Friday, May 18, 2007

Sedgemoor.. campaign background and initial manoeuvres..

If I'm visiting a battlefield in the UK, then without fail, my first point of call is the Battlefields Trust website - the Battlefields Trust is a charitable organisation whose aim is to preserve battle sites from the depredations of councils, road builders, and people who generally want to build supermarkets or roads on them.

They deserve our support and the website does a fantastic job of providing background and other supporting material to a whole set of battles... Sedgemoor is one of the sites covered and the map following is from the Battlefields trust page - they do a number of aerial photo's as well (Google-earth style) which are quite good, but for me, the standard Ordnance survey map of the location today, with the superimposed unit positions at the time, is perfect... the following is slightly cut down just to centre on the battle - the full maps available by clicking: here

So what about Sedgemoor.... I find it useful to set a battle in context, and my reading has dug up the following..

..the battle was the culmination of what's known as the "Monmouth Rebellion" - a Protestant uprising led by James, Duke of Monmouth (the bastard son of Charles II) against the Roman Catholic King, James II.

Monmouth was the son of a mistress of King Charles II, & was born at Rotterdam in 1649, when the King was still in exile. He was brought up and educated in France, but came to England with his father at the Restoration in 1660 and was made Duke of Monmouth in 1662. Charles II had no legitimate children, so the heir to the throne was his brother, the Duke of York (James), who was a Catholic. Monmouth was seen as the leader of the Protestant cause, however, and also as a possible successor to the throne.

When Charles II died (February 1685), James, the Duke of York succeeded his brother and was crowned James II, King of England. Monmouth, who was by this time living in Holland, was persuaded to lead an invasion against James in the name of the Protestant religion. Effectively a new English Civil War...

Monmouth sailed from Holland to Lyme Regis in Dorset (see the map to the right which is from a Government archive website here) in three small ships, with just 82 men, & short of money, guns and supplies - you can tell this was not the best prepared of invasions, and the shortage of guns in particular was to be a critical failing...

He landed at Lyme on June 11th, and issued a call for supporters to join him based on his Protestant cause. By June 13th the King received the news of the rising and at once sent a cavalry force under Lord Churchill (also known as Marlborough) to check the rebels until the slower-moving infantry and guns could get into action.

After just two days, Monmouth had an army of about a thousand foot and 150 horse - on the 15th he moved out of Lyme and marched to Axminster (Lyme was then occupied by the Royal Navy cutting off his escape, and stopping any hope of reinforcement through the port). He arrived in Taunton on the 18th after collecting more men as he went, and on the 20th (somewhat optimistically) he was proclaimed "King".

In the meanwhile Royal troops under (Lord) Feversham and (Colonel) Kirke had reached the eastern boundaries of the county and busied themselves with the safety of Bristol (a major port and therefore possible reinforcement point) and also stopping any attempt by the rebels to move out of Somerset.

Monmouth was still desperately short of money and men - he was particularly short of horses and guns - but unpersuaded he moved on Bristol. At Bridgewater, he was forced to equip 500 men with bills improvised by riveting scythe blades onto 8 ft poles - see picture to the left which is from this excellent web site and is of scythes from the Tower of London armouris collection. History has it that large numbers of the Rebel troops were armed with agricultural tools - one source however says that this may not be true and that rather than being bumpkins the average Monmouth rebel was literate and well motivated and probably lived in an urban environment - they would have been similar in many ways to the devout Massachussetts men of the frontier wars of early America.

Either way, to make matters worse the weather turned worse as the Rebels moved towards Glastonbury, though further recruits brought the rebel army up to between six and seven thousand men (interesting side note, one of these was the novelist Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame).

The critical decision was now taken by Monmouth to march on Bristol; knowing the city to be well fortified and prepared on the southern side, he planned to attack from the eastern side, after crossing the river Avon at Keynsham. Heavy rain, however, drove them back into Keynsham for shelter. During the night, Royalist cavalry (Life Guards) under Colonel Oglethorpe, launched an attack on the rebels and, without doing a great deal of harm, were successful in breaking their morale.

Almost all chances of success had now vanished and Monmouth's men, at dead of night in rain and darkness, moved hastily out of Keynsham towards Bath which was defended and refused them entry. So they moved on to Norton St Philip where they stayed for the night.

Regular troops, under Lord Feversham and Colonel Churchill, had joined forces in Bath and, with the Wiltshire militia, moved against the rebels. An advance party of dragoons and musketeers made contact with the rearguard of the rebel army, who were well sited behind hedges covering the deep lane leading into the village of Norton St Philip. In this, the first real contest between Monmouth's men and the King's regular troops, the fierce fighting demonstrated the strength and courage of the rebel forces and resulted in a tactical victory for the rebels when the Royalist forces withdrew.

Monmouth considered a move westward (to Frome) but the Royalist army blocked the way and he retreated first to Wells and then further west towards Bridgewater. As he retreated the royal army, now fully reinforced, moved after him, sent out scouting parties to discover where he was going and preparing to cut off any movement towards Exeter and Cornwall.

On the 3rd July Monmouth arrived back in Bridgewater - just 12 days after leaving it the first time, but in considerably different circumstances. The rebels now numbered no more than 3500 strong, but the Royal force, although smaller was far more experienced.

The scene was now set for the final act...