Thursday, December 08, 2005

Monmouth's Rebellion

In June, the crown was confronted by a two-pronged rebellion, engineered by Whig exiles in Holland. The one in Scotland was led by the earl of Argyll. It was a clan rebellion in which the Campbells followed their chief. It was quickly crushed and his followers were treated with leniency though Argyll himself was executed, as his father had been before him.

The second was in the west of England when Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis on 11 June with eighty-two men and a quantity of arms. Trading on his Protestant credentials, he assembled about 3,000 men - farmers, clothworkers, artisans and miners - as he marched through Dorset and Somerset in June. Most of his followers were either groups outside the political nation or very marginalized within it. They had a strong tradition of independence and during the civil war, under Blake’s leadership, their fathers had defeated the royalist gentry. Despite harsh persecution, many of them were dissenters.

Monmouth’s proclamation was couched in radical whiggish terms: government was originally instituted for the good of the people and the royal prerogative was there to ensure the people’s safety. The remedies he proposed for what he claimed was James II’s abuse of the prerogative were very much in the spirit of 1681: annual parliaments, no standing army, repeal of the laws against dissenters, restoration of charters, free juries, and independent judges. The most inflammatory note in his proclamation was the claim that James had poisoned his brother.

On 15 June parliament rushed through a bill of attainder as a result of which Monmouth could be executed without trial. A price of £5000 was put on his head.

On 18 June Monmouth reached Taunton, which proved the most fertile recruiting ground. But to his dismay, the gentry failed to rally to him. In a panic, he issued a second proclamation on 20 June claiming the crown for himself. The tactic failed. His only chance of success lay in seizing Bristol, but his army was deflected by royalist troops at Keynsham. At Frome he learned of the failure of the Scottish rebellion, and, with the Lancashire and Cheshire gentry failing to rise, he knew his cause was lost. But Monmouth refused the option of flight. He was finally defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor on 5 July and was found hiding in a ditch near Ringwood. He was executed on 15 July.

The king’s rule in Somerset was restored under Colonel Percy Kirke, the former commander of the Tangier garrison, and his regiment (soon to be nicknamed ‘Kirke’s Lambs’). At the end of August a special commission of oyer and terminer, known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’ was set up under Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys to try some 1300 suspected rebels. Some 250 were executed, hundreds more were transported to the West Indies. The most notorious trial was that of the seventy year old Alice Lisle charged with sheltering the Nonconformist preacher, John Hickes, a fugitive from Monmouth’s army. She was beheaded in Winchester market place on 2 September.