Anyone who could count could have predicted that the Monmouth Rebellion was ill fated. When James, Duke of Monmouth, sailed into the Harbour at Lyme on 11 June 1685, his invasion force consisted of just 83 men and three ships, two of which were fishing vessels.
And it was not just the smallness of his army that foretold doom. From the beginning, the Duke’s movements in Amsterdam, where he was living in exile, were closely monitored. English agents watched his ships being loaded with guns, ammunition and uniforms for his voyage across the Channel.
Monmouth believed he should be the lawful king. When, earlier in the year, Charles II died he left no legitimate children. Monmouth was his illegitimate son, but the throne had gone to Charles’s brother, James II. James was Catholic, and was hated by many Englishmen both for that and for his cruel personality. Monmouth had the advantage of being a Protestant.
Monmouth knew he would be unable sail straight to London with such a small a force, because James II maintained a standing army. The Duke chose Lyme because the West Country was a major centre of dissent. Here non-conformists-Quakers, Baptists, Puritans, Congregationalists felt persecuted, and the Duke promised freedom of worship. During a reconnaissance trip to the West Country five years earlier, Monmouth had been well received, and he was confident that many would rally to the Protestant cause. Indeed, within four days of landing, as many as 3,000 farm workers, artisans, and yeoman joined his army.
Monmouth remained in Lyme for four days, making his headquarters at the now defunct George Inn on Coombe Street. During this time, a raiding party marched to Bridport under the leadership of his right-hand man Lord Grey. Grey fled, but his men took the town anyway.
On 18 June Taunton gave Monmouth a jubilant reception and a large number of recruits signed on. He also declared himself King, a move many believed was premature. They had hoped he would leave the decision to Parliament. The rebels moved on to Bridgwater, where they were well received by the mayor.
From here Monmouth’s luck started to run out. He had planned to take Bristol but his council voted against it for various reasons. At Frome he received the bad news that the rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyll had met with disaster. Argyll was captured and hastily executed. Monmouth had also relied on uprisings in Cheshire and East Anglia, but they failed to materialise. Monmouth’s men began to desert, and he became depressed and lethargic. He even considered abandoning his army, but Lord Grey persuaded him not to.
Monmouth’s army rested in Wells, and then he led his forces again to Bridgwater. There he expected volunteers in the thousands but found only 160, armed with pitchforks. It was three miles southeast of the town that the battle of Sedgemoor was fought in darkness on 6 July. The rebel forces left Bridgwater under strict orders for silence. Unfortunately, a shot was fired when the rebels were still a mile from the royal camp, and the element of surprise was gone. At dawn it became clear that Monmouth’s army could neither advance nor retreat.
The untrained, ill-equipped rebels were massacred, mowed down by cannon. According to Robert Dunning’s book, The Monmouth Rebellion, the rebels fought with incredible courage against the odds but eventually broke and were hunted down by the Royalist Cavalry.
The rebels were routed and nearly 1,000 killed. Fifteen hundred were soon rounded up and imprisoned. Monmouth fled and changed into the clothes of a shepherd. He was soon captured while hiding in a ditch. He was executed on 15 July.
There are many villains in this tragic story, from James II to the rector who hunted down and turned in rebels. But the vilest of all was Judge George Jeffreys, who exacted retribution on Monmouth’s supporters during his ‘Bloody Assizes’. For the rebels and their supporters, the punishment was swift and terrible. Among the victims was the 80-year-old Dame Alice Lisle, who was accused of harbouring a dissenting minister. She was sentenced to be burned alive, but the king interceded and allowed her to be beheaded instead.
On 5 September Jeffries convened his court at the Antelope Hotel in Dorchester . There he tricked some defendants into pleading guilty by implying that those who admitted guilt would receive mercy. Twenty-nine who did so were immediately hanged. Other Assizes took place in Exeter, Taunton, and Wells. In all as many as 330 were executed by hanging, quartering and boiling part of their bodies in tar and stringing them up in Sherborne, Poole, Wareham, Weymouth and other towns.
In Lyme on the place where Monmouth landed, 11 men were drawn and quartered. Their numbers included an elderly minister and a doctor. One of the unfortunates was a fisherman who had boarded one of Monmouth’s ships to sell his catch and was then forced to pilot them to Lyme. Jeffries offered the lawyer Christopher Battiscombe a pardon if he would implicate others. He refused. His fiancée begged for his life, and Jeffries replied that he could spare part of him but if he knew what she wanted, it should be that part which she liked best. Only Benjamin Hewling escaped this savage punishment, because his sister paid the judge £1000 to allow him to be merely hanged.
Jeffries hanged one man in irons who was wounded so badly that he would not have lived through the night.
Nearly 850 were sentenced to transportation to the West Indies to be sold as slaves, and two ships sailed out of Weymouth carrying the convicts. Several didn’t survive the journey in the appalling conditions, but many of those who did received a free pardon in 1691.
The consequences were shattering for the people of the West Country. For the most part, this was a rebellion of the people; few of the gentry had taken part. Among those who joined Monmouth were weavers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, shoemakers. Because so many men had been killed in battle, executed, transported or were in hiding, their families were left impoverished. At the very least, anyone convicted of associating with the rebellion was fined heavily and their land or property was confiscated.
Dunning writes in Rebellion that, the whole uprising, the last genuine radical rebellion in English history, was undoubtedly a tragedy for those who suffered and died, a tragedy for the West Country.
Despite his standing army, James was not to stay on the throne for long. With much more money and assistance, William of Orange succeeded where Monmouth had earlier failed, landing on 5 November 1688 at Torbay.
As for Jeffreys, after William landed, he was in terror of popular anger and tried to escape from London. He disguised himself as a sailor, was caught in a pub, seized by a mob and dragged to prison in the Tower. He died of a kidney disease before he could be tried.