9 – Monmouth Rebellion, 1685
Religious disagreements and economic concerns were beginning to take hold as a major motivator of conflict in England, but that isn’t to say that the British monarchy had forgotten about its long-standing love affair with the succession crisis. In fact, they were just learning how they might combine the three of them.
Charles II had been restored to the throne in 1660 after the brief period during the English Civil War in which England was a republic, but he had no legitimate issue and it thus fell to his brother, James II, to take over as King of England. This caused major uproar, as James II was already King of Scotland and also a Roman Catholic. One of the major narratives in the English Civil War had been the tensions between the largely Puritan (and therefore virulently anti-Catholic) commoners who had fought for the Parliamentarians and the Anglican monarchy, which many on the Puritan side considered little more than thinly-veiled Catholics. The Monarchy may have been restored after Cromwell’s death but they were still far from popular in many quarters, and particularly in those with strong Protestant tendencies.
On James’ accession to the throne in 1685, many in the staunchly Protestant south-west of England coalesced around the other candidate to the throne, Charles II’s only son, the Duke of Monmouth. He was ineligible to suceed his father as he had been born out of wedlock while the future Charles II had been in exile in the Netherlands. The Duke fitted the bill perfectly: he was a Protestant and had been raised in Holland, one of the most Protestant countries in the world, while also having a direct link to the previous King. Moreover, he was an experienced military leader, having commanded troops in two Anglo-Dutch Wars, and was popular with the local public, having toured the South West of England to great acclaim in 1680.
Monmouth was proclaimed King in June and soon commanded a force of around 6,000 men. They advanced through Cornwall and Devon, reaching as far as the city of Bath, before turning round rather than face battle with the King’s forces. A similar revolt had been organised in Scotland to coincide with the Monmouth Rebellion, but when news of its failure reached the South West, morale plummetted.
King James sent out troops to face down the rebels and, at the Battle of Sedgemoor, they would meet. Monmouth found his troops, though more numerous than those of the King, to be far less experienced and well-trained. Monmouth’s forces were predominantly peasants armed with pitchforks and farm equipment and were no match for a regular standing army with guns and armour. They were routed at Sedgemoor, suffering over 1,300 killed to just 200 on the other side.
Of those who survived, 320 were executed for their part in the uprising, most by being hanged, drawn and quartered. A further 750 were transported to the colonies – in this case the Caribbean. Monmouth himself managed to survive the battle and flee unharmed, but was eventually captured and taken to the Tower of London. He was beheaded – high-ranking nobles were rarely subjected to the brutal treatment that regular treasonous types incurred – and reports claim that it took the executioner a full eight blows to remove his head.