When Charles II died on 6 February 1685, he left no legitimate offspring to ascend to the throne. Instead, in a move which angered and horrified many Protestants, Charles' younger brother, the Roman Catholic James, became king.
One of Charles' many bastards was James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. Charles had enjoyed a brief dalliance with Monmouth's mother, Lucy Walter, while at The Hague in 1648 and, although there was little foundation to the rumours that Charles had married Lucy, Monmouth still felt that he had a rightful claim to the throne (there have been suggestions that Charles was not even the father of James Scott, although evidence and investigations seem to back up his claim to royal blood). In 1663 the 14 year-old James was made Duke of Monmouth, shortly after having been brought to England. The same year, he married the heiress Anne Scott, 4th Countess of Buccleuch, and took her surname. At sixteen he served in the English fleet during the Second Anglo-Dutch war, returning to England in 1666 as a captain of horse. Two years later he was made colonel of His Majesty's Own Troop of Horse Guards. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War broke out in 1672 he was sent to serve as part of the French army, leading a brigade of English and Scottish troops. His reputation as a soldier, along with his popularity, grew with military successes through 1673. His rank and influence grew over the next few years and he saw further action, leading the Anglo-Dutch Brigade against the French in 1678 and, with a small English army, defeating the Scottish Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge in 1679. With his increasing popularity, Monmouth was obliged to go into exile in the Dutch Provinces in 1679. He was implicated as a conspirator in the Rye House Plot of 1683, which had planned the assassination of Charles II and his brother James.
When Charles died in 1685 and James took the throne, Monmouth began plotting in earnest to seize the crown. Counting on his popularity with the Protestant populace, particularly in the South West, he planned to take control of this area, consolidating his strength before marching on London. Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, was to lead a simultaneous uprising in Scotland, and both expeditions set out from Holland. Monmouth had pawned many of his belongings - as had his wife Anne and her mother - in order to fund ships and weaponry.
On the 11th June 1685, Monmouth's small fleet of three ships, loaded with four light field guns, several hundred muskets and a handful of followers (including Lord Grey of Warke, Nathaniel Wade and Andrew Fletcher), arrived off the coast of South West England. Landing at Lyme Regis, they gathered around 300 followers as King James II was denounced in a proclamation drawn up by Robert Ferguson, a fiery Scottish Presbyterian minister in Monmouth's inner circle. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Argyll had been recruiting - mainly among his own Campbell clan - for the Scottish Revolt. The Scottish Revolt was to end in ignominy - the leadership was riven with disagreements and, after a few minor skirmishes, support began to dwindle. Argyll was eventually arrested and, on the 30th June, was executed in Edinburgh. However, news of the revolt's failure was not to reach Monmouth until 28th June.
While Monmouth received the adulation of the townsfolk of Lyme Regis, the mayor, Gregory Alford, was already informing the local militias of the invasion, while Samuel Damsell and another custom's officer rode to London with the news, reaching the capital on 13th June. James began to mobilize his forces. John Churchill (later to become the Duke of Marlborough) was given command of the foot, while overall command of the King's army was given to the French-born Louis de Duras, the Earl of Feversham.
By 15th June, the number of volunteers who had joined Monmouth's ranks numbered in excess of 1000. The initial euphoria of the unopposed invasion had been marred slightly by two incidents. On the 13th, Thomas Dare, Monmouth's paymaster, had been killed by Andrew Fletcher in an argument over a horse (Fletcher was arrested and confined to Monmouth's Dutch frigate The Helderenberg, anchored off Lyme Regis). On the 14th, a small rebel force under Lord Grey and Nathaniel Wade had fought a brief skirmish against local Dorset militia at the town of Bridport and been pushed back. Moving out of Lyme Regis as more local forces converged on him, Monmouth defeated the Somerset militia at Axminster. His ranks continued to swell, with several units of local militia deserting to join him, although the hoped-for support from the aristocracy and old army colleagues never materialised, leaving Monmouth somewhat deficient in the cavalry department - the few horsemen he did have, under the command of Lord Grey, were poorly equipped and poorly trained.
Monmouth moved through Somerset, again denouncing King James at Chard before being crowned himself in Taunton on 20th June. Here he was also presented with 27 banners by "The Maids of Taunton", girls from the local school. The rebellion enjoyed an influx of new recruits at Taunton, with the numbers exceeding 6000. Although popularly known as "The Pitchfork Rebellion" (and no doubt there were many farm labourers among the ranks, armed with whatever implements they had brought with them), the majority of Monmouth's followers were nonconformists and artisans, the future author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, being among their number. Many of them would have been well-armed, as Monmouth had brought some 1500 flintlock muskets with him, and others no doubt would have had their own firearms of varying reliability, including of course the militiamen who had turned their coats. Others would have been armed with pikes, while some would have carried farm tools, staves and clubs.
By now, Feversham and Churchill had reached the West Country. Churchill arrived in Chard on 19th June, while Feversham moved the bulk of his forces to defend Bristol, assuming that it would be Monmouth's next target. Monmouth moved north from Taunton, via Bridgwater, Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet, which he reached on 23rd June. Meanwhile, any chance of escape back to the continent in the event of a disaster had been cut off, the Royal Navy having seized Monmouth's ships.
