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The Sealed Knot
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The Battle of Sedgemoor, 6th July 1685

 

By the beginning of July 1685, the position of The Duke of Monmouth's rebel army was looking increasingly hopeless. The Scottish Revolt, led by Argyll, had failed and Monmouth had made no significant military gains since he had landed at Lyme Regis in June. Worse, the Royalist forces of King James II were closing in, and many of Monmouth's followers had started to slip away. Following a fruitless match through the West Country throughout June, Monmouth was holed up in Bridgewater by 3rd July. His army, which had exceeded 6000 at its peak, was now reduced to around 3600 men, mostly artisans, labourers and nonconformists equipped with varying degrees of sophistication. The King's professional army, under the command of Louis de Duras, the Earl of Feversham, arrived on 5th July, camping several miles away at the village of Westonzoyland on the fringes of Sedgemoor. 

There were 2600 professional soldiers under Feversham's command (not including the 1500 or so men of the Wiltshire Militia who were in Middlezoy and did not engage in the battle, only the eventual rout). Feversham's forces comprised of 700 horse, 1900 foot (under the command of John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough) and 26 pieces of field artillery. The infantry were composed of 6 battalions - two from the 1st Foot Guards and one each from the 2nd (Coldstream) Guards,  Kirke's, Trelawneys and Dumbarton's (Royal Scots). Apart from Dumbarton's, who were still armed with matchlocks, the Royal foot was equipped with flintlock muskets, although pikes had not yet been done away with altogether and there were still pikemen in the companies of the foot regiments.

The six infantry regiments were camped on the edge of the village of Westonzoyland, protected to the north and west by the shallow drainage ditch know as the Bussex Rhyne. The artillery train also lay within the protection of the rhyne, although a little way to the south-west, the guns lined up and facing to the west, covering the most direct line of any rebel attack. The majority of the cavalry were billeted in the village of Westonzoyland, although throughout the night of the 5th, mounted patrols roamed the moor and surrounding hedged lanes, on the watch for any sign that the rebels were on the move, either to escape or to attack. There was also a group of some 50 or so musketeers stationed in Pitzoy Pound, a walled enclosure out on the moor.

Throughout the day of the 5th, Monmouth watched the Royal army from the tower of St Mary's church in Bridgewater. There are also suggestions that he travelled as far as the village of Chedzoy, ascending the church tower there for a closer look at the preparations of the Royal army. He would no doubt have recognised the colours of some of the regiments under canvas. Indeed, on seeing Dumbarton's, he is reputed to have said "I know these men, they will fight. If I had but them all would go well". This suggests that Monmouth had abandoned any plans for escaping under the cover of darkness and had, instead, resolved to engage the Royal army. Monmouth had identified that the three
arms of the Royalist forces were positioned far enough from each other to make them vulnerable to a surprise attack and, when a local follower, Benjamin (or Richard) Godfrey offered to guide the rebel army across the moor, Monmouth gambled on a night-time assault.

 

 

With greased axles and muffled hooves, the rebel army set out from Bridgewater at around 10:00 p.m. on the 5th July. It would take the 600 cavalry and 3000 foot 3 hours to cover the 5 miles to Westonzoyland and, during the course of the march they were forced to abandon one of their 3 artillery pieces at Peasey Farm because of a squeaky wheel. The plan was for the rebel force to take the narrow lanes skirting Chedzoy to the north and east and approach the royal camp from its most exposed side. The cavalry, under Lord Grey, were to cross the Bussex Rhyne by the upper plungeon (a crossing over the ditch) and fall upon the artillery train. Meanwhile, the 5 rebel regiments (known as the Red, Blue, White, Green and Yellow regiments), under the command of Nathaniel Wade, would deploy on the moor to the north and then attack across the rhyne, covered by their remaining field pieces. 

Despite the inherent dangers of a night attack, especially with a rag-tag army of enthusiastic amateurs, Monmouth's luck held for a considerable time. Miraculously the rebel army avoided any Royal scouts as they made their way along the rough lanes, masked by darkness and mist. However, Godfrey struggled for his bearings and time was lost. As the crossing across the wide Langmoor Rhyne was sought, disaster struck. In the first hours of 6th July, a pistol shot - presumably from one of the many Royalist cavalry scouts - shattered the night.

Knowing he had lost the element of surprise, Monmouth still sent a division of cavalry forward under Lord Grey, with the intention of securing the upper plungeon. By now though, the Royalist camp had been roused as a horseman (one can assume this was the same trooper who had fired the earlier warning shot), raced up and down the length of the Bussex Rhyne crying "Beat your drums, the enemy has come! For the Lord's sake, beat your drums!"

