Marlborough, p.16Richard Holmes
Feversham marched from London to Maidenhead on 20 June, reached Newbury the next day and joined the Dukes of Beaufort and Somerset at Bristol on the twenty-third. He had slipped Colonel Oglethorpe, with a party of Life Guards and Horse Grenadiers, off to his left flank by way of Andover and Warminster in case Monmouth tried to break eastwards between Churchill and his own force. There can be no faulting Feversham’s performance in the early stages of the campaign. He reached Bristol in time to thwart Monmouth, and screened his open flank as he marched. We cannot say for certain how close the militia were to total collapse, but a fragmentary undated letter from the Duke of Somerset to either Albemarle or Churchill shows the state he was in:
I do desire your Lordship to come away towards me with what forces you have, for I have only one regiment and one troop of horse which I am afraid will hardly stand because the others have showed them the way to run, the enemy is now at Bridgwater, which is ten miles of where I am, and that if your Lordship does not march to Somerton … 69
Monmouth might conceivably have beaten Feversham to Bristol, but he was raising troops as he advanced, so could not achieve Feversham’s turn of speed. As generations of holiday-makers know to their cost, the dryness of West Country summers cannot be guaranteed, and now the weather conspired against the soldiers on both sides. Nathaniel Wade recorded that on 22 June the rebels marched to Glastonbury on ‘an exceeding rainy day’ and quartered their infantry in the abbey and churches, making ‘very great fires’ to dry them out. On that day a patrol of the Oxford Blues, scouting out from Langport, met a stronger party of rebel horse and ‘beat them into their camp’, and the Portsmouth train of artillery, which had reached Sherborne with its escorting infantry of Trelawney’s Regiment, was ordered forward to Somerton by Churchill. This further increased the strength of his brigade, and on 23 June he told the nervous Duke of Somerset that he hoped to persuade Feversham to join him at Wells and fight Monmouth before he reached Bristol.
Feversham, however, had decided to head straight for Bristol, and reached it with his leading horse on the twenty-third, leaving the bulk of his infantry slogging out behind him along the Great West Road. Then, on the twenty-fourth, still before Bristol was firmly secured, the leading cavalry troop of Monmouth’s advance guard rushed the Avon bridge at Keynsham, only five miles away, and drove off the party of militia horse protecting civilian workmen who were damaging the bridge so as to prevent the rebels from crossing. It took Monmouth’s inexperienced officers the best part of twenty-four hours to get their men across the river and formed up in Sydenham Mead on the far bank. Monmouth decided to attack Bristol that night, and we cannot tell how its defenders, the Duke of Beaufort’s Gloucester militia, would have performed if put to the test. But the filthy weather induced Monmouth’s men to recross the river: a local royalist heard shouts of ‘Horse and away’ as they broke for cover. Those who could took shelter in the houses of Keynsham, and others were in the nearby fields ‘refreshing themselves’. The posting of sentries was not accorded high priority.
Feversham had spent much of the twenty-fourth at Bath, and when he heard that Monmouth had seized Keynsham bridge he sent Oglethorpe, who had commanded his flank-guard on the march west, to investigate. The Horse Grenadiers, at the head of Oglethorpe’s detachment, were as poor at their scouting as Monmouth’s men were at their sentry duty, and had actually reached the centre of Keynsham before the rebels turned out of the houses and opened fire. The royalists eventually had the better of the skirmish, with an anonymous rebel reporting: ‘They did us mischief, killed and wounded about twenty men, whereas we killed none of theirs, only took four prisoners and their horses, and wounded my Lord Newburgh, that it was thought mortal.’70 Oglethorpe, who had immediately charged to rescue the beleaguered Horse Grenadiers, actually lost two men killed and four wounded, and was in no position to force the issue. However, one of the captured troopers told Monmouth that Feversham’s main body was not far behind, and Monmouth resolved to fall back, along the south bank of the Avon, to Bath.
Monmouth reached Bath on the twenty-fifth, but the militia garrison refused to open the gates, and shot his messenger. He then headed south, for Frome, and on the evening of the twenty-sixth the royal army, now lacking only the guns from the Tower of London and their escorting companies of Dumbarton’s Regiment, linked up in the city. Churchill had marched in from the west, pausing briefly near Pensford to hang ‘Jarvis the feltmaker’, a Yeovil radical whose commission as a captain in the rebel army did not save him, though he died ‘obstinately and impenitently’, and we should remember him for that.
