Today there were red coated soldiers marching around Bridgwater firing guns, wielding pikes and talking rebellion. As it happens it was the Sealed Knot society here to recreate the last battle (so far) on English Soil. The Battle of Sedgemoor is a tale of rebellion, defeat and the bloody justice handed out by a tyrannical monarch, but it’s legacy lingers to this day in our town.
In 1680 James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, toured the West Country. A bit of a 17th century glamour pin up, his procession through the rebel lands of Somerset appeared to be in open defiance of the actual King-his father Charles II. And then ,suddenly, but not surprisingly, in 1683 Monmouth was banished to Holland.
In the 1680’s England was mostly Protestant and when King Charles would die his brother James would take the throne as James II. Seen as more blatantly Catholic and potentially likely to restore the autocratic rule that the nation had fought a civil war to overthrow, this was an alarming prospect. For many the Duke of Monmouth-the son of ex king Charles 11 -although illegitimate -and nephew of his uncle (soon to be King) James, was the man for the job.
The backdrop to all this was the English Civil War of the 1640s which had led to an English Republic in the 1650s, but by the 1660s a ‘compromise’ settlement had resulted in the restoration of what was hoped would be a ‘constitutional’ monarchy. However, Charles II – son of the Royalist figurehead in the Civil War Charles I – now currently without a head – was not keen to see the people who had won the civil war and executed his father gain any ‘lasting’ influence. As a result the ‘constitutional’ nature of the restoration was in fact a system which excluded many non-conformist preachers, ‘corporation acts’ which prevented non-conformists from holding public office and a general limitation on the freedom to worship as people pleased. All this basically breached promises issued by King Charles II made at his Breda declaration which was basically a big con to make people think he’d be a good King.
Repression of Non-Conformists
This repression had a big effect on Puriton towns like Bridgwater and Taunton where non-conformist ministers were regularly jailed – although some continued to preach illegally. Rebellion was in the air and the cause was basically the lack of liberty of conscience combined with some blatant old fashioned persecution. It was quite common for attacks to be made on the local Puritons and in Bridgwater especially by high Tory landowner Lord Stawell of Cothelstone who was known for his penchant for burning down non conformist churches -and in his own media manipulation speak of the day of course he referred to these not as ‘dissenters’ but as ‘fanatics’ . On 7 July 1683 Stawell led his state sponsored gangsters on a massive attack on non conformist places of worship in Bridgwater, tore them to pieces and had a massive bonfire on the Cornhill.
Small industrial towns like Bridgwater and Taunton were radical and left leaning, which, in the 17th century, meant they were ‘Whig’. So naturally Whigs across the country were concerned that this would get worse if James II- an open Catholic – succeeded Charles – and so sought a legitimate successor, thereby got down to plotting to install the Duke of Monmouth. Whig policies were at the heart of the rebellion – freedom of conscience to worship, annual Parliaments, the balance of power in the Commons, judges subject to Parliament not King, town charters restored, parliamentary control of the army, the crown to be bestowed on who Parliament chooses and thereby controlling any potential return to feudal autocracy.
The ‘Old Cause’
This was ‘The old cause’ -which basically meant the ideals of the civil war and the fight against tyranny -defined in the religious terms of the day ‘ to restore liberty to the people of God for the worship of God’
On top of this there were underlying social causes for rebellion . The Somerset cloth industry suffered depression and this heightened tensions in areas which had a large amount of non-conformist weavers.
Monmouth was the obvious choice for figurehead -his personal appeal, he was 35, handsome, a military hero who looked good and who was on principle a good protestant. England was a protestant nation and should have a protestant King. It seemed obvious.Also…he was after all the King’s son-illegitimate or not
As a military hero, Monmouth had in fact put down the Scottish Covenanters rebellion at Bothwell Bridge in 1679 and had with him officers who would later feature at the Battle of Sedgemoor -Lord Grey and the Earl of Feversham
In February 1685 King Charles 11 died and shocked the nation by converting to Catholicism on his death bed. On April 23 James was crowned King at Westminster Abbey. The Whig plotters had to act quickly before the new King was legitimised
Monmouth was in Holland – a ‘the protestant duke’ in exile in an extremely protestant country. Initially he wasn’t that keen on the idea of a rebellion, but memories of his procession through the West Country led him to believe that the West would rise and that the Royal army would probably not actually fight. So, he decided to lead the rebellion and left Holland on 30 May on the ship Helderenberg and on 11 June landed with 82 men at Lyme Regis where the townsfolk greeted him as a liberator . In stark contrast to the the Town Mayor who immediately ran off to London to tell the King what had happened.
