The Battle of Sedgemoor

July 6th 1685

 

Zoyland Heritage Fund

 

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The Battle of Sedgemoor

Fought on 6th July 1685

When: The battle took place in the early hours of 6th July 1685. The events leading up to it could be said to have started with the death of Charles II on 16th Feb that year allowing his Catholic brother James II to succeed to the throne. James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, who led the rebellion against the King was beheaded at the Tower of London on 15th July, but the retribution against the rebels carried on much longer.

Where: The final battle took place on Sedgemoor to the north west of the village of Westonzoyland, Somerset, towards the village of Chedzoy. The area was a flat largely featureless moor heavily bisected with drainage ditches presenting significant obstacles to movement.

Why: In 1660 King Charles II was crowned after a decade of rule by Cromwell when Britain was a Republic. There was continuing tension between the religious faiths and also between the King and Parliament. The King’s diplomatic skills were all that kept things under some form of control. The problem then was that Charles II had no legitimate heirs to the throne. The result was that his brother, James, was the next in line of succession to the throne should Charles die.

Not only was James autocratic and despised, he was also a Catholic. Charles, however, had a number of illegitimate children and foremost amongst them was James Scott, The Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth was treated like a son by Charles, although under pressure by the court he was never recognised as the rightful successor. The charismatic and gallant soldier Monmouth was, however, an avowed Protestant and became the focus of forces opposed to the King and his successor James. In February 1685 Charles II died, his brother James became King James II and Monmouth fled to Holland. Here Monmouth became the active focus for all opposition to James II. Pressure was put on him to invade England and overthrow the Catholic King James II and replace him as a Protestant King.

Monmouth reluctantly agreed and it was planned that the Earl of Argyle would land in Scotland and draw the small army north, whilst some weeks later Monmouth would land at Lyme Regis in the West country where he had previously met with considerable support. With little money he had purchased 1500 pikes and muskets, cavalry arms, 4 small cannon, powder and shot. Not a lot with which to take over the country! Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis on 11th June 1685, the King was informed on 13th June, Monmouth proclaimed himself King James III at Taunton on 20th June and so the “Pitchfork Rebellion” began.

 

The Protagonists:

For the rebels: James Scott, The Duke of Monmouth, with Lord Grey

For the King: Louis Duras, The Earl of Feversham and John Churchill, The first Duke of Marlborough.

For justice: Rt. Hon George Lord Jeffreys, the Lord Chief Justice of England.

 

 

 

The Build-up: Monmouth had landed with around 80 troops, but he quickly raised a motley army of many thousands from amongst the poorly armed, badly disciplined, Protestant peasantry of the counties of Dorset and Somerset. Monmouth’s rebel army marched north and after skirmishes arrived at Taunton where he proclaimed himself King. Thence they marched through Bridgwater and north with the intention of taking Bristol from the east side. However the Kings army had anticipated such a move and had destroyed the bridge over the river Avon at Keynsham. This and the atrocious weather prevented their advance. The Royalist army had followed Monmouth’s tracks and launched an attack, which did little damage but was successful in damaging their morale.

Monmouth’s men now retreated south via Bath to Norton St Philip where they spent the night. The rebel rearguard was attacked by the Royalists there but had a tactical victory when the Royalists withdrew due to the difficulty of fighting in this enclosed countryside. Monmouth moved to Wells where the rebels attacked and damaged the west front of the Cathedral Church and some of its internal fabric.

As Monmouth retreated from Wells towards the west, the royal army, now fully reinforced, moved after him, sending out scouting parties to discover where he was going and preparing to cut off any movement towards Exeter and Cornwall. So Feversham moved from Frome to Glastonbury and then to Somerton, a central position from which to strike in any direction against the rebels.

Monmouth reached Bridgwater on July 3rd, and now faced the inevitable encounter with the army of King James II. Seeing that it was useless to try to hold Bridgwater and realising that the feelings of many local people had turned against him, he had decided to retreat again. However at this moment came the news, brought by a lad named Richard Godfrey who was looking after some cattle grazing on the moors, that the King's army, which had advanced from Somerton towards Bridgwater, was camping for the night at Weston Zoyland.

Monmouth, with some of his officers, climbed the church tower at St Mary's Bridgwater and with a spy-glass examined the position of his opponents four miles away across the moors. It appeared undefended by any earthworks or trenches, and a decision was taken to make a roundabout approach towards the enemy in a night attack, using Godfrey with his detailed knowledge of the lanes or trackways and, above all, the position of the 'plungeons' ­ the simple plank bridges across the deep drainage ditches or rhines (particularly the Bussex rhine nearest to the enemy).

This desperate plan, to surprise an unsuspecting enemy at night, seemed the only possible way by which the ill-trained and poorly-armed rebels could hope to succeed against regular troops who were still inferior in numbers. But it placed enormous responsibility upon the young man who was to lead the march and, most difficult of all to find in darkness the bridges on which the whole operation depended.