On 24th June, Monmouth's forces skirmished with the Gloucester Militia, taking control of the bridge over the River Avon at Keynsham and preparing to move on Bristol. Discouraged from attacking the city by overestimating the size of the Royalist forces in the vicinity, Monmouth instead marched on Bath. Bath, too, was occupied by Royalist troops and refused his call to surrender. Camped in the village of Philips Norton (now Norton St. Philip), Monmouth came under attack from the leading elements of Feversham's forces on 27th June. Henry, Duke of Grafton, led a mixed force of cavalry, dragoons and musketeers into the village. They came under heavy fire from rebels sheltering behind walls and hedgerows and were forced to retreat (Captain Hawley of the First Foot Guards led a Forlorn Hope of grenadiers in this action, and they would have been prominent in hacking through the hedgerows and barricades with their hatchets to extricate the King's forces from the ambush).
Monmouth fell back from Philips Norton, marching through the night to Frome where he received news of the failure of the Scottish enterprise. Combined with the lack of any tangible successes, this caused morale to begin to drop among the rebels and men began to desert. Heading for Warminster, the rebels got as far as Trowbridge before being cut off by Royalist forces and, with morale dropping further, they headed back through Somerset, reaching Wells on 1st July where they tore the lead from the roof of Wells Cathedral to make bullets and also smashed its windows and vandalised the nave and organ. As Feversham closed in, Monmouth was forced back to Bridgewater by 3rd July, while the Royal army camped at the nearby village of Westonzoyland on the edge of Sedgemoor. Dispatching some cavalry to fetch six cannon from Minehead, Monmouth began to fortify Bridgewater.
From the tower of the Church of St.Mary, Monmouth could see the Royal army in its encampments on Sedgemoor. With his soldiers growing more dispirited by the day, Monmouth abandoned his original plan of breaking out toward Bristol when his six guns arrived from Minehead and instead gambled on a night assault on the slumbering Royalists.
At 10.00 p:m on the 5th July, Monmouth led his forces (guided by Richard Godfrey, the servant of a local farmer) along the benighted lanes toward Westonzoyland. Delayed as they negotiated the rhynes (drainage ditches) which criss-crossed Sedgemoor, the desperate ruse was undone when a shot shattered the night (either from misadventure, a deliberate betrayal or, more likely, a Royalist sentry). With the advantage of surprise gone, Monmouth still led his brave army into an uneven battle through the small hours of the 6th July.
The courageous rebels were no match for the King's army, now that the red-coated soldiers had been alerted. When morning broke, the tattered remains of Monmouth's army were pursued from the field, leaving dead and dying behind them. Maybe they were the more fortunate, as many rebels were summarily executed as the pursuit overtook them, strung up from trees, while others were taken prisoner to await later judgement. Many were crammed into the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Westonzoyland before being transported to jail. Monmouth himself fled the battle, along with Lord Grey, although they later split up. Monmouth was captured in a ditch on the 8th July, disguised as a peasant (either at Ringwood in the New Forest or at Horton in Dorset). Meanwhile, the King's army continued to ruthlessly hunt down fugitives throughout the West Country, with the Tangiers's regiment of Percy Kirke (known as Kirke's Lambs, after their badge) gaining a notoriety for their savagery, although some of the wilder stories may be put down to exaggeration.
Despite pleading with his uncle for his life, Monmouth had already been sentenced to death for treason by an Act of Attainer, passed by Parliament on 13th June. His pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears and, on 15th July 1685, he was taken to Tower Hill where he was messily beheaded by the infamous Jack Ketch. Sources vary, but Monmouth suffered between five and eight blows of the axe before Ketch was obliged to finish the job with a knife. Despite his grisly end, Monmouth could have been thankful that he was spared the fate bestowed on many of his followers.
The captured rebels languished in various prisons throughout the summer before the first trials began in Winchester on 25th August. This was the beginning of the so-called "Bloody Assizes", headed by the Lord Chief Justice, John Jeffreys. One of the first to be condemned, for harbouring fugitives, was Lady Alice Lisle. The elderly lady (she was close to 70) was originally sentenced to be burnt at the stake (Jeffreys claimed he would have found her guilty "even if she had been my own mother") although this was commuted to beheading, the sentence being carried out in Winchester market place on 2nd September.
The trials continued through September, moving through the West Country to Salisbury, Dorchester, Taunton and Wells. Some 1400 prisoners were tried and, although there is no accurate figure, over 300 were probably executed. Some would have been hung, others hung, drawn and quartered - the traditional fate of traitors - and their boiled and tarred body parts or gibbeted corpses displayed around the West Country as a grim warning. Some 800 or more were transported as slaves to The West Indies.
Despite the failure of the rebellion, James II would not hold onto the throne for long. Consolidating his power, he appointed Roman Catholics to senior posts, raised the strength of the standing army and asked for the repeal of the Test Act and The Habeus Corpus Act before dismissing Parliament on 20th November 1685. The birth of his son, James Stuart (later to be known as "The Old Pretender") secured a Catholic succession and this was enough to prompt a Protestant coup. The Protestant Dutch prince, William of Orange (a grandson of Charles I) took the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.