With his proclamation basically declaring war against James Duke of York -a ‘murderer, guided by popish counsels’ Monmouth was on the road to eternity one way or another.
Raising the Standard of Rebellion
Monmouth’s standard was raised declaring “Fear Nothing But God” and immediately 1,500 recruits from nearby towns flocked to his colours. These rebels were drawn to the standard of revolution by their own decision and not led by social superiors. They were mostly townspeople working in the cloth trade, weavers, combers, fullers, dyers, spinners. Poorly paid , intermittently at work but bolstered by the certainty that history was being made and they wanted to be part of it
Four regiments were formed and trained – Red (Wade), White (Foulkes) ,Green (Holmes), and Yellow (Matthews) . By the time they’d reached the Taunton and Bridgwater area a 5th -the Blue Regiment of Col Basset would be added. Numbers grew to almost 10,000 outstripping the issue of weapons and so some were Issued with billhooks and pitchforks when they ran out of pikes.
After a brief skirmish at Bridport the rebel army left for Axminster-where the local Militia fled in panic leaving their red uniforms strewn along the Chard road.
Marching through Chard to Ilminster picking up more recruits as they went, they arrived in Taunton on the 18th June. People greeted them wearing sprigs of Leveller Green -the symbol of the early socialists of the civil war period visibly pinning their colours to a clear support for religious and political freedom
27 schoolgirls from Miss Blakes school had made banners for Monmouth embroidered with the words ‘Jacobus Rex’ (James King) and on the Market Cross in Taunton Monmouth was declared King. On the same day in London he was declared a traitor -a crime for which there was only one punishment – and it wasn’t community service cleaning up the canal.
King James in London had immediately mobilised his forces and aimed to crush the rebellion at once. 2 days after landing he sent John Churchill (later the Duke of Marlborough and one of England’s most famous generals) and his cavalry west to shadow and harass Monmouth.
Monmouth arrives in Bridgwater
On 21 June -Monmouth arrived in Bridgwater where more provisions came from than from anywhere else. Lord Stawells militia immediately deserted the town and Whig Mayor, Alexander Popham, without question, proclaimed Monmouth King on the Cornhill.
On 22 June Monmouth reached Glastonbury and the weather changed…..as it still does round about this time every year…which is why they seem to think it’s a good time to hold a pop festival….
Heading for Bristol, Monmouth took the advice of Red Regiment commander Nathaniel Wade (who had a famous wine bar named after him in Bridgwater in the late 1970’s) and attempted to cross the River Avon via the Bridge at Keynsham. However, the attack failed and the Rebels learnt from Royalist prisoners that the Kings army had some 4,000 in the area, and so Monmouth had to alter his plans.
Abandoning his plans for a march on Bristol Monmouth headed for Wiltshire where he hoped to to gain recruits. As they approached Bath the Mayor slammed shut the cities gates and for good measure shot the Rebel messenger.
Not for lack of good reason was the city of Bath so confident in it’s loyalties to the King, for not far away was the bulk of the Royal army-now led by the Lord Feversham aka Louis Durras -a French nobleman. Churchill however was not happy with the new arrival –‘I see the trouble is mine but the honour will be anothers’ he noted.
Battle at Phillip’s Norton
Monmouth now positioned his force at Norton St Phillip on the main road from Bath to Frome in order to repel the arriving Royal army and at a short and bloody battle did indeed repulse the advance guard. 98 soldiers died in what is known today as ‘Bloody Lane’ – 18 were Monmouths and 80 were from the Royal army.
But the remainder of the Kings army was still arriving and so Monmouth opted to withdraw to Shepton Mallet where he was joined by a large force of Mendip lead miners. The Rebels then withdrew to Wells where they stripped the lead from the Cathedral roof to make bullets
Monmouth needed to make a stand but he also needed more men and so when he heard of 10,000 new recruits in the Bridgwater area he decided to head back there. During the Civil War the area had been known to suddenly raise large forces of ‘clubmen’ at short notice and this was what spurred him on
On 2nd July he camped at Pedwell on the moors to meet the ‘clubmen’ and inevitably only 160 turned up.