The astute historian John Tincey complains that Churchill had not managed to stop Monmouth’s march on Keynsham, and that had Bristol fallen its loss might have been laid at his door. Yet from the start of the campaign it had been Churchill’s plan to hang on to Monmouth’s flanks and rear: his getting ahead of the rebels only made sense if Feversham joined him, which is precisely what he had hoped for on 23 June. When Feversham decided instead to head straight for Bristol it was reasonable for Churchill to assume that the earl would watch his own front. The fact that Feversham had indeed begun to break down Keynsham bridge shows that he understood its importance, even if those hapless lads of the Gloucester militia did not.
The campaign was now reaching its climax. Monmouth’s first option had been to march straight for London, sustained as he hoped by a vast and unstoppable popular rising. When, disobligingly, this support failed to materialise, he sought to base himself on Bristol (whence he could communicate with supporters elsewhere in the country), strengthen and train his army, and only then head for the capital. With the swing away from Bristol his campaign had teetered beyond its culminating point, and he was fast running out of options. Feversham, for his part, had never planned to fight until his army was complete, and time was now on his side.
Poor scouting led the royal army, heading south on Monmouth’s heels, into an unplanned clash at Norton St Philip on 27 June. Its advance guard received a bloody nose, staunched only by the arrival of Churchill, who ‘secured the mouth of the lane with his dragoons and lined the hedges on each side with foot’, providing a secure base which enabled Feversham to extricate himself. Despite this brief setback, Feversham remained determined to maintain close contact with Monmouth, whose army, suffering the effects of repeated bad weather and evident failure, was haemorrhaging deserters. Monmouth briefly considered trying to sidestep Feversham by making for Warminster and then heading for London, but Feversham got wind of this from sympathisers and deserters, and marched from Bradford on Avon early on 29 June to block the rebels’ route at ‘Westbury under the Plain’.
The train of artillery at last arrived on the thirtieth, and Feversham then edged south-westwards, gently shadowing Monmouth, whose numbers shrank daily. On 4 July Churchill wrote to Lord Clarendon from Somerton. He was now evidently as anxious about his career as he was about the outcome of the campaign. He told Clarendon that:
nobody living can have been more observant than I have been to my Lord Feversham … in so much that he did tell me he would write to the King, to let him know how diligent I was, and I should be glad if you would let me know if he has done me that justice. I find, by the enemy’s warrant to the constables, that they have more mind to get horses and saddles than anything else, which looks as if he has a mind to break away with his horse to some other place and leave his foot entrenched at Bridgwater, but of this and all other things you will have it more at large from my Lord Feversham, who has the sole command here, so that I know nothing but what it is in his pleasure to tell me, so that I am afraid of giving my opinion freely, for fear it should not agree with what is the King’s intentions, and so expose myself. But as to the taking care of the men and all other things that is my duty, I am sure nobody can be more careful than I am; and as for my obedience, I am sure Mr Oglethorpe is not more dutiful than I am … 71
Oglethorpe, scion of a Yorkshire royalist family, also enjoyed the personal favou
However, in 1685 all this lay in the future. When Churchill told Clarendon, ‘I see plainly that the trouble is all mine and the honour will be another’s,’ he was at least as suspicious of Oglethorpe as he was of Feversham. He was Feversham’s second in command, but was kept in the dark as to his plans, while the cavalry pursuit was entrusted to Oglethorpe, leaving Churchill with command of the foot. He was actually promoted major general in July, though he probably did not know of his good fortune till after Sedgemoor had been fought.
It was to Sedgemoor that Churchill’s steps now turned. While the royal army was at Somerton news arrived that the rebels were fortifying Bridgwater, where they had arrived on 3 July, as if they proposed to make their stand there. One of Feversham’s officers had ridden over the moor, and suggested that there was a good campsite on its edge, near the village of Westonzoyland. The royal army arrived there on Sunday, 5 July, and William Sparke, a local farmer, climbed the tower of Chedzoy church to see it moving into camp. He dispatched his herdsman, Benjamin Godfrey, to tell the Duke of Monmouth what had happened.72 The citizens of Taunton had firmly informed Monmouth that he would not now be welcome to return, and he had decided to march northwards once more, heading yet again for Keynsham bridge and Bristol. However, Godfrey’s news induced him to change his mind. He determined to mount a night attack on the royal army, interviewed Godfrey, and may well have spoken to William Sparke and climbed Chedzoy tower to see the ground for himself. So much of what happened that busy afternoon has become the stuff of legend, but one credible story has Monmouth spot the colours of Dumbarton’s Regiment, which had fought under his command in France and ‘by which he had been extremely beloved’. He told one of his officers, ‘I know these men will fight and if I had them I would not doubt of success.’73
The field of Sedgemoor is a squarish slab of tussocky lowland, each of its sides roughly three miles long. The Bussex Rhine, marking its south-east border, oozed into the River Parrett, its south-west edge, two miles from Westonzoyland. North-east of the village the Bussex Rhine joined the Black Ditch, the north-eastern boundary of the battlefield. The smaller Langport Rhine curled out like a comma from the Black Ditch just south of the cornfields bordering Chedzoy. The main road to Bristol from Bridgwater, marking the north-west edge of the field, ran across the moor via the ‘Long Causeway’. Just over two miles from the town the ‘Short Causeway’ carried a track to Chedzoy, out on the moor. Another metalled road curled from Westonzoyland to Bridgwater by way of Panzoy Farm.
