In the struggle for the succession of the English throne in the late seventeenth century, there is one incident that deserves especial mention – the Monmouth Rebellion.
|James Scott, Duke of Monmouth|
King Charles II was married to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese Catholic Princess, who had miscarried three times and was unable to bear children. But the licentious Charles had numerous affairs and had illegitimate children by his many mistresses. When Charles died, in 1685, the crown passed to his younger brother James, Duke of York, who became King James II. Many Protestants opposed this, as James was a Catholic, and one of Charles’s illegitimate sons, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, felt that he was the rightful heir to his father’s crown. So, on the morning of June 11th 1685 (old style, more of this another day) the frigate Helderenbergh and two smaller vessels appeared off the shore of Lyme Regis, Monmouth and eighty-two armed supporters came ashore, and Monmouth read a declaration in the market square.
Bishop Burnet’s History of his Own Times (1724) describes it thus:
“The Duke of Monmouth's Manifesto was long, and ill penned: full of much black and dull malice. It was plainly Ferguson’s style, which was both tedious and fulsome. It charged the King with the burning of London, the Popish Plot, Godfrey’s murder, and the Earl of Essex's death: And to crown all, it was pretended, that the late King was poisoned by his orders.” [Robert Ferguson was a Scottish pamphleteer, known as ‘The Plotter’].
But Monmouth was astonishingly popular in the West Country. Men flocked from the surrounding countryside and rallied under his blue standard, and arms and provisions were unloaded from the three ships, including swords, muskets, armour, gunpowder and four pieces of light artillery.
|King James II|
News of the invasion reached the King in London at four o’clock on the morning of June 13th, and when Monmouth’s Declaration reached the King two days later, he ordered it to be publicly burnt by the common hangman. Militia were despatched to intercept Monmouth’s forces, although none at the time knew where he intended to lead them, (there were rumours he was heading north, some said to Scotland, others said to Lancashire). On June 14th a body of about five hundred men marched towards Bridport, where they met a county militia composed mostly of farm-workers led by country squires and barristers.
When action was joined, Lord Grey panicked and rode his cavalry back to Lyme, whilst Nathaniel Wade rallied the foot soldiers and withdrew in good order. The next day, Monmouth led his army of about 2,000 infantry and 300 cavalry towards Axminster, where the Duke of Albemarle, alarmed by musketeers lining the laneside hedges and the field artillery pieces, and fearing that his Devonshire militia would desert in favour of Monmouth’s popular local appeal, ordered a retreat. Monmouth did not pursue them – if he had, he may have taken Exeter without the need for arms, but he preferred instead to train his new, raw recruits, consolidate his slight gain, and await support from Cheshire. He turned toward Taunton, where he was met with joy and affection.
|The Popular Appeal of Monmouth|
Windows were decked with flowers, men wore green boughs in their hats as emblems of support and a train of young girls welcomed him. Agricultural labourers, shopkeepers, dissenting clergymen and apprentices flocked to Monmouth’s cause but no members of Parliament, peers, knights or baronets were to be seen, so Ferguson, his ‘evil angel’, pointed out that either he was the King or his uncle was King. If Monmouth declared himself, the rebellion would be a fight between two rival princes and the nobles would align themselves to either side accordingly.
And so, on June 20th 1685, at Taunton, he was crowned King – and to avoid the confusion of having two rival Kings both called James, he was designated King Monmouth, although the other side called him ‘Gaffer Scott with his vagabonds’. On the following day, the new King and his army marched to Bridgwater, where he was again proclaimed King. His army was now swelled to about six thousand and would have been double that if they had sufficient arms; as it was, many men had fashioned their own weapons from scythe blades attached to poles.
|Scythes on poles|
All the while, the government forces were assembling. Albemarle still commanded the Dorsetshire militia to the northwest, whilst in the east the trainbands of Wiltshire assembled. Henry Somerset, Duke of Somerset, was in arms to the southeast, a noble man of the old sort, an old style cavalier who every day provided nine tables of food for his two hundred tenants, whose kitchen, cellar, stables and kennels were famous throughout the realm, who was generous, affable and well loved by his family and neighbours, and commanded a troop of cavalry of his own. In Oxford, undergraduates removed their gowns and queued to sign to the government cause. In Lyme Regis, the Royal Navy captured Monmouth’s ships, making escape impossible. Across the south, men took up pikes and muskets and swords, and gathered around the surrounded insurrection in Somerset. Monmouth wandered, seemingly interested only in gathering men from the local market towns, in Glastonbury, Street, Frome, Wells and Shepton Mallet.
|Map of Monmouth's movements (Sedgemoor marked in red)|
He wasn’t helped by the typical English summer weather – torrential rain fell for days and turned the tracks into quagmires. His heart failed him and he seriously considered slipping quietly away to the continent, to the consternation of his advisors, who begged him to stay. Lord Grey, in particular, was vociferous in his demands and exhortations, but then again Grey was conspicuously brave whenever pistols weren’t being fired or swords weren’t being clashed in his immediate vicinity.
A slight skirmish with a scouting party convinced Monmouth of the need to return to Bridgwater where, he heard, more armed men awaited him. He went via Wells, where his men tore lead from the cathedral roof, with which to make musket balls, and to their shame defaced the ornaments of the great building. They arrived back in Bridgwater on July 2nd, to much less acclaim than their previous visit, just ten days before.
Three days later, the King’s forces came into view, advancing from the east, two and a half thousand regular men and five hundred Wiltshire militiamen, they pitched their tents on the vast peat plain of Sedgemoor.
Tomorrow - Sedgemoor ...