The Royal troops tumbled from their tents, snatching up stacked muskets to take their places along the length of the rhyne. Captain Mackintosh, of Dumbarton's, had been convinced that Monmouth would attempt a night assault and so had already marked out positions for his men. Being on the extreme right flank, and with the glow of their matches betraying their position, they would be the first target for the rebel foot, once it arrived.

Grey's cavalry - or at least a portion of them -  were first to reach the camp, having exchanged some shots and blows with elements of Royalist horse in a series of confused melees en route. On reaching the rhyne, they were unable to locate the upper plungeon, and milled about in confusion along the banks of the ditch until a challenge rang out from the King's army:
"Who are you for?" demanded Captain Berkley of the dark figures which loomed out of the night.
"The King!" came the answer.
"What King?" 
"Monmouth, and God with us!" was the defiant reply.
"Take this with you!" Berkley was in command of a wing of musketeers of the foot guards and, at these words, their volley shredded the darkness. Other battalions opened fire and Grey's cavalry fled the field, leaving dead, wounded and dying behind them. Monmouth had lost the majority of his horse in the first minutes of the engagement.

Wade arrived onto the field with his first regiment of foot, intending to cross the Bussex Rhyne once his second and third battalions had arrived and deployed into battle order. However, halting some thirty yards from the rhyne, the second battalion opened fire. The other battalions joined them and, with answering fire from the Royalist positions, Wade was unable to get his men to advance further. The remaining two battalions, in reserve at this time, were startled as Grey's retreating horsemen appeared out of the darkness. In a panic, not knowing whether the horsemen were friend or foe, some of the rebels opened fire on their comrades.

Back at the rhyne, Monmouth's three field pieces had been deployed on the left flank of the rebel line and caused several casualties among Dumbarton's. Wade's deployment was such that he could only engage the right flank of the Royalist position, so Dumbarton's - and the battalion of guards next in line -  had the worst of it for a time. Most damage was done by the field pieces, crewed in part by professional Dutch gunners, as the raw musketeers in Wade's ranks fired too high.

 

A second division of rebel cavalry, under the command of an ex-Ironside, Captain Jones, did locate the upper plungeon, but by now it was defended by some 150 Royal troopers under Lord Compton. Jones engaged Compton's men, either in an attempt to force passage across the rhyne or to prevent Compton's men falling on the rebel foot. Regardless of his reasons, Jones' actions were later to save his life, as his erstwhile enemies were so impressed with his courage that he was spared from execution after the battle.

Churchill was, at this moment, in command of the camp. There are several varying accounts which cast differing lights on the actions of Feversham himself during the action, but as the battle commenced he was not at the camp, arriving sometime after the initial engagement. Churchill reinforced his right flank, bolstering the companies of foot stationed there. Peter Mews, Archbishop of Winchester and a veteran of the English Civil War, had accompanied the Royal army and now pressed his carriage horses into use, helping to move six artillery pieces into position along the right flank. These guns now came into play, raking the rebel forces and silencing their artillery pieces.

By now, Monmouth must have known his position was hopeless. He had lost the vital element of surprise, along with his cavalry. His foot were mired in a musketry duel with the trained men of the King's army and his cannon, with their ammunition waggon some 2 miles away, were soon nullified by the increasing fire from across the Rhyne. Worse, the Royalist horse was arriving from Westonzoyland.

The cavalry - six squadrons under Lord Oxford and four troops of the King's horse - now crossed the rhyne via the lower and upper plungeons. The rebels - abandoned by their own cavalry - initially held them at bay with pike and musket, but as the sun rose, Feversham was able to appraise the situation more fully and ordered his foot across the rhyne. On finding the water-filled ditch to be less deep than initially thought, the foot were able to wade across.

Monmouth had long since fled the field as the rebels began to waver. Their flanks were assaulted by cavalry and their centre was being flayed by disciplined musketry. No troops could have stood for long and soon the rebels broke, streaming from the field to be hunted and cut down by the pursuing cavalry. Only Wade's Red regiment made any kind of disciplined, fighting retreat. Before 6 in the morning, the battle was over. 

Some 1000 rebels are said to have died on the field of Sedgemoor, most during the final rout, along with 80 or so men of the King's army. Many rebels were summarily executed as they were overtaken, others were taken prisoner and held in cramped conditions in the church at Westonzoyland. Some were executed the following morning, others were later tried in the "Bloody Assizes", after which there were more executions. Some 800 or so rebels were transported as slaves to the West Indies. Monmouth himself was caught 3 days after the battle (as was Lord Grey) and executed on 15th July. Grey managed to buy his freedom and Nathaniel Wade was also spared, having turned King's evidence.