Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:45 am
I had it in my head to visit the site of the Battle of Sedgemoor. There’s something about battlefields that I find morbidly fascinating. Partly, of course, battles are often nodal points in our story, and they therefore need to be understood in that context. There’s also the struggle of trying to comprehend why organised violence is seen as a sensible means of resolving differences, and the wonder of how people cope when subjected to so much uncertainty, brutality, chaos and fear. And it is always moving to stand at places where history was made, where our ancestors were and where events were at the extremity of the human experience. Anyway, the Memsahib and I were at the end of a travelling break, which had ended up in Somerset not far from the Sedgemoor battlefield. Would Mrs Britain mind, I casually enquired, popping in to see the battlefield memorial on the way home? It shouldn’t take long; look, you can see it just here on the map…
The Battle of Sedgemoor was fought in the early hours of 6 July 1685, just north of the village of Westonzoyland. Often said to be the last pitched battle on English soil at which Englishman faced Englishman, Sedgemoor was the apogee of the failed Monmouth Rebellion, when Protestant James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, attempted to replace his Catholic uncle, King James II (VII of Scotland). Monmouth was the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress, Lucy Walter. He married Anne Scott, the Countess of Buccleuch, and the couple were created the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. (The 10th Duke, Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott, born in 1954 and reputedly the largest landowner in the UK, is their descendant). Anyway, Charles II pampered his son, possibly unfairly encouraging ambitions, because, in the absence of a legitimate male heir, the lawful successor to the throne, supported by Charles himself, was his own brother, who became James II and VII when the king died in February 1685. Monmouth, in exile in Holland, was persuaded by the anti-Catholic faction to launch a rebellion in the West Country to coincide with a landing by the Presbyterian Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, in Scotland. Accordingly, and at some considerable personal expense, Monmouth gathered modest forces in three ships and landed his 80-strong army and 4 cannon, unopposed, in Lyme Regis on 11 June. There, he set about gathering local support.
The village of Westonzoyland lies on the A372, crosses the M5 near Bridgwater and, arguably, lay on the route we needed to take. The trouble with spontaneous excursions (and I’m planning more of these) is that you invariably lack two essentials: a little essential background information and a decent map – preferably the relevant Ordnance Survey. As the military mantra says, ‘proper planning prevents p**s poor performance’; which in the circumstances of tracking down a battle, was somewhat ironic. Internet access can be useful too; but having nothing except a 3 miles to the inch roadmap and a hazy memory to go on was certainly far from ideal. So we drove through the straggling village of Westonzoyland, vainly looking for signs which said, ‘this way to the Battle of Sedgemoor (please bring your own musket)’. Astonishingly, particularly given the early hour, the car gravitated toward the ivy and wisteria festooned Sedgemoor Inn which, in addition to advertising its Sunday carvery and a Rod Stewart tribute act (how appropriate), had a splendid pub sign depicting the battle, the opposing commanders – James, Duke of Monmouth and Louis de Duras, Earl of Feversham – and associated events. Look away now if you didn’t already know about Monmouth’s surprise night attack, his capture, subsequent bodged execution and the generally terrible treatment subsequently meted out to the rebels. Mentally noting the pub for the future (who doesn’t enjoy a Rod Stewart tribute?), we continued with our quest and found several important clues on an information board cleverly hidden in full view in the centre of the village.
News of Monmouth’s invasion was swiftly sent to the King in London, who dispatched Lord Churchill (later the Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of Winston) to keep an eye on the rebels. Meanwhile, Monmouth, apparently a pleasant, good-looking, chap, though inclined to despair and indecision (at least, I think he was), set off on what looks like an aimless tour of south west England. On 14 June, the rebels came up against the Dorset militia in Bridport, who seemed to have had little difficulty in seeing them off. Next day, Monmouth, by now leading a force of about 3,000, set off for Axminster, where many of the Somerset militia deserted to his cause. In Taunton on 18 June, crowds declared Monmouth King of England, and he was enthusiastically welcomed at Bridgwater on 21 June, by which time almost 8,000 had been gathered to the rebel cause. The insurgents then meandered toward Bristol. Bristol was vulnerable, and could possibly have been taken; but Monmouth turned back. A herald sent to encourage Bath to surrender was killed. At the village of Philips Norton, Monmouth came up against the Royalist Army, under the command of the French-born Earl of Feversham – and the better-trained Royalists surprisingly came off worse in the skirmish. Some of those killed were later found in the cornfields when harvest time came round. Monmouth proceeded to Frome on 28 June, reaching Shepton Mallet on 30th. It was at about this time that news of the failure of the Earl of Argyll’s Scottish venture arrived; the Earl was beheaded in Edinburgh on 30 June. The promise of a Royal pardon encouraged some desertion from Monmouth’s rebel ranks, though this might also have been influenced by a bout of ducal melancholy. Still, the remaining rebels made their way back to Bridgwater, apparently pinching lead to make musket balls from the roof of Wells’ Cathedral as they went. Feversham gathered the Royalist forces and marched to the same area. It seems that Monmouth, wary of engaging the King’s better organised army in open battle, intended to head north to join up with other supporters. But, when learning of his enemy’s deployment north of Westonzoyland, the Duke perceived a possible opportunity.
