Andrew Paschall, the royalist rector of Chedzoy, blamed Taunton and Thomas Dare, a Taunton goldsmith, in particular for the fact that the duke of Monmouth’s rebellion was largely centred in the West Country. Some rising in favour of the Protestant cause had been brewing before the Catholic James II came to the throne, and the signs of the times began pointing to Somerset from the time Siamese twins, Aquila and Priscilla, were born at Isle Brewers in 1680. There were monstrous births in the animal kingdom, too; an earthquake was felt in Bridgwater, Taunton, Wells and Mendip caves; and, finally, in December 1684, Mr. Paschall himself witnessed mock suns in the sky above Sedgemoor.
There were more substantial signs, too. The gentry of Somerset still included in their ranks fervent Protestants who had fought for the parliament in the Civil War, and the towns were no less independent than they had ever been. The country villages in the south and west in particular, like their neighbours in Dorset and Devon, had clothworkers in their midst in considerable numbers, men for whom Protestantism had a particular appeal, ‘sober and pious men’ as the Independents of Chard declared, who saw James, duke of Monmouth, as ‘stirred up’ by the Lord.
That young, handsome, if rather shallow man, eldest of Charles II’s illegitimate children, had certainly been stirred up for some time by those who wished to exclude the Catholic James, duke of York, from succession to the throne. In a movement led by Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, a Dorset man with Somerset connections, the duke of Monmouth was encouraged in 1680 to make a semi-royal progress into Somerset, where he was greeted with enthusiasm by the country folk, and feted by gentlemen like John Sydenham of Brympton, William Strode of Barrington, and George Speke of Whitelackington. Monmouth, calling on Lord Poulett at Hinton, touched Elizabeth Parcet for the King’s Evil, and her recovery only served to prove his legitimacy as Charles II’s heir. A similar progress in Cheshire and Staffordshire ended in the duke’s arrest, and an attempt to visit Sussex came to nothing. On the West Country, therefore, Monmouth’s hopes were fixed when he was forced into exile in Holland, and the urgings of that Taunton goldsmith, Thomas Dare, found a ready ear.
Dare was just the man to encourage an exile. In 1680 he had declared in public that a subject had only two means of redress—petition and rebellion. Ten months in prison did not change his mind, and when he – escaped to Holland he was at the heart of the conspiracy. While malcontents in London promised 10,000 armed supporters to fight for a freely-elected parliament and a government on the old Common- – wealth lines, and the exiled earl of Argyll agreed to raise Scotland, Dare planned an invasion in the West, with a landing at Lyme Regis and a rallying point at Taunton.
On 11 June Monmouth landed at Lyme with three small ships, four small cannon, 1,500 muskets and pikes, and about eighty men. – His closest advisers were Lord Grey, a few ex-soldiers, including Nathaniel Wade, whose story of the rebellion and of the treatment of prisoners is of the greatest importance, and a curious band of other men including four lawyers, two surgeons and two clergymen, one of whom Monmouth himself described as ‘a bloody rogue’.
Within a few days of landing recruits began to arrive, and an army of four regiments began to take shape. Local skirmishes as the rebels established themselves and then marched north proved their strength of purpose, and the Devon and Somerset militia were reluctant to face them. The only early setback was the- argument between Thomas Dare and the cavalry commander over a horse in which Dare, then paymaster of the army, was killed. Monmouth led his troops, growing in size every day, through Axminster and Chard to Taunton, where he arrived on 18 June to a rapturous welcome. Two days later he had himself proclaimed king, with the confusing title of James II. His followers, for simplicity, called him King Monmouth.
The move was not popular with some of his followers, who were republican at heart, and were more interested in popular liberty, but it was hoped that the step would encourage the local gentry to come – to his support. They were, for the most part, suspiciously reticent, though George Speke sent one of his Sons with ‘a company of ragged horse’. Men certainly came in at Taunton in large numbers, and Richard : Bovet’s Blue Regiment swelled to 800 strong, but they were not skilled fighting men. Two-thirds of the 356 Taunton men worked in the cloth trade, and others were craftsmen and artisans, an accurate cross-section of the town’s inhabitants, and the 74 from Wellington and the 62 from Milverton had similar backgrounds.
From Taunton the force marched to Bridgwater, gathering strength as it went; and then went on to Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet, all the time under the watchful eye of the royal cavalry under the command of Brigadier Lord Churchill, who had himself served under Monmouth in Flanders. The rebel advance continued towards Bristol, the greatest centre of nonconformity in the West, and an obvious base for a march on London. But Bristol could not well be taken from the Somerset side, and Monmouth thus spent the night of 24/25 June at Pensford, planning to cross the Avon at Keynsham. The army did, indeed, cross the next day, although the bridge had been badly damaged on the king’s orders, but by that time the rebels were in a difficult position. Militia under the dukes of Somerset and Beaufort were in Bristol. The royal infantry and artillery were rapidly approaching from the east to block any advance on London, and Churchill’s cavalry were ominously in the rear, based at Glastonbury. A skirmish at Keynsham in the pouring rain brought Monmouth a prisoner who revealed that there were 4,000 royal troops in the vicinity, and the rumour that the duke of Beaufort would burn Bristol if it should be attacked. A council of war voted against trying to break through to Gloucester and the Severn valley, but rather to make for Warminster and then London.