Feversham had decided that a camp at Weston Zoyland would provide a safe resting place from which any attempt by the rebels to move towards the North or East could be checked. Though doubting the possibility of any attack, full preparations were made for defence behind an apparently deep, impassable ditch, the Bussex Rhine, which protected the village and the camping ground on the Bridgwater side and towards the north.

Leaving Bridgwater at about 10 p.m., the rebels, with Godfrey to guide them in their fateful march, moved slowly and as silently as possible along the old Bristol road towards Bawdrip. Turning south along Bradney Lane and Marsh Lane, with the cavalry leading, they came to the open level moor with its deep and dangerous rhines. Only two and a half miles away lay their enemy. At the Langmoor Rhine Godfrey missed the crossing. After searching in an agony of delay, the way over was found but the first men across startled a cavalry trooper from Compton's patrol, who fired his pistol and galloped off to report. The pistol shot was not heard at Weston Zoyland, but to the rebels it meant the total failure of a surprise attack, their one hope of success in the campaign.

The Battle:

Desperate now, Monmouth sent his cavalry ahead to engage the enemy as quickly as possible, and his foot soldiers followed as quickly as they could. The main body of the cavalry crumpled quickly in the face of heavy fire by the alerted defenders.

Warning of Monmouth's approach had been sent back to Weston, and with the call of 'Beat the drums, the enemy is come' the royal army prepared for action hastily but without confusion. The infantry in their six battalions were quickly in position.

The rebel cavalry, under Lord Grey, rode forward but failed to find the plungeon or crossing over the Bussex Rhine and were forced by the infantry fire into confusion and panic. A few tried to secure the second crossing of the rhine but failed also. The uncontrollable horses fled into some of the oncoming rebel infantry, adding to the confusion.

Nevertheless, the rebel infantry still advanced towards the royal army, and the Dutch gunners with their little cannon, caused considerable casualties among their opponents.

But the infantry could not cross the rhine; and as they grouped and fired towards the enemy, great gaps were cut in their ranks by the royal cannon. Cavalry also rode out across the plungeons as the patrols began to come in towards the sounds of battle, and with a pincer movement they attacked the main body of the rebels who continued to fight bravely, though their leaders had decided on flight and were riding off towards the Polden Hills and Bristol.

The regular infantry had by now discovered that the Bussex Rhine was neither deep nor difficult, so they crossed the ditch and joined the fight. The rebels were being slaughtered despite their courage, and at dawn the task began of rounding up those who had managed to escape

Feversham sent his own horsemen to flank Monmouth's men, and at first light the royal troops attacked the rebels on three sides. Though Monmouth's untrained volunteers fought bravely, they were doomed from the start.

The Aftermath:

Casualties are reckoned at about 400 rebels who died in the battle, with many more killed in the pursuit and rounding up of those who tried to escape, while only about 50 regular soldiers lost their lives and about 200 were wounded.

Monmouth and Grey escaped into Dorset hoping to find a ship at Poole to take them to France; but by now the whole countryside was being watched by militiamen and the promise of a reward of £5000 led to an intensive search. Monmouth was found hiding in a ditch at Horton, and taken to London. Though he pleaded abjectly for mercy, he showed courage when he was beheaded on Tower Hill on July 15th.

Meanwhile the rounding-up and capture of the rebels was taking place on Sedgemoor. The prisoners suffered greatly, especially those who were wounded, in the dreadfully unsanitary prisons where they were held before trial.

The Church and the Parish:

In the early hours of the 6th July small groups of rebel prisoners were rounded up and brought into the Church. Alan Wheeler, a drummer of the militia, recorded them as they passed by him into the Church.

Prisoners were stripped of anything of value and were imprisoned without food or water. They numbered some 500 of whom 5 died during the night.

Local family tradition has it that after dark, the Church Warden, Richard Alford and his daughter, though keen Royalists, carried buckets of water into the Church for the prisoners, who had not been fed or watered by their captors.

Among the prisoners was one Francis Scott , and his brother in law tells: “he was wonderfully preserved, being taken and put in Weston steeplehouse with many more the night after the fight in order to be hanged the next day, as many were; but he got out at the little north door while the watch was asleep and so escaped with his life, lying in cornfields by day and going by night till he got home, and so lay about till the general pardon.”

This little north door could have been the door from the chancel to the present vestry, the outer wall of which has been rebuilt since that time. The Church account book contains an entry for 1685 which reads: “Paid for mending of ye locke and righting of the key of the north door £0.1s 9d” Perhaps this was connected with Francis Scott’s escape?

The local people of Westonzoyland were required to bury the dead in the fields in a mass grave, and they recorded as many as 1384 bodies.

