Monmouth Rebellion

From Academic Kids

The Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion, was an attempt to overthrow the King of England, James II, who became king when his elder brother, Charles II, died on 6 February 1685. James II was unpopular because he was Roman Catholic and many people were opposed to a papist king. James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, claimed to be rightful heir to the throne and attempted to displace James II.

The rebellion ended with the defeat of Monmouth's forces at Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685 (often, rather incorrectly, said to be the last pitched battle on English soil). Monmouth was executed for treason on 15 July, and many of his supporters were executed or transported in the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys.


Duke of Monmouth

Monmouth was an illegitimate son of Charles II. There had been rumours that Charles had married Monmouth's mother, Lucy Walter, but no evidence was forthcoming and Charles always said that he only had one wife, Catherine of Braganza.

Monmouth was a Protestant. He had been appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army by his father in 1672 and Captain-General in 1678, enjoying some successes in the Netherlands in the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Monmouth's military reputation, and his Protestantism, made him a popular figure in England. An attempt was made to pass an Act of Parliament to exclude James from the succession and substitute Monmouth in 1681, but Charles outmanoeuvred his opponents and dissolved Parliament for the final time. After the Rye House Plot to assassinate both Charles and James, Monmouth exiled himself to Holland, and gathered supporters in the Hague.

So long as Charles II remained on the throne, Monmouth was content to live a life of pleasure in Holland, while still hoping to accede peaceably to the throne. The accession of James II to the throne put an end to these hopes. Prince William of Orange, although also a Protestant, was bound to James by treaties and would not accommodate a rival claimant. He suggested Monmouth should take a commission with Emperor Leopold in his fight against the Turks. Monmouth, however, at the urging of his fellow exiles, moved to take the Crown of England by force.

From Lyme Regis to Sedgemoor

In May 1685, Monmouth set sail for South West England, a strongly Protestant region, with three small ships, four light field guns and 1500 muskets. He landed with 82 supporters, including Lord Grey of Warke, and around 300 men, at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 11 June. Monmouth had been promised a large army and universal support by his supporters in the Hague, thinking that on landing he would be able to march unopposed to London. King James was soon warned of Monmouth's arrival: two customs officers from Lynne arrived in London on 13 June having ridden some 200 miles post haste.

Instead of marching on London, he marched north into Somerset, picking up a disorganised group of around 6,000, mostly nonconformist, artisans and farmer workers armed with farm tools (such as pitchforks): one famous supporter was a young Daniel Defoe. Monmouth proclaimed himself king at Taunton on 18 June, and continued north, via Bridgwater and Shepton Mallet (23 June), hoping to capture the city of Bristol (which at that time was the second largest and second most important city in the country, after London). Meanwhile, the Royal Navy captured Monmouth's ships, cutting off all hope of an escape back to the continent.

Missing image
Route of Monmouth's army

After unsuccesful attempts on Bristol and Bath, including inconclusive skirmishes with a force of Life Guards commanded by Louis de Duras, 2nd Earl of Feversham (an elderly nephew of Turenne who had spent some time in English service and later became a Knight of the Garter) at Keynsham on 26 June and Norton St Philip on 27 June, Monmouth's forces turned back.

Monmouth was counting on rebellion in Scotland, led by Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, weakening the King's support and army. Argyll landed at Campbelltown on 20 May and spent some days raising a small army of supporters, but was unable to hold them together while marching through the lowlands towards Glasgow. The Earl and his few remaining companions were captured at Inchinnan on 19 June and he was taken to Edinburgh to be executed on 30 June. Expected rebellions in Cheshire and East Anglia also failed to materialise. The morale of Monmouth's forces started to collapse after news of the setback in Scotland arrived while the makeshift army was resting in Frome on 28 June.

Monmouth retreated via Shepton Mallet, which no longer welcomed him, and Wells. Eventually he was pushed back to the Somerset Levels (where Alfred the Great had found refuge in his conflicts with the Vikings), becoming hemmed in at Bridgwater on 3 July. Monmouth was finally defeated by Feversham (with John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, his second in command) on 6 July at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Monmouth had risked a night attack, but surprise was lost when a musket was discharged. His untrained supporters were quickly defeated by the professionals, and hundreds were cut down by cannon- and musket-fire.

The battle of Sedgemoor is often referred to as the last battle fought on English soil, but this is incorrect: the Battle of Preston in Lancashire was fought on 14 November 1715, during the First Jacobite Rebellion, and the Second Jacobite Rebellion saw a minor engagement at Clifton Moor near Penrith in Cumbria on 18 December 1745.

After Sedgemoor

Monmouth fled from the field of battle but was captured in a ditch on 8 July (either at Ringwood in the New Forest, or at Horton in Dorset). He was condemned to execution for committing treason against the king, and beheaded in the Tower of London on 15 July. It is said that it took eight blows of the axe from Jack Ketch to sever his head.

The subsequent Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys were a series of trials of Monmouth's supporters in which 320 people were condemned to death and around 800 sentenced to transported to the West Indies.

James II took advantage of the suppression of the rebellion to consolidate his power. He asked Parliament to repeal the Test Act and the Habeas Corpus Act, used his dispensing power to appoint Catholics to senior posts, and raised the strength of the standing army. Parliament opposed many of these moves, and on 20 November, 1685 James dismissed it. In 1688, when the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart heralded a catholic succession, James II was overthrown in a coup d'état by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution at the invitation of the disaffected Protestant Establishment.

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