A short drive through the backstreets behind downtown Westonzoyland found us close to Bussex Farm, where there was a gravel area large enough for a couple of cars to be left. Parking up, I left Mrs Britain happily settled with a magazine (she’s not really into battlefield monuments), instructed her to lock the doors lest there be any rebel ghosts about, and set off with my camera. This part of Somerset is known as the Levels, an area of carefully managed natural wetland. Helping to drain the often boggy moorland are ditches, known locally as rhines, which can be formidable obstacles, even in dry weather, passable via crossing places known as plungeons. It can be a beautiful area in the right circumstances. But I must say that, trudging along the path toward the Sedgemoor battle memorial, I looked over the flat, featureless, soggy countryside and thought what a dismal place it was to have a fight in; and an even more dismal place in which to die.
Monmouth conceived a bold plan – a secret night attack. With the help of a local guide, Benjamin Godfrey, his army would skirt around Feversham’s forces and attack from the north. Relying on the Royalist cavalry being quartered a distance away in Westonzoyland village, the rebel cavalry would neutralise the Royalist guns and the infantry would attack the Royalist infantry in close combat before the more professional troops could be formed up, and before the King’s cavalry could respond. Every account I’ve read says the same thing: a night attack, even with well-trained, disciplined, troops, is high risk. Another military saying that springs to mind: ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’.
The rebel army left Bridgwater late on the night of Sunday 5 July. Silence was critical: gun carriage axels were greased, horse hooves muffled with rags – and a couple of accounts even say that anyone making a noise was to be stabbed by his neighbour. I can’t help thinking that knife wounds often make people cry out. Anyway, somehow about 3,000 infantrymen and 800 horse made their way across the dark countryside without disturbing anyone, or being challenged by royalist patrols. Even with comrades all around you, imagine what this must have been like; the before battle apprehension, the strain of stifling any noise, peering into the night where every shape triggers a primeval fear. Despite initially being unable to find the crossing place over a large rhine, the rebels were doing so well – until a pistol shot rang out. This was undoubtedly a Royalist scout, who ran back to camp shouting “Beat your drums, the enemy is come! For Lord’s sake, beat your drums!” It was about 2am.
I found the memorial to the Battle of Sedgemoor a little way along a track known as Langmoor Drove. It is a very simple, actually unimpressive monument, flanked by four staddle stones which commemorate other major British engagements: Plassey, Quebec, Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Great War. The monument is located where the fighting was fiercest. Not far away, apparently, is a mass grave. Flies buzzed around; it was an overcast day, but warm and humid. No one else was about. A little thoughtfully, I walked back to the car and the long drive home.
After the alarm was raised, the rebel cavalry was launched to the attack; but horsemen and horses that were not battle-trained were no match the by-now alerted Royalists. Most of the rebel cavalry fled the field. Feversham and his infantry commander, Churchill, manoeuvred men and guns to box in and meet the threat of the rebel footsoldiers – many of whom shot high or were peasants equipped with farm implements – and then the royal cavalry was brought to bear. Though the Royalist force of around 2,600 was outnumbered by about 1,000, Monmouth’s largely amateur army was out-fought by the disciplined regulars. Monmouth fled the field, his Pitchfork Rebellion utterly defeated. The battle lasted about three hours. It is estimated that royal losses were some 80 dead, with the rebels losing more than 1,000. Most of those were cut down in the pursuit that followed the battle. Around 500 prisoners, many of them wounded, were held overnight in Westonzoyland church. Several of those were summarily hanged the following day.
Later that year, hundreds of Monmouth’s followers were sent to trial at the so-called ‘Bloody Assizes’ under the stewardship of the infamous Judge Jeffreys. Hundreds were subsequently hanged, or hanged, drawn and quartered, their remains publicly displayed, and hundreds more were deported to the West Indies.
Monmouth was captured on 8 July, exhausted and hungry, dressed as a peasant hiding in a ditch near Ringwood. Uncle James granted him an audience, but was deaf to any pleas for clemency and his nephew was duly executed for treason on Tower Hill on 15 July. None of this hanging about for years on death row in the 17th century. All the best gruesome accounts say the execution was bungled, that executioner Jack Ketch’s five or more swipes of the axe failed to take off the poor man’s head, and that the job had to be completed with a knife. A further, apocryphal, tale is that Monmouth’s portrait had to be painted after death, because he had neglected to have it done in life.
In 1689, Catholic James II (or VII) was deposed in Protestant coup d’état known to history as the Glorious Revolution.