The Battle of Sedgemoor

Fought on 6th July 1685

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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.

Map showing The Duke of Monmouth's attack from the north and west edge of Westonzoyland

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.

James Scott, The Duke of Monmouth
 

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 Earl of Feversham

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 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).  
St Mary's Church, Bridgwater where Monmouth climbed the tower to spy on the Royalist army at Westonzoyland

 

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.

 

               
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