On 3rd July he hastily returned to Bridgwater and started to fortify it. With his army camped in Castlefield just outside the town along todays Wylds road he himself went for the luxury of the Castle
That same day the King’s army reached Somerton and the next day began to arrive on Sedgemoor to the South East of Bridgwater.
On Sunday 5th July Monmouth climbed the Tower at St Mary’s church to weigh up the situation.
He could see that Feversham had camped at Weston Zoyland, some 3 miles outside of Bridgwater with small outposts at Knowle Hill-covering the then Bristol road (now the Bath road A39) and at Burrowbridge, the next crossing of the River Parret. However, Monmouth was hatching a cunning plan. Noting the Kings force had but 1,900 foot and 700 horse whilst he himself had 4,000 troops including 600 horse he decided on a surprise attack, taking the Kings army in it’s vulnerable flank – directly across the moor (as the main A372 road to Bridgwater was quite strongly covered by all the Kings cannon) and having routed the Royalists would then head for Bristol again then up to the Midlands where more recruits would join him.
At 11pm the Rebels set off in 2 columns, 1 cavalry 1 infantry. Anyone making a noise was to be soundly knocked on head. Wade and his Red regiment led the way out of what is now Monmouth street along the Bath road, turning right at Bradney Lane, into Marsh Lane and Peasey Farm,sharpening their pikes on the walls of Chedzoy Church and then heading out into the misty moors at midnight.
Feversham in fact had gone to sleep in the local manor house – now long gone, but at the time just behind the old school house in Weston Zoyland, leaving John Churchill in command. Meanwhile the Rebels were getting closer.
Crossing the Langmoor Rhyne surprise was suddenly lost when a gunshot rang out and raised the alarm warning the Kings army. With still a mile to go to their destination, Monmouth now urgently sent forward his crack troops – the 600 horsemen of Lord Grey.
Battle was started shortly after midnight on Monday July 6th as Lord Grey’s cavalry failed to find a way across the Bussex Rhyne-a large ditch shielding the Royal army’s moorland flank and as they rode aimlessly left and right to find either of 2 bridges-known as ‘Plungeons’ the rapidly waking and forming up redcoats opened fire. Meanwhile Horseguard cavalry were covering the bridges and started to repel any Rebel cavalry that came near. In the confusion the Rebel horse turned and fled causing chaos in their own ranks as the Rebel Infantry arrived at the Rhyne
Monmouth deployed his 3 cannon which hit the nearby Dunbartons regiment of Scots on the Kings side. At this point the quick thinking Bishop Mews of Winchester took it on his own initiative to move the 17 Royal Cannons from the Bridgwater Road onto the other flank using his own coach horses and immediately this increase in heavy weaponry turned the tide of battle.
Monmouths army was within eyesight of the Kings army across the Bussex Rhyne but instead of advancing across what they assumed to be a formidable barrier, the Red and Yellow regiments instead formed up and simply exchanged volley after volley of musket fire with the Kings forces, which included the Coldstream Guards and the recently battle hardened Tangier Regiment of Kirkes Lambs.
In fact, the Bussex Rhyne was very shallow varying in depth from a metre to half a metre. In reality it was a small, but 8 metres wide , puddle.
For an hour and a half the 2 sides were within 80 paces of each other simply firing .
By 4am dawn had started to come up and as the Rebels began to realise their ammunition was running out and called for more, the King’s army now formed up and marched straight across the ditch with cavalry on both flanks attacking across the plungeons. The Rebel army broke and ran.
Defeat and Repression
Many Rebels were already back in Bridgwater and through the morning the Royalist troops were killing people in the ditches and amongst the Cornfields. The Mendip Miners paused at Penzoy Pound to cover the retreat which turned into a last stand.
By 7am Nathaniel Wade retreated to Bridgwater with the survivors from the battle but was quickly followed by Churchill and Kirke who took the towns surrender.
1,384 Rebels had died on the battlefield compared to some 200 casualties on the Kings side. Many Rebels had been brutally cut to pieces in the summer cornfields-as they ran for their lives.
