The righteous royal rebel

Man of the people or power-hungry opportunist? The Duke of Monmouth's bid for the crown perished on the Somerset Levels in 1685 – and, with it, his reputation. But, says Anna Keay, it's time to revise our ideas about the illegitimate son of Charles II...

Portrait of James, Duke of Monmouth, the 36-year-old illegitimate son of Charles II. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On a warm summer’s evening in June 1685 an invasion army of just 83 landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset. The blue banners that flapped above them as they marched down Lyme’s main street read “For God, Freedom and Religion”. At their head, impeccable in purple silk and with the garter star glinting on his chest, walked their leader, James, Duke of Monmouth, the 36-year-old illegitimate son of Charles II. An onlooker described “many townsmen and others rejoicing and joining with the enemy crying out:

‘A Monmouth! A Monmouth! The Protestant religion!’”

The uprising that began that day was designed to oust the new king, James II and VII, who, as both an authoritarian and a Catholic, was regarded as a threat to English life and liberty. Within barely a week, some 4,000 men had joined up. But despite their popular appeal, luck ran against the rebels at every turn. A twin invasion of Scotland led by the Earl of Argyll, designed to divide the royal army, failed to gather momentum. Those who rose were ordinary people, while the gentry stood cautiously back, waiting to see what would happen.

Four weeks later, having advanced as far as Bristol before beginning to retreat, Monmouth learnt that the royal army was just four miles outside Bridgwater where his force was based. He decided that his only hope now was surprise. In the dead of night, he led his men out of town and across the flood plain of Sedgemoor, towards the enemy camp. The deep drains that traversed the plain were a challenge to navigate in the darkness, but the rebels were drawing close when, suddenly, a soldier let off his pistol. The cracking shot awoke the unsuspecting royal army. Monmouth and his men tore the last few hundred yards across the meadows to reach a foe that was now on full alert.

Lord Grey, who led the rebel cavalry, struggled to find a route across the final drain and gave up, leaving Monmouth and his eager but utterly amateur infantry to fight alone. While the royal army had guns and weaponry aplenty, the rebels had just three cannons, and many of the soldiers were armed only with straightened scythes. For three hours, through the darkest stretch of the night, the duke directed the attack, dashing back and forwards between the cannons and the line, weapon in hand. As the dawn began to break, it was clear they had no hope. Their cavalry gone, they were outnumbered and completely out-gunned. The battle, the last to be fought on English soil, was lost as the mid-summer sun rose. A week later, the Duke of Monmouth was executed for treason on Tower Hill. The crowd was sombre and dejected: “There was no shouting but many cryed.” Despite his immense contemporary popularity, the Duke of Monmouth’s posthumous reputation has been awful.

The distinguished 20th-century historian FC Turner called him “worthless and contemptible”, wondering with disbelief that he should have “appeared so attractive to his contemporaries”. The label on Monmouth’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery calls him “charming, ambitious and unprincipled”. Where then, in this great discrepancy, does the truth lie? Was Monmouth a monster his fellow men were too ignorant to see, or have historians got it wrong?

Earning a reputation

The Duke of Monmouth was born in 1649, during his father’s exile, and at eight was kidnapped from his mother, Lucy Walter, on his father’s instructions. Brought to England in 1662, “a most pretty sparke”, he became Charles II’s darling. Drenched with honours, made a duke and married to an heiress as he turned 14, he became undoubtedly the most spoiled and debauched teenager of the Restoration age. Samuel Pepys described him as one “who spends his time the most viciously and idly of any man, nor will be fit for anything”. Had history stopped then, Monmouth’s reputation would have been deserved.

But it did not. In the five years or so from the late 1660s, Monmouth matured from a selfish idler into a man of substance. Two years spent leading the English regiments sent to fight with Louis XIV (against the Dutch in the Franco-Dutch War) were to prove transformational. They gave him real responsibility, away from the licentious Restoration court, causing him to grow up rapidly and dramatically. They also saw him forge a formidable military reputation, not least when, in 1673, with Louis XIV looking on, he led the Anglo-French army to bring down the fortified city of Maastricht. With both the Comte D’Artagnan himself and the future Duke of Marlborough fighting under him, the siege made him a military hero.

On his return from the wars, Monmouth became head of the army, a privy councillor and a figure of growing political consequence. It was a fluke of timing that on the very month he led his men to victory at Maastricht, his uncle, James, Duke of York, was forced to resign all his offices, after confirming his conversion to Catholicism. Over the next decade, as fear grew about the dangers posed by York succeeding Charles II, Monmouth emerged as the popular alternative, and – after his father expelled him from court – a member of the political opposition who tried to pass a bill through parliament excluding York from the throne. It was a political drama of which the 1685 invasion would be the last tragic act.

Dearly beloved

Posterity’s first charge against Monmouth is one of misplaced ambition: the absurdity of an ill-educated bastard son seeking the throne at all. It’s true that there were calls for Monmouth to succeed his father but they didn’t come from the duke himself. Charles II treated Monmouth with such affection that the rumours that the duke would be legitimised were widespread while he was barely in his teens. Charles II encouraged these by calling him “our dearly beloved son”, giving him a coat of arms without the baton denoting illegitimacy and allowing him to take the place in court ceremonial of a prince of the blood.

By 1680, Monmouth certainly wished to see his uncle excluded from the succession, but he never actively proposed himself as an alternative. Indeed, even when he invaded England, he declared parliament should decide the succession. It was only when it became clear that the invasion was heading for disaster that he was finally persuaded to put his name forward as king.

The second charge is that Monmouth was a selfish opportunist without political conviction. This also does not bear close inspection. During his army career Monmouth developed an acute sense of honour and justice.

