodged to-day against a helpless old man by his guest and his pensioner! He is accused of sheltering a disgraced and proscribed judge because he loved him when a child. Would this be a fault, even if it was true? Perhaps he did not know the unfortunate man he befriended; and it is certain, by the public frankness of his communications, that he did not know the gold was attainted. These medals and this ring are known to have belonged once to Jefferies—but his motive for leaving them in Padrig’s house might have been a pure one. There must have been some good in his heart when he dared return to his first friend. It must have been punishment enough to return to that friend and that house poorer, more despised and wretched than he left it. Let us remember how high he stood, and from whence he fell. Those who sit in his place to-day will remember, that he fell because he judged too rashly, and did not think his King strong enough to afford mercy to his enemies. Let our first act be wiser than his. I might tear my brief, and close the prosecution, but I appeal to this court, and expect to hear the prisoner’s acquittal. And that you may be assured how little his accuser deserves belief, I am empowered to tell you, that Jefferies, that criminal whom he pretends was conveyed away by Padrig’s means, is at this very moment before his judges; and this paltry jar of coins, which tempted the accusation, was brought to me as a bribe to forward it. And if it had been so offered even to Jefferies, he would have thrown it back as I do.”

The pleader was answered by a half-stifled shout of applause. When be began to speak, his voice was low and hoarse, but as he advanced it became vigorous, and his eyes started from their dark hollows with the earnestness of eloquence. The new judges were touched by his appeal, and by the opportunity to gain favor by a popular verdict. Padrig was unanimously acquitted, and the jar of gold, which his unexpected advocate had thrown on the table of the court, was restored to him undiminished. His miserable accuser stole out of the people’s reach; but when he went to thank the public prosecutor for his lenity, he was no where to be found. The pleader had never been seen after he left the court; and a few hours having been spent in wonder, the real Serjeant Bellasise arrived, post-haste and in great trepidation, declaring that he had been detained by indisposition on the road. None of the judges knew him personally on this circuit, and they all agreed that none but Jefferies himself could have had audacity enough to personate him. Enquiries were made at the village inn, and they were informed that the person who called himself Bellasise had arrived there on horseback alone only a few minutes before the treacherous informer came to seek him. How he went from the town, or which way he travelled, was not very diligently traced by those who had heard his daring defence of an innocent man. Ever bold and eccentric, mingling great courage with enormous obstinacy, Jefferies had returned to London, expecting and truly judging that he would be least sought in the midst of his enemies. But by lingering too long in the street to hear music, of which he was passionately fond, he was discovered, and conveyed to the Tower. There he expiated some of his errors by a long imprisonment, and died with no consolation but the blessing of the poor schoolmaster of St. David’s. He chose the bottle for his executioner; and never had recourse to it without drinking health to the Judges of the Western Assizes in 1689.


The European Magazine, Vol. 77, April 1820 pp. 297-301