Monmouth,Grey and a few senior Rebel officers spotted the Battle was lost and basically scarpered – first heading for the Mendips and then for the New Forest where Monmouth, trying to get a boat back to Holland, was found in a ditch near Ringwood disguised as a woman.
On the 15th July Monmouth was breathing his last in the Tower of London. An audience with the King (Uncle James) had totally failed. Monmouth had basically said sorry about being a rebel and stuff and even offered that he would convert to being a Catholic. But Uncle Jim was having none of it. Monmouths end was brutal. Sentencing to Execution by beheading was meant to be a quick and painless death for members of the Nobility . But these things were also big public spectacles with massive crowds turning out to watch, cakes and ale in great supply and fireworks at the end. On Tower Hill Monmouth met Jack Ketch his executioner for the day. Sadly, largely an incompetent oaf playing to the gallery. Imagine an episode of ‘I;m a celebrity get me out of here with real executions’ and presented by Chris Moyles. 5 blows of the axe had failed to remove Monmouth’s head. By blow 5 Ketch had made such a mess of it he offered 40 guineas of his own money for someone else to finish the job, and when nobody would, he resorted to his own flitting knife to complete it. Holding the head aloft the crowd fell unusually silent and not a cheer was uttered.
Meanwhile back in Somerset the ordinary rebel followers of the rebel duke were having an equally bad time. After the battle some 500 of them were thrown into the Weston Zoyland church.
The Royal army went on the rampage -some prisoners were hung without any semblance of a trial from trees across the moors and left to rot. Some 300 were executed in this way with a further 233 hung drawn and quartered later as was the punishment for treason
Col Percy Kirke -head of one royal infantry regiment – personally hanged 100 rebels without trial and was said to have made his band play in time to the twitching feet of the rebels as they died. An especial pantomime villain, Kirke famously promised to spare an innkeepers life if his daughter slept with him. She did yet in the morning she woke to find her fathers corpse hanging from the window
The Bloody Assizes
And it didn’t stop there. Judge Jeffreys, an especially unreasonable person, was sent down to give some semblance of a ‘Kings Justice’ to the 1,500 rebel prisoners. In fact he had no concept of fairness and saw his duty simply to champion the Kings cause and terrify the people out of any notion of future rebellion. The trials known as Bloody Assizes moved from Winchester to Salisbury, to Dorchester to Exeter and to Wells. At the Taunton Assizes, held at the Great Hall in the castle on 18-19 September, 144 were hanged.
Across the county the misery continued. 12 men were hanged on the same ‘Hang Cross Tree’ in Chard, at Shepton dozens of bodies adorned the Market cross, at Stawell’s own Cothelstone Manor on the Quantocks, Rebels were hung personally from his gatepost, and even the landing beach at Lyme was littered with gibbets of hanging Rebels
In Bridgwater 9 rebels were hanged, drawn and quartered on the Cornhill – Davis ,Francis, Guppy, Harman, Harris, Ingram, Moggridge, Stodgell and Trott. A further 3 Bridgwater rebels were simply hung George Condick, William Cooper and William Meade while 612 suffered Transportation as slaves to the West Indies. 9 of these were from Bridgwater – George Carrow, Thomas Dennis, William Drew, Henry Meyer, Robert Teape, William Tiverton, Joseph Vinicot, John Wall, and George Mihill
On 27th August -at 5 in afternoon-1686 – King James II visited the battlefield and became the last Monarch for 300 years to visit Bridgwater. No wonder the town has a history of anti-Royalism. No ruling Monarch ever visited the town again until our present Queen in the late 1980s. Immediatly after the battle the town had been occupied by Royalist soldiers – under Colonel Kirke no less, who personally stayed at the Swan Inn (6-7 Cornhill) It wasn’t until 29 September that year that the town petitioned for his dragoons to be finally removed from the town.
The Battle of Sedgemoor was the last battle fought on English soil and was part of a rebellion that very nearly succeeded. Bridgwater had risen too soon. In 1688 William of Orange arrived to raise a new rebellion and this time John Churchill-sent to defeat him – changed sides. William became king without a shot fired in England and James fled to Ireland and into the bloody mists of history.