Lord Chief Justice of England
Born c.1623 Died 1683
Sir William Scroggs was the son of a butcher of sufficient means to give his son a university education. Scroggs 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. 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, his advancement being due to his unfailing readiness to degrade the administration of justice to serve the purposes of the court. He was a man of debauched life and coarse and violent manners; and these qualities were conspicuous in his demeanour on the bench.
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 indecent sarcasm and abuse while on their trial, and taunting them with savage mockery when sentencing them to death. He may at first have been a sincere believer in the existence of a plot; if so he showed himself not less gullible than the ignorant multitude out of doors; at all events he did nothing to test the credibility of such perjured witnesses as Oates, Bedloe and Dangerfield. At the trial in February 1679 of the prisoners accused of the murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey he gave a characteristic exhibition of his methods, indulging in a vituperative tirade against the Roman Catholic religion, and loudly proclaiming his satisfaction in the guilt of the accused.
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, and warned the jury to be careful in accepting their evidence.
This change of front inflamed public opinion against Scroggs, for the popular belief in the plot was still undiminished. Scroggs, however, was no less violent than before against 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; but 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. 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 bad 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 the 25th of October 1683.
Scroggs was perhaps the worst of the judges who disgraced the English bench at a period when it had sunk to the lowest degradation; and although his infamy is less notorious than that of Jeffreys, his character exhibited fewer redeeming features. 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. He was the subject of many contemporary satires.
See W. Cobbett, Complete Collection of State Trials (vols. i.-x. of State Trials, 33 vols., London, 1809); Roger North, Life of Lord Guilford, etc, edited by A. Jessopp (3 vols., London, 1890), and Examen (London, 1740); Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Relation of State Affairs, 1678-1714 (6 vols., Oxford, 1857); Anthony a Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, edited by P. Bliss (4 vols.. London, 1813-1820); Correspondence of the Family of Hatton, edited by E. M. Thompson (2 vols., Camden Society. 22, 23, London, 1878); Lord Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices of England (3 vols., London, 1849-1857); Edward Foss, The Judges of England (9 vols., London, 1848-1864); Sir J. F. Stephen, History of the Criminal Law of England (3 vols., London, 1883); Henry B. Irving, Life of Judge Jeffreys (London, 1898). (R.J.M.)
Being the entry for SCROGGS, SIR WILLIAM in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.