Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Nocturnal Navigation of the Sedgemoor Sloughs

                                Monmouth made plans to depart, making for Keynsham and thence to the Severn, where he would cross and then destroy the bridge, using the river to guard his right flank as he advanced north into Cheshire, where friends were waiting. Mr William Sparke, a Monmouth sympathiser viewed the King’s forces from the church tower of Weston, and sent his servant, Richard Godfrey, to inform Monmouth of their numbers and positions. Godfrey reported to Monmouth in Bridgwater, and from the spire of the church there, said to be the tallest in Somerset, the forces ranged against him were pointed out on the vast, dismal levels. 

Bridgport Church Spire

Two thousand foot were at Penzoy-pound, in Zog, under Weston Zoyland, where a further five hundred horse were camped. There were more militia at Middlezoy and Othery, with the artillery ranged alongside the Bridgwater road. Monmouth’s council advised him that the King’s forces could be attacked to advantage provided they were not intrenched; Richard Godfrey, the local, went out to spy, returned with the news that the King’s men were not intrenched and was paid a guinea. If the artillery were avoided, Monmouth could strike in the night, so a strategy was made to advance across Sedgemoor, but in his path lay three rhines or ditches, including a great rhine (the word rhymes with ‘seen’). This rhine no longer exists, and should not be confused with the later Bussex-rhine or the much broader Sedgemoor Drain or 'cut'; it contained no more than two feet of water but the mud at the bottom was deep enough to cover a man. 

The Duke of Monmouth

Country folk brought news that Lord Feversham’s men were drinking the local cider and going to their beds over in Weston, so at seven in the evening of July 5th Monmouth’s men rendezvoused on Castle-field in the east side of the town. The King’s officers and men may well have been drunk on scrumpy, but many of Monmouth’s men were also half-cut when they left Bridgwater that evening. At about 11 pm on Sunday July 5th, Monmouth marched at the head of his men into the narrow Somerset lanes, making for the village of Weston. 

The Duke of Monmouth

At Peasy Farm, on the Axbridge road, Monmouth left his forty-two baggage wagons, with a light guard, and turned into the Northmoor. Godfrey, the manservant turned spy, who had guided them through the lanes became indispensable on the open moor, leading them to the ford (also locally called a plungeon or steaning) over the Black Ditch, on to the Langmoor rhine, where in the darkness and fog Godfrey missed the crossing, leading to delay and confusion. The long, narrow, straggling column on the moor made its way forward, to within a mile of the King’s forces and divided into two, with foot soldiers on the left and cavalry on the right; it was, as yet, undiscovered. 

The Battle of Sedgemoor

No one knows for sure what happened next. Some say an officer, feeling he had been passed over for advancement, deliberately fired a pistol; others say a musketeer stumbled in the dark and discharged his weapon by accident. Either way, the alarm was raised and the King’s men were roused. Lord Grey started forward with the cavalry, but his advance was checked by the last great rhine, and he was challenged by sentries. The royal troops fired into the rebel horsemen, scattering them and driving them back; these were, it should be remembered, local volunteers, farm labourers and so forth, mounted on farm horses, both unused to warfare and armed combat. It is no surprise they were routed. 

The Battle of Sedgemoor

The Kings Guards and the Blues rode in at speed from Weston and scattered the insurgents. As they rode back, they spread fear and panic amongst the foot soldiers following them, who also began to retreat, taking the ammunition wains and baggage train with them. Monmouth brought his column of foot forward to the edge of the unexpected rhine, formed them up and began to fire on the King’s regiments on the opposite bank, but again, his men were untrained countrymen who tended to fire high. The King’s men, in contrast, were regular soldiers, disciplined and used to following orders; his cavalry were veterans and knew how to fight on horseback. John Churchill, later to become the famous Duke of Marlborough, commanded his infantry to great effect, and adding greatly to the distress of Monmouth’s raw men. The King’s artillery were brought up and caused even further damage and as dawn began to break, 

The Defeat of the Rebels

Monmouth could see that his plans had gone awry. His men ran in panic, crying for ammunition that was no longer to be had, leaping the ditches and fleeing into the moorland. The royal troops and horsemen pursued them, and whereas three hundred of Monmouth’s men had been killed in the battle, one thousand were slaughtered in the following pursuit, mainly in the ditches and a cornfield beyond, with another twelve hundred taken prisoner.  Monmouth’s original force had been numbered between four and six thousand, depending on differing reports; the King’s army had been about half that, but their better discipline and experience was invaluable and that, together with Monmouth losing the element of surprise, gained them the day – they lost only about two hundred of their number.

Throughout the day, the King’s men savagely ran down the fleeing rebels, into Bridgwater town where many were killed in the streets, others taken and slain on the roads and in the lanes. Locals were pressed into digging a great pit, in which the dead and the nearly dead were stacked and buried. Gibbets were set up along the road between Bridgwater and Weston and men hanged on each, some left to rot in chains, some quartered and put on spikes.

The Battle of Sedgemoor was the last battle to be fought on English soil. There are some other skirmishes and sieges which are claimed to be the last, but these are not really to be taken as serious claims. The last pitched battle between opposing armies in England was Sedgemoor.

Tomorrow - The fate of Monmouth ...

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