The Duke of Monmouth’s revolt was a bloody insurrection, needlessly causing the deaths of soldiery and ordinary working folk in the British West Country in 1685. The so-called Glorious Revolution occurred only three years later in 1688/89. The connection is, as it was so often in European history – religion: religion and personal ambition.
The rebellion of the young Duke of Monmouth was made against his own uncle. King James II was the younger brother of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, who had, himself, spent half his life in exile following the murder by Parliament of his father Charles I.
This regicide was the logical but unpopular culmination of the English Civil War, in which Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary forces (the New Model Army known as ‘Roundheads’) defeated the ‘Cavaliers’, or Royalists. It is the sole occasion when English politicians cut the head off their monarch’s shoulders. The King’s crimes, for which he paid the full price, were that he believed himself monarch by Divine Right (religion again); that he refused to consider a democratic parliament was the best way to govern a fast-developing country; that no parliament should prevent a monarch from spending money gathered by taxation on whatever he liked; that the Constitution was ineffective and should be changed, and finally that he led armies against ‘The People’.
Monmouth was an illegitimate son of Charles II (q.v.) who was in fact a melancholy man, much given to doubts, though he fathered seventeen bastards, almost all recognised. A group of them were given Dukedoms (q.v.). With his Queen and wife Catherine of Braganza he had plenty of real affection but no children. Young Monmouth was even better looking in a swarthy way than his father, but he failed to accept that his father had no intention of making him his heir, on account of his illegitimacy. This made him melancholy too. He was popular with the people, probably because of his looks, figure and romantic background, but he failed to gain any political benefit from the crises of Father’s unsettled reign.
Above all, the Duke of Monmouth was brainless, proud and weak. His talents, if he had any, were lacking in substance. When his father died at fifty-five, his brother James ascended the throne as a Roman Catholic, which fact in itself was bound to cause trouble. England had been Protestant since Henry VIII and Catholics were suspect, mistrusted and hated. Monmouth’s fellow Duke, the Argyll, led a revolt in Scotland and persuaded the foolish and ambitious Monmouth to raise a rebellion in the West Country.
He raised armies (mostly mercenary though thousands of Westcountrymen swelled the ranks) without too much trouble, landed at the beautiful port of Lyme Regis in Dorset, and got himself proclaimed King at Taunton. But his support was limited, and many folk from Devon, Somerset and Cornwall were doubtful. From many families, one or two sons would set out for Taunton and Monmouth’s standard, leaving perhaps a disenchanted couple more behind on the farm. It was a difficult and sad time in England.
Monmouth tried to take the huge port and city of Bristol, but failed; the Mayor and townsfolk wanting to have nothing to do with him. His war experience was insufficient, his soldiers threadbare and badly armed – many with pitchforks and cutlasses instead of firearms. At the Battle of Sedgemoor (1685) Monmouth was soundly defeated and captured. It took no time at all for James II to sign the death warrant for his thirty-six year old nephew. Saved by his rank as a son of the previous king from the usual barbarous punishment for traitors, the young man’s head was lopped off. His followers however, found no mercy at the hands of Judge Jeffries and his Bloody Assize, one of the blackest moments in the history of the West Country. Thousands of men and women suspected by the mortally-ill judge were hanged on their own village greens or summarily shot. Those spared death were shipped away to slavery in the Caribbean, where many were bought by American slave owners and shipped again, this time bound for Virginia and other slaving states. This is one of the reasons why there are so many English West Country surnames surviving in the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia etc. The name of Judge Jeffries is still so hated in the west of England that mothers are known to mutter to recalcitrant children, “do as you are told or Judge Jeffries will get you!”
The Glorious Revolution was that rare thing, a bloodless revolution. It covers the period when English nobles, intellectuals and politicians engineered the removal of James II from the throne and his replacement by a Dutchman and his English wife – William III and Mary, both monarchs, which is why historians refer to the epoch of their joint reign as ‘William and Mary’.
It is easily said that the Duke of Marlborough group’s support for usurpation of an anointed king was another attempt to remove Scottish despotism, followed by a determined attempt to re-write an unwritten Constitution.
James II (younger brother of Charles II) was unpopular from the moment of his accession in 1685. He was Roman Catholic, which accelerated the concerns of both Whigs and Tories. Ignoring the Law, he appointed fellow Catholics to important positions in the Army, the Church, the universities and schools, and, most significantly, the government. He claimed the right to suspend or dispense with Laws when he chose; he signed not one but two Declarations of Indulgence, which suspended penal laws against Catholics, and dissenters. When seven bishops objected to the second Declaration, he had them arrested, but when brought to court they were found not guilty of seditious libel, the verdict seriously inconveniencing the King.
Then the King’s wife produced a male heir in 1688, which would appear to have made a Catholic succession certain. It was too much. Prominent politicians of both leading parties plotted to offer the English throne to James’ Protestant daughter and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, a man not known for a sense of humour.
William soon landed (again in the troublesome West Country) with an army, and advanced toward London. James’ junior army officers refused to obey their Catholic seniors, his own daughters deserted him, and, without hope, he managed to escape arrest by smuggling himself abroad. The honest and trustworthy Parliament immediately asked William and Mary to ascend the vacant throne (The Bill of Rights, 1689), which they did. The common people said it was a ‘Protestant Usurpation’ and therefore A Good Thing.
James II tried to regain the throne however, landing with a French army in Ireland in March, 1690; he laid siege to Londonderry, but was defeated at The Battle of the Boyne (July, 1690). After this James went back to France, where he made himself a home and decided to forget affairs of state. In England, Parliament quickly passed The Act of Succession (1701) which makes it impossible for any Roman Catholic to become king or queen of England. The act has never been repealed. This was what British historians call ‘The Glorious Revolution’