Monmouth surprised the royal commander, the French Lord Feversham, by making a night march in the pouring rain from Keynsham, and after a half-hearted attempt at summoning Bath to surrender, established himself at the little clothing town of Norton St Philip. There a royal advance party attacked Monmouth’s troops as they were about to leave. Their spirited defence—very hot work, one royal soldier declared—showed the fighting qualities of the rebels. But this was no spectacular victory which might bring soldiers over to Monmouth’s cause or encourage local gentry to come from the safety of their estates. After two hours the king’s army withdrew in yet more pouring rain to Bradford-on-Avon. Monmouth, who could well have stayed in possession of the field, moved on through the night and the mud to Frome.
Still no forces came from Wiltshire as had been promised, and the king’s army was now threatening the road to Warminster. The hoped-for diversion of a rising in Scotland, Monmouth now heard, had collapsed, and the Londoners were notably silent. Retreat was inevitable, and suggestions were made that the leaders should escape abroad. Some men had already deserted, for the king was promising pardon to those who had been mis-led. But then there came better news in the form of a man, a Quaker of all unlikely people, who claimed to have raised 10,000 men from among the farming community, who were ready to support the duke. So Monmouth went to meet so welcome a force. His army marched via Shepton Mallet and Wells, and met the new force somewhere on the moors, only to discover that there were only 160 ready to fight in his cause. Gallantly he rode at their head into Bridgwater on Friday, 3 July; and, as always not far behind, was the king’s army, moving from Shepton to Glastonbury and then to Somerton, and finally setting up camp in and around Weston Zoyland, a satisfactory base for operations since Monmouth’s summonses to carpenters and labourers indicated he was preparing Bridgwater for a siege.
Yet his plan was quite different: he intended to cross Somerset again, this time via Axbridge, and make for Gloucester. However, a farm labourer from Chedzoy, sent by his master, came to the duke with a report that the royal army was not dug in at Weston, and that they could surely be surprised in the dark. It was an opportunity not to be missed, and at about 11 o’clock on the night of 5 July the rebel forces, approaching 4,000 in number, silently moved out of Bridgwater along the Bristol road, and reached the heart of the moor, to within a mile of the king’s army, before even the royal scouts knew they had left the town.
The battle which followed lasted for perhaps an hour and a half. Monmouth’s army, hampered by unclear knowledge of how to cross the deep, though almost dry, Bussex Rhine, was unable to come to grips with the king’s army, where their scythes might have proved more murderous to the infantry than they were to the king’s horse. Instead, they were attacked on each side by horsemen and were helpless targets for the royal guns, case shot making lanes among them. But still the result hung in the balance, and Andrew Paschall thought that if Monmouth’s men had shouted they could have won a victory. But the king’s men shouted first, and the rebels collapsed. Captain Dummer of the royal artillery attributed victory rather to Providence than to their own efforts.
The captain thought that the rebels lost about 700 dead and 300 taken prisoner, while the royal forces had 27 dead and 200 wounded. The villagers of Weston were later heard claiming to have buried 1,384 corpses. Perhaps as many as 500 rebel prisoners were herded into Weston church, while at least 22 were hanged immediately, four in irons. The dead were hastily buried in pits, and a week later 12 men were summoned from Chedzoy with six carts to take their turn in helping to make a mound over the still hardly covered corpses, as well as to pay their share of the cost of the irons.
And the slaughter continued. The Wiltshire militia hanged prisoners at Glastonbury and Wells on their way home, while Colonel Kirk summarily disposed of 19 men at Taunton. More rebels were found in the next few days, hiding like their defeated leader. But whereas he at least had his chance to plead before his king, his followers were cut to death where they stood, or, in due time, appeared in court to face the judicial murder which passed for justice before Chief Justice Jeffreys. A thousand or more fell in battle and the immediate pursuits, a similar number suffered hanging or transportation.
In all parts of the country, as well as in Devon and Dorset, families found themselves bereft of fathers and sons, their dismembered remains often displayed for all to see, so that someone described the country as looking like a butchers’ shambles. It was an awful warning; and the tragedies played out in so many places were often recorded in a curious lifeless prose. Someone, for instance, summarised the whole episode in the church register of Stogursey before recording how Hugh Ashley and John Hirrin were hanged at Tower Hill at the higher end of the village and that their heads and quarters were set up in several places, and that three more were similarly treated at Nether Stowey. Perhaps this was at once a memorial to their cause and a proper recognition of their failure, for the sheriff of the county lived in Stogursey and the under-sheriff at Nether Stowey. Loyalty at St Decumans received its just reward, for the overseers paid five men generously for their service in the king’s army. But who could be sure that the muskets which were kept in the hail at Orchard Wyndham and which were ‘taken away and lost in Monmouth’s Rebellion’ were used in the service of the lawful King James? As if to declare the county’s essential loyalty, one of Somerset’s M.P.s, Sir William Portman, took part in Monmouth’s arrest near Ringwood, and Bishop Ken was one of the two bishops sent to announce to the duke that his plea for clemency had been rejected. But the savagery of the royal retribution has become part of the folk culture of the county.