Friday 6 August 2021

The Battle of Sedgemoor - 6 July 1685

Whilst overseas travel is still problematic, there are plenty of opportunities to walk battlefield sites in the United Kingdom. England's last proper battle was fought near Bridgwater on the Somerset Levels and I recently revisit the Battle of Sedgemoor site in the company of a local guide and fellow miltary history enthusiasts.

Battle of Sedgemoor Monument

The accession of James II to the throne in 1685, following the death of his brother Charles II, was controversial. James was a Catholic and many feared that under his reign Non-conformists and Anglicans would be persecuted. For many, the answer lay in Charles's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who had been brought up in the court and had earned his spurs commanding the Royalist forces during the third Dutch War and in defeating the Scottish Covenantor Army at Bothwell Bridge in 1679. 

Arms of James II and The Duke of Monmouth

The West Country appeared to be a hotbed of dissent and after the Duke of Monmouth had landed at Lyme Regis and gathered support in his ride north it would seem that the country was ripe for rebellion. The gauntlet was thrown down on the pavements of Taunton where the young pretender was proclaimed King in front of an adoring crowd. The flags presented to him by the Maids of Taunton, 13 schoolgirls from leading local families, would serve as potent rallying points and by the time he reached Bridgwater, the Duke had acquired an army numbering about 10,000, including over 600 irregular cavalrymen and a small artillery component.

Map of the Battlefield in Westonzoyland Church

However, James II had responded with alacrity. A well-equipped Royal Army under the command of the Earl of Faversham was speeding towards the West Country. The five regiments of foot soldiers led by the highly respected John Churchill were quickly in theatre, speedily followed by the Earl of Oxford's Horse (approximately 400) and three troops of Horseguards (approximately 200 each). Finally a large artillery train was on its way from Portsmouth and 1500 Wiltshire militia were on notice to join the fight. 

Filled with confidence, the rebel army moved north, intent on taking Bristol. Moving to the east of the city, the rebel army had some success against the Royal Army during a skirmish in Keynsham. however, as they regrouped and sought support from neighbouring areas, the tide began to turn. Monmouth's action in the South West was to be complemented by a rebellion in Scotland provoked by the Duke of Argyll. The failure of this second thrust, the growing power of the Royal Army, bad weather and growing disillusionment with the wisdom of supporting the rebellion began to impact Monmouth's army. 

Monmouth's Route

Seeking to revitalise his waning support, Monmouth withdrew to the rebel heartlands. Returning to Bridgwater just 12 days after his arrival, the reception was cooler. However the diminished rebel army was still a potent force and with the Royal Army encamped in the village of Westonzoyland, a few miles east of the town, Monmouth spotted the opportunity to launch a daring night attack. If he could defeat this Royal Army in the field then the tide of support would once again run towards him. The rebel army moved out at around midnight on the 5th July 1865. With the help of a local shepherd guide (Godfrey) they would bypass the Royalist village of Chedzoy, traverse the marshy Somerset levels and cross the Bussex Rhine (a wide ditch) before sweeping into the enemy camp and catching the sleeping Royal Army unawares. 

The Royal Army Camp

Surprise was everything but sadly for Monmouth he lost the initiative in the early hours of the morning. A Royal Army picket raised the alarm by firing his musket and the Royal Army quickly formed up ready to repel the attack. It was a foggy, dark night and realising the element of surprise was lost Monmouth had no choice but to commit to the battle anyway. He launched his cavalry at the enemy camp using two crossings across the Rhine. In the poor light the horsemen setting out for the Upper Plungeon crossing bumped into a Royal cavalry patrol. They missed the bridge and rode across the front of the Royal Army. The inexperienced horses and horsemen scattered in the face of concerted Royal musket and artillery fire. The fleeing rebel cavalry rode headlong into two of the advancing rebel foot regiments and chaos ensued. The second rebel cavalry troop was successfully seen off as well. 

Battlefield Walkers

Regaining their composure the rebel army rallied for an attack and their three small cannon, manned by professional Dutch gunners, caused Dumbarton's Royal Scots to give ground. The Royal Army soon began to dominate the battlefield however, after Churchill moved Kirke's and Trelawney's regiments from the left to the right hand flank to cut of the eastern Rhine crossing. With the aid of six Royal artillery pieces the remainder of the Royal Army were fed into the fight. The rebels fought bravely but over time the discipline and fire-power of Churchill's professional troops took their toll. As dawn broke, the Royal Army crossed the Bussex Rhine and the rebels were routed. Legend has it that some 1,000 were killed in what the locals still call 'Grave Field'.

Replica Cannon in the Visitor Centre

After the battle 505 rebel prisoners were lock up in Westonzoyland Church. Five of these died of wounds and twenty were hung in the vicinity. Sadly no vestiges of these burials remain but nearby in Middlezoy Church one can find the grave of Louis Chevaleir De Misiers who 'behaved himself with all the courage imaginable against the King's enemies commanded by the rebel Duke of Monmouth 'whilst in the service of the English'. For those who escaped the battlefield retribution came in the form of the Bloody Assizes and the energetic pursuit of the rebels by Judge Jeffrys. Many were hung without trial, others were transported as slaves to the West Indies and Monmouth himself was beheaded in front of a large crowd on Tower Hill, London. 

The Frenchman's Grave - Middlezoy Church

In recent years a Battle of Sedgemoor Visitor Centre has been installed in Westonzoyland Church. It has a number of interactive displays and numerous artefacts associated with the Monmouth Rebellion. The battlefield is well-signposted and easy to access.