He took immense trouble to ensure that right prevailed, taking time to settle endless disputes equitably, lobbying relentlessly for pay to be on time and gaining a reputation for fairness and humanity. When he was sent to put down a Presbyterian uprising in Scotland, he refused to kill the defeated rebels as his father and uncle thought he should, remarking that “he could not kill men in cold blood, that was only for butchers”.

During the 1670s, the Duke of York had become ever more jealous of his popular nephew and repeatedly blocked his appointment to senior positions. This gave Monmouth ample reason to dislike the uncle to whom he had once been close. But his decision to join the opposition was fuelled by far more than personal animosity. In fact, it was his encounter with the government’s harsh treatment of Scottish Presbyterians in the late 1670s that convinced him that the authoritarian York posed a real danger to English political and religious liberty. York resented any resistance to royal authority, being “bred with high notions of the kingly authority, and laid it down for a maxim that all who opposed the king were rebels in their hearts”. He showed his true colours when he told William of Orange the following year that he and Charles intended to dispense with parliaments altogether.

When Monmouth spoke in support of the bill to exclude his uncle from the succession in 1680, he was not acting simply out of personal enmity to one who had relentlessly blocked his progress but also out of personal conviction that English freedoms were under threat. A man of no moral compass he was not.

The fierce political dichotomy between those who wished to exclude York, and those who did not, gave rise to political ‘parties’ for the first time: the ‘Whigs’ for exclusion; the ‘Tories’ against. At the forefront of the Whigs was the brilliant Earl of Shaftesbury, Monmouth’s political colleague, who has been viewed as his puppet master. But in fact, the duke and Shaftesbury often disagreed, leading in the end to their parting company definitively.

A shame and a sin

The final charge against Monmouth relates to his capitulation before James II on the day before his execution, when he pleaded for his life and claimed to have been misled into invading. That any human, facing an imminent and violent death, might bargain for survival is hardly surprising. (Thomas Cranmer enthusiastically recanted his Protestantism in the days before being burned by Mary Tudor, for which history has forgiven him.) And there was truth in Monmouth’s protests. When he heard of his father’s death, he had been out of politics for two years and declared he would have no part in any uprising. It was only when the radical Whigs subjected him to huge emotional pressure – telling him “it would be a shame and a sin before God not to do it” – before lying about the level of support for an invasion, that he had eventually agreed.

Peeling back the layers, Monmouth emerges as a different figure. He was adored by the crowds in London and on the Whig campaign tours he made of the North West and South West. In the face of a wildly unpopular royal heir, he was the Protestant son of the king whose dashing good looks and reputation for bravery made him immensely appealing.

He also had huge personal charm. Ballads were printed in his name, popular prints churned out, and tales told of his exploits. When he visited Chester, he stood as godfather of the mayor’s baby daughter, participated in horse and foot races and – when he won – presented his prize to his new goddaughter. Every politician who ever kissed a baby learned a lesson from the Duke of Monmouth. All of this was to be hugely important, for this was the age in which popular participation in English electoral politics truly began.

English rising

Just three years after his failed invasion, Monmouth’s cousin and close friend William of Orange followed suit. In contrast to Monmouth’s 83 men and three vessels, William landed with 20,000 men in 500 ships. Within six weeks he had taken the kingdom. That he was able to do so owed a great deal to the Duke of Monmouth. He had shown the pitfalls of invading: the need not to rely on Englishmen rising and the importance of the support of the ruling elite – causing William to secure his ‘invitation’ to invade. And it was no coincidence that William chose Monmouth’s own West Country heartland for his landing place. Above all, Monmouth had made intervening in the royal succession not just palatable but popular among ordinary people.

After his death, it was in no one’s interests – neither the dejected Jacobites nor the jubilant Williamites – to mourn the fallen Monmouth. He lived on, though, in the memory of those who had followed him – among them the husbandman John Bragg, who believed “Munmouth was noe more dead than he was and that we should see other of his doings here”.

William’s wife, Queen Mary II of England, who had skated hand in hand with the duke just weeks before his invasion, commissioned a history that described the cousin she loved. Monmouth, to her, was “brave, generous, affable, and extremely handsome, constant in his friendships, just to his word and an utter enemy to all sorts of cruelty”. His invasion was not an act of preposterous vainglory, but was driven by motives that “were noble and chiefly aim’d at the good of his country”.

Dr Anna Keay is director of the Landmark Trust.

The life of Monmouth

April 1649 

Three months after the execution of Charles I, an illegitimate son is born to the 18-year-old Charles II in Rotterdam. He is named James.

1658 

The young James is kidnapped from his mother, Lucy Walter (right), on Charles II’s orders.

July 1662 

James is brought to England by his grandmother, Queen Henrietta Maria. His father gives him a rapturous welcome.

April 1663 

James (left) is made Duke of Monmouth and married to Anna, Countess of Buccleuch. The groom is 14 and the bride 12.

June 1673 

Louis XIV’s army besieges the stronghold of Maastricht. Monmouth leads the attack, fighting with the Comte D’Artagnan, and successfully takes the city.

September 1679 

Charles II expels Monmouth from court, as popular support for him to replace James, Duke of York as the king’s successor reaches fever pitch.

Autumn 1681 

A bill to exclude the Duke of York from the throne is passed in the Commons. Monmouth speaks in its favour in the Lords, but it is defeated.

July 1683 

Monmouth is implicated in a plot for an armed rising against Charles II and is given harbour at the Hague by his cousin William of Orange (right).

June 1685 

Monmouth lands at Lyme Regis. He raises an army of 4,000, but they are defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor.

November 1688 

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William of Orange lands at Torbay. James II flees after a catastrophic reign, and the Bill of Rights heralds the dawn of constitutional monarchy.