Not quite ten kilometres to the west-north-west of Bicester in Oxfordshire lies the sleepy village of Steeple Aston. In the church of St Peter & St Paul can be found an imposing monument of marble to one of the early Eighteenth century’s notorious “hanging judges”.
Francis Page, the son of a country parson, was born in either late 1660 or early 1661 in the parish of Bloxham in Oxfordshire. He married first Isabella White in 1685 and, after her death, Frances Wheate (c.1689-1730) in 1705.
He entered the legal profession and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1685 and was subsequently called to the bar in 1690. His career developed slowly but he became well known in 1705 when he was involved in the famous case of Ashby vs White, engaged as one of the four lawyers of Thomas Wharton, fifth Baron Wharton.
Page was elected to parliament for Huntingdon in 1708. In November 1714 he was made Serjeant-at-Law and by January of 1715 he had been knighted. A week later he was made King’s-Serjeant.
In 1718 he was raised to the judicial bench. It was from this time on that he began to gain a reputation as a brutal judge. Through his treatment of the poet Richard Savage, arrested for the murder of James Sinclair in a drunken quarrel in 1727, he gained the ire of, among others, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. Pope and Johnson, and later Savage himself, denounced Page in their works. Pope wrote in his Imitations of Horace:
Slander or poison dread from Delia’s rage
Hard words or hanging if your judge be Page
There is, however, evidence that Page was no worse than other judges of his time. His bad reputation seems to have been mainly acquired through making an enemy of the literati of his day.
Richard Duckworth, the late 17th century rector of Steeple Aston church partly rebuilt the chancel in 1686, apparently using stone from the mediaeval chapel on the chancel’s north side. In doing this the chapel was left open to the elements and was blocked off from the chancel by a partition. In 1723 Sir Francis took over the ruined chapel and created a family mausoleum. He installed a monument to himself and his second wife after she died in 1730.
The monument to Sir Francis Page and Frances his wife stands against the north wall of the north chapel. It was commissioned from the sculptor Henry Scheemakers in 1730 and is of outstanding quality. The composition is of light and dark grey and white marble. The judge lies semi-reclining above and behind his wife. He is dressed in full legal robes and wears a wig. She lies propped up on a pillow and holds an open book. The effigies lie on a gadrooned tomb chest. Behind them is a dark grey obelisk. The whole is set in an architectural framework with Corinthian columns surmounted by a broken pediment with urns and top achievement.
Sir Francis Page died at his home in Middle Aston on the 19th of December 1741 and was buried in the family vault at Steeple Aston on the 29th of December.