How often do we really think about what is underneath our feet?
Down below a Dorchester shopping street lies a previously undiscovered link to the town’s dark and fascinating past.
I daresay on a visit to Antelope Walk in the county town many of us would have been more taken by the interesting array of independent shops and quaint little cafes.
It may take you by surprise to realise that the pretty little street was the scene of one of the most brutal exercises of justice on record.
I am talking about the Bloody Assizes of September 1685, where the renowned Judge Jeffreys – a name to strike fear into the hearts of many of his contemporaries – sentenced dozens of men to death and many more to transportation following the Monmouth Rebellion.
The Oak Room tea room is at first glance a charming little cafe, but in a previous life it actually served as a courtroom where the ruthless judge sat and sentenced so many souls to their tragic fate.
Now Antelope Walk caretaker Terry McGrath, tipped off by his predecessor Bob Clewett, has discovered the tunnel that ran from Judge Jeffreys’ lodgings in High West Street to court.
The tunnel was designed to be wide enough for three judges to walk side by side so Judge Jeffreys and his colleagues could pass about undetected as they carried out their brutal work more than 300 years ago.
Terry, who has a keen interest in archaeology, said: “This is the legendary tunnel where three judges could walk shoulder to shoulder. It just goes to show there is so much history here.”
The network of tunnels is also believed to connect to the town’s famous Old Crown Court and Cells, which are due to be redeveloped as a major tourist attraction.
Town councillor David Taylor said it was amazing to realise how much history was just underneath shoppers’ feet, and said it added to the unique offering the shops and businesses in Antelope Walk were able to provide.
The walk dates back to Roman times and the courtyard was the location for the old Roman mint.
Cllr Taylor said: “Antelope Walk is a key part of the history and heritage of Dorchester, going back to the Roman period and before.”
He added that he would like to see the tunnels opened up to give public access and celebrate another intriguing piece of Dorchester’s rich and sometimes dark history.
Cllr Taylor said: “I would love to see the whole thing opened up, it could be like the famous tunnels of Exeter that are a huge tourist attraction. It could benefit the whole of Dorchester and be another exciting experience that this county town offers.”
He said it also showed the importance of paying respect to the archaeology beneath the town when developing sites in other part of the town centre.
Cllr Taylor said: “It’s all about having empathy for the historical strata that has been left behind.
“Dorchester is famous for the fact that no stone is upturned without something of historical importance being connected with it.”
Dorchester town crier Alistair Chisholm said that the name Judge Jeffreys can still evoke fear and fascination in the heart of county town residents and is recognised throughout the world.
He said: “It’s surprisng 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.”
George Jeffreys, First Baron of Wem and Lord Chief Justice, became famous for the ruthless streak he displayed during the Bloody Assizes that followed the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685.
The Duke of Monmouth was executed after a failed attempt to overthrow the king and a series of trials were held across Winchester, Salisbury, Dorchester, Taunton and Wells to send a message to supporters of the rebels.
In Dorchester a total of 302 cases were heard with the 74 of the accused executed, 175 transported, nine fined or whipped and 54 discharged.
Some contemporaneous accounts attribute Judge Jeffreys’ bloodthirsty and merciless approach to the fact he was suffering from gall or kidney stones at the time.
Mr Chisholm said: “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 hanged the most people since William the Conqueror.”
Following the Bloody Assizes, Judge Jeffreys was made Lord Chancellor in recognition of his ‘many eminent and faithful services to the crown’.
However, after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when King James II fled to France, Jeffreys also attempted to escape but was captured in a pub after he was recognised by a survivor of the judicial system.
He was taken to the Tower of London where he died on April 16, 1689 from kidney disease at the age of 44.
The ghost of Judge Jeffreys is now said to haunt the Antelope courtyard.