The burial must have been done hastily because within a few days complaints were made to Colonel Kirke that the rebels buried on the moor were not sufficiently covered. Kirke wrote to the “tything man” or constable of Chedzoy on 13th July to request: “6 ploughs and 12 men to come to the mass grave to help erect a mount over the bodies.” The parish was required to pay £2.4s.1d as their share of this cost and the cost of making gibbets and gemasses.

A considerable number of rebels appear to have been summarily executed at various places around the village and along the road to Bridgwater. Those condemned to hanging were quartered and distributed around the area to spread the grim warning against rebellion. “Heads and limbs treated with pitch were scattered far afield”.

Monmouth's fate:

The executioner was usually the public hangman and, because of the rarity of the sentence, he was often inexperienced at beheading. Since the muscles and vertebrae of the neck are tough, it could take more than one blow to sever the head - a prospect every condemned person dreaded. The victim was offered a blindfold, to prevent him seeing the axe and moving his head at the crucial moment.

The most badly botched execution was that of James, Duke of Monmouth, in 1685. His executioner was the hangman, Jack Ketch, a notorious bungler with an axe. On climbing the scaffold, Monmouth picked up the axe and ran his fingers along the blade, asking Ketch if he thought it was sharp enough for the job. He handed Ketch six guineas, promising him six more if he did a clean job: "Pray do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir."

Ketch had an attack of nerves and his first blow only grazed the back of the duke's head. Monmouth, who had refused the blindfold, turned his head around and gazed directly at Ketch, further unnerving him. When two more blows failed to sever the head, Ketch threw the axe down and offered 40 guineas to anyone in the crowd who could do better. At this the Sheriff of Middlesex, who was in charge of the execution, threatened to have him killed if he did not finish his job. When two more blows failed, Ketch had to use his knife, butchering the Duke like a pig.

Monmouth's family then retrieved the body, and had his head sewn back on so that he could have his portrait painted.

Jack Ketch lives on today as the hangman in Punch and Judy shows

The Bloody Assizes:

The Autumn Assizes of 1685, now referred to as the Bloody Assizes were a series of trials started at Winchester on 25 August 1685 following Monmouth’s defeat and capture at the Battle of Sedgemoor. There were five judges lead by Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys. The king was anxious that an example should be made to deter any other attempts at rebellion; Jeffreys was a sick man, suffering from an extremely painful illness; many of the accused were persuaded to confess, hoping for mercy after a plea of 'Guilty'.

By then well over a thousand rebels were in prison and awaiting the trials. The first notable trial was that of an elderly gentlewoman called Dame Alice Lyle. She was condemned to death for helping two of the rebels, a harsh and terrible judgement on an old and kindly lady. The law recognizing no distinction between principals and accessories in treason, she was sentenced to be burned. This was commuted to beheading, with the sentence being carried out in Winchester market-place on 2nd September 1685. 

The court proceeded through the West Country through Salisbury and onto Dorchester where the full horror of the Assize began to be felt as between 300 and 350 rebels were accused. A few were acquitted, some were fined or sentenced to be flogged, but the majority were condemned to death and handed over for execution as soon as possible. This horrifying spectacle included public hanging, disembowelling and then quartering, after which the heads and quarters were dipped in pitch and salt and sent to villages around to be displayed in public on poles. Many who were condemned to death had their sentences reduced to transportation, in effect, long years of slavery in the colonies. The Taunton Assize took place in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle (now the home of the Somerset County Museum). Of more than 500 prisoners brought before the court on the 18th and 19th September, 144 were hanged and their remains displayed around the county to ensure people understood the fate of those who rebelled against the king. Similar events took place at Exeter and Wells.

Some 800-850 men were transported to the West Indies where they were worth more alive than dead as a source of cheap labour. A woman named Elisabeth Gaunt had the grisly distinction of being the last woman to be burnt in England for political crimes.

Jeffrey's returned to London after the Assizes to report to King James who thanked him. As a reward he was made Lord Chancellor (at age of only 40), 'For the many eminent and faithful services to the Crown'. He became called "the hanging judge".

This rebellion and its consequences made a deep and lasting impression on the minds and memories of the people of the West country. In particular it was in Somerset that the most lasting bitterness remained. The King had raised a far larger standing army to be ready to face any similar threat to his position, and this added another factor to the growing antagonism in the country. Only three years later he was faced with another invasion, this time by William of Orange with a well equipped army. Somerset people, vividly recalling the horrors of the Monmouth Rising, did not hasten to join his forces.

The Booklet titled "The Western Rising" has been used in producing this website by kind permission of Mr Don Mattravers. A .pdf downloadable copy of the Western Rising can be found in the Resources section. If you choose to download this document please consider making a donation to our charitable fund through the Contact us page.

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Zoyland Heritage Fund is a Registered Charity No 1128080 and can be contacted here: ZHF