LAST week we took a fresh look at the Monmouth Rebellion.

Today we continue telling the story of this pivotal piece of south west history which was an attempt in the West Country to overthrow James II.

Last week we heard how the Duke of Monmouth gathered in Lyme Regis and gathered an army for the attempted coup.

By July 6, 1685, Monmouth’s army was based in Bridgwater, Somerset, whilst the Royalist army had concentrated at the village of Westonzoyland about about two miles away, being camped on the Sedgemoor just outside. Monmouth decided on a night march and surprise attack, but the accidental discharge of a pistol warned the Royalists they were approaching and the Bussex Rhyne (drainage ditch) in front of the camp prevented the attack being pressed home.

There were still chances for the rebels to win, but in the dark and confusion they were missed and the better disciplined and trained Royal Army was triumphant. They lost 27 men; the rebel losses are disputed - varying between 727 and 2,700.


History showed that Rebels could expect little or no mercy; the Northern Rising, Peasant’s Revolt, Pilgrimage of Grace, Western Rising and Kett Rebellion, for example, had all ended with mass slaughter. What was to follow now was equally brutal.

The rebel survivors were imprisoned in Westonzoyland church and there they remained, their wounds untreated, whilst Judge Jeffreys was sent for. Enquiries were made in every parish where the rebellion had occurred for anyone who was absent during that period. The result of that enquiry was that for the first time in British history there was a complete list of all the names of the rebels and where they came from.

Monmouth was quickly found, hiding in a ditch and taken as a prisoner to London. No trial was necessary as an ‘Act of Attainder’ had been passed by Parliament, and despite him pleading for mercy, he was summarily beheaded. In a macabre twist, it was realised that despite being of royal blood there was no portrait of him, so the day after he was buried he was disinterred, the head stuck back on and a portrait painted.

Judge Jeffreys was making his way to Salisbury for the first assize, full of vindictiveness and suffering from a painful kidney disease (probably stones). On his way he stopped off at Winchester to condemn to death Alice Lisle, a deeply religious woman who had been caught sheltering two fleeing rebels; there was no evidence that she was aware of their crime, but an example had to be made!

The Bloody Assizes took place at Salisbury, Dorchester, Taunton and Wells. Figures vary, but it appears that more than 1,400 cases were heard, of which 1,381 rebels were found guilty and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The King exercised the prerogative of mercy in some cases and it ended with 320 being executed and the sentence for 800 commuted to transportation. There was a good reason for this; before the final battle had been fought, slave owners at the King’s court had petitioned him to buy up to 1,000 rebels to use as slaves on their sugar plantations in the West Indies. The King could make a lot of money out of this and it was not an act of mercy; the brutality and hardship involved is well illustrated in Raphael Sabatini’s novel Captain Blood.

In time honoured fashion, once the condemned had been beheaded and their bodies quartered, their heads and quarters were displayed in prominent sites around the area where the rebellion had taken place; the description by travellers of: “...a charnel house...” was frequently used.

Special treatment was reserved for Lyme Regis where the rebellion had originated; heads and quarters were displayed on the spiked railings around the church, and there they remained until King James was deposed in 1688. Indeed, any attempt to remove any body part, anywhere would result in severe punishment.

*Next week we find out how Weymouth and Melcombe Regis were involved in the rebellion.