1609 - 1676 

The Trial Judge

Lord Chief Justice of England, he was born at Alderley in Gloucestershire, England, on 1st November 1609, the only son of Robert Hale and Joan Poyntz.  Orphaned in 1614, he was placed in the guardianship of an uncle and raised as a strict Puritan. 

He entered Magdalen Hall Oxford in 1626, but chose law as a profession and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1628. Hale was called to the bar on 17 May 1636 and proved to be an able and proficient lawyer who, despite his Puritan up-bringing, remained unpartisan during the English Civil War acting on behalf of Parliamentarians and Royalists alike.

In the early 1640s, he married Anne Moore, the daughter of Sir Henry Moore, bt. The Moores were staunch Royalists who lived at Fawley in Berkshire.

1652 saw his appointment by Parliament to head a commission whose task it was to examine and reform the English legal system.  On 30 January 1653, he became a judge in the Court of Common Pleas and, as such, began to ride the assize circuits dealing, with both civil and criminal cases.  In November 1655 Parliament appointed him to be a member of the newly formed “Committee on Trade” which was set-up to regulate and improve commerce.

At the Kent Summer Assize in 1658, Hale presided over the trial of three “witches” one of whom, Judith Sawkins, was sentenced to death and hanged. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, he refused to serve as a judge under his son Richard and he retired into private life until the Restoration two years later. That same year, as one of the Burgesses for the University of Oxford, he was elected to serve as a Member of Parliament, and the following year he wrote A Discourse Touching Provisions for the Poor (published 1684).  In this he pointed out the defects in the English Poor Law system.

Early in 1660, as a knight of the shire of Gloucester, Hale was returned to Parliament and, upon the Restoration of King Charles II, he was one of the thirty-seven judges nominated to try the regicides responsible for the execution of Charles’ father eleven years earlier. In November that same year, the King elevated Hale to the rank of Chief Baron of the Exchequer and he reluctantly accepted the knighthood that accompanied his new position.

Four years after the trial of Amy and Rose, he tried two more women for the same crime at Lancaster, one of whom was also executed. Although Hale, who believed in witchcraft, was responsible for the deaths of at least four women for that alleged crime, he is known for his religious tolerance and understanding.  He is also renowned as a kind, human and compassionate jurist who, on one occasion, only seven months before the trial of the Lowestoft witches, paused and listened to the pitiful pleas of John Bunyan’s wife for the release of her husband from Bedford gaol.

In 1667, after the Great Fire of London, a Court of Fire Judges was set up under an Act of Parliament drafted by Hale.  The court’s purpose was to facilitate the rebuilding of the city and Hale played an important role in this. That year, after his second marriage, Hale moved to Acton and set up home there.  It was here he met and struck up a long lasting friendship with Richard Baxter, the outspoken puritan divine and author of Certainty of the World of Spirits (1691).

Four years later Hale was appointed Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, a position which he held until February 1676, when he retired due to ill health.  He died peacefully on Christmas Day that same year and was buried on 4th January 1677 in Alderley churchyard.

He wrote many books and tracts but none were published until after his death. His writings place him among some the outstanding critical thinkers in the history of English common law.

Hale is best known for his scholarly works on criminal law, including Pleas of the Crown (1678) and his History of the Pleas of the Crown (2 vol., 1736–39) remains an important work on the common law of criminal offences. His History of the Common Law of England (1713) was a pioneer work.

Sir Matthew hale


Richard Baxter, the puritan divine.  A good friend of Sir Matthew Hale and to whom Hale left all his papers and writings when he died.  Baxter was a firm believer in the existence of witches and witchcraft, and in his book "The Certainty of the World of Spirits" (1691) he makes specific reference to the trial of the Lowestoft witches.