TOWARDS TWILIGHT

Monmouth

the 17th century wasn't finished with Shepton Mallet yet.

After the Civil War, a series of constitutional experiments failed to provide stability to the English body politic. Oliver Cromwell died, removing the one focus remaining which might have held things together. Anarchy threatened, until one General Monck invited Charles I's son to become Charles II. After a millisecond's thought, he agreed.

On the face of it, it looked as though the whole Civil War had been a waste of time, with another Stuart monarch on the throne, with very little solid guarantee that things would be better. But Parliamentary sovereignty had been established - Charles II knew he could never misuse power the way his father had done.

Now, Charles II was a fun guy - a patron of the arts and of sciences, a dancer and a prancer. He also put himself about a bit with the ladies. Unfortunately, he didn't manage to plant a sprog in his own wife. So, when he died in 1685, the only heir to the throne was James, Duke of York - his brother. So Charles II was succeeded by James II.

James was very much his father's son - inflexible, autocratic and, above all, Roman Catholic. In the 150 years (or so) since the break from Rome, English Protestants had become accustomed to get their own way - they expected religious tolerance for themselves (at least). If possible, they preferred religious intolerance twoards papists. Even though Charles II had also been a Catholic, he had kept quiet about it, and had made no effort to persecute those who didn't agree with him. James II had no such tact.

Right from the start of his reign, certain shadowy parties assessed that the country would rally to an alternative to James, who would guarantee the Protestant faith (right) and that James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was that alternative (wrong).

Young Jamie was the illegitimate issue of one of Charlie's dalliances. During the mid 1650s, whilst he was in Holland (as Prince of Wales) he fooled around with one Lucy Waters. A son, James, was born - but by this time Charles had tired of Lucy's unfaithfulness (at one point in their time together, she had taken to working in a brothel - just to annoy Charles). He dropped her and moved on to France, and his mother's court in exile.

Claims were made that Charles married Lucy and that a marriage certificate was in existence but no one could ever produce it. Lucy did manage to get the title of Duke of Monmouth out of Charles for her son. She died, but Charles took Monmouth into his court, when he was about 14 and virtually illiterate. so Charles had quite a task in making him presentable.

So, by the time he decided to chance his arm in the King business, James was a handsome young blade, with no more sense than he was born with.

He landed at Lyme Regis on June 11th with a minimal force, hoping to raise support from the Western counties. As he wandered across Somerset, through Taunton and Bridgewater, he did pick up a couple of thousand enthusiastic followers.

By June 23rd, he reached Shepton Mallet. He entered the town like a conquering hero, to the acclaim of the populace. Caps were flung in the air, food and drink was pressed on the brave lads and the crowd shouted "Monmouth, King Monmouth. God save the Protestant religion". Edward Strode (son of the Civil War Strode) stepped forward to give the young Duke 100 guineas to support his cause.

After a roisterous night, Monmouth announced his intention to march on to Bristol and take that important port, with all its wealth and resources. In high spirits, his army marched out of town, augmented by Sheptonians, caught up in the whirl.

But enthusiasm wasn't enough. The trouble was, apart from the hard core of 50 or 60 trained men Monmouth had brought with him from the Continent, this army was composed of peasant farmers and care-free adventurers, armed with little more than pitchforks and cudgels. In fact, they only had six cannon between them. And Monmouth's advance was no secret; James II had plenty of time to plan Bristol's defence.

So Monmouth failed to take Bristol. And then he failed to take his secondary target - Bath. It didn't help that the weather was foul - it rained incessantly throughout Monmouth's campaign.

Only a week after he had first arrived, Monmouth and his straggling army struggled back to Shepton (June 30th). The mood was very different now. The people of Shepton were beginning to see that they would pay a heavy price for Monmouth's ambition. Monmouth's men didn't improve their public relations by forcing themselves on the townspeople - taking the food and drink they wanted without payment (their money was almost all gone).

There was no cheering when the army left the following morning for Bridgewater, where they set up their defences, knowing that James' forces were chasing them. On the 5th July, Lord Feversham arrived with some 3,000 men, and encamped on Sedgemoor, just outside Bridgewater.

Monmouth planned one last throw of the dice. Hoping to catch Feversham's troops by surprise, he set out at dusk with the remainder of his forces, aided by the blanket of fog which lay over the moor. They marched silently towards the King's forces, but at the last moment, the peasants' lack of training and experience let them down. They began their clamour far too early, giving the King's LifeGuards plenty of time to muster their forces.

Despite extraordinary bravery, the Somerset peasantry were hacked down in an ugly and dismal massacre. Their blood up, parties of the King's cavalry spread out across the county, hoping to collect the 5,000 pounds placed on Monmouth's head.

Knowing this, and knowing that his days were numbered, Monmouth headed back to the one place where he might find someone he could trust - to Shepton, and to Edward Strode.

Strode could not save him, but he sheltered the broken pretender for the night. In the morning, Monmouth washed, shaved, ate and drank. Before leaving, he presented Strode with his pistols, as a mark of gratitude for his support. He then set out to try to evade the King's troops, and make his way back to France. He never made it. He was captured , disguised as a shepherd, in Dorset, only three days after the Battle of Sedgemoor. A week later he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

Sadly, that was not the last of the bloodshed.

Strode's Tiff Strode's Tiff The Bloody Assizes The Bloody Assizes
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