On 4 July Captain Coy’s troop of the Royal Dragoons flicked forward towards Bridgwater, met a strong body of Monmouth’s horse and got off ‘without any considerable damage on either side’. Feversham seems to have believed that the main body of the rebels would stand siege in Bridgwater, for he sent word to Bath to hasten the arrival of his ‘mortar piece’, no real use to him in the field but able to pitch its explosive shells over walls. His men went into camp just north of Westonzoyland, with the Bussex Rhine between them and Bridgwater, a little over three miles away. Recent research suggests that the Bussex Rhine was perhaps eight and a half metres wide but, in the area of the battlefield, only thirty centimetres deep. Much bigger rivers have had less momentous consequences.
Feversham’s infantry pitched their tents in a single line behind the Bussex Rhine, leaving enough ground between camp and ditch for them to form up in line of battle. The cannon were on the infantry’s left, ‘fronting the great road’ to make it easier to get them on the move again next morning, and the horse and dragoons were quartered in Westonzoyland. The official account of the battle emphasises the trouble that Feversham took to guard against surprise. Captain Coy’s dragoons watched the crossings of the River Parrett at Barrow Bridge and Langport to the army’s left rear. The road to Bridgwater was soundly
picketed. Captain Upcott of the Oxford Blues had a ‘grand guard’ of forty troopers, essentially a stationary sentry-party, out on the moor beyond Panzoy Farm. There were forty musketeers of the Foot Guards behind the walls of a sheep fold (‘walled man-high’) further towards Bridgwater, with plenty of sheep ticks and few opportunities for tow-row-rowing. Finally, a party of a hundred men of the Blues and fifty dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Compton was further forward still, providing sentries and small patrols to screen the moor and able to fall back onto the musketeers and the cavalry grand guard if they came under pressure.
Given Feversham’s assumption, shared by Churchill, that the rebels might try to get their horse away, probably to the north, Theophilus Oglethorpe had put a small patrol out onto the Bridgwater – Bristol road, and posted another party on the Langmoor Rhine, and then rode up to the top of Knowle Hill. Feversham visited ‘his sentries, together with his grand and out guards’, at about eleven and then retired to his quarters in Westonzoyland, where he was to sleep on a camp bed set up in the parlour at Weston Court. He had every reason to turn in with confidence: perhaps 250 of his seven hundred horse and dragoons were now on duty, and he had taken all reasonable precautions against surprise.
His infantry battalions were camped in order of seniority. Dumbarton’s was the senior line regiment in the field but junior to the guards regiments present, two battalions of 1st Foot Guards and a single battalion of the Coldstream.74 However, Dumbarton’s took station at the post of honour on the right of the line, almost certainly because it furnished the infantry grand guard, with perhaps a hundred of its soldiers standing to their arms all night. This party would provide the little force’s right markers if the infantry had to assemble during the night. The vicar of Chedzoy maintained that one of Dumbarton’s company commanders was sure that the rebels would attack, and had paced out the ground between tents and Bussex Rhine and warned his men to be ready.
There seems, however, to have been little sense that there was any real danger. Edward Dummer, a gunner in the artillery train, recorded that ‘a preposterous confidence of ourselves with an undervaluing of the rebels that many days before had made us make such tedious marches had put us into the worst circumstances of surprise’. Writing in 1718, an officer of the Blues declared that ‘On Sunday night most of the officers were drunk and had no manner of apprehension of the enemy.’75 We may doubt whether a tiny village like Westonzoyland actually contained sufficient alcohol to induce widespread drunkenness, even if the royal army was unfamiliar with the foot-tangling attributes of the local cider. But it is safe to assume that, apart from the occasional edgy Scot, most of Feversham’s officers yawned confidently to their beds.
Monmouth’s army moved out of Bridgwater on the Long Causeway at about eleven o’clock that night. It did not take the Short Causeway out to Chedzoy, the easiest route onto the moor, but turned eastwards in the direction of Peasy Farm to march parallel with the Black Ditch towards the royal army’s right flank. Theophilus Oglethorpe, up on Knowle Hill and preoccupied with the Bristol road, saw nothing of this. To make matters worse, after dark he had pulled in his standing patrol from the Langmoor Rhine, leaving a gap through which Monmouth slipped. He discovered what had happened some time later, when he took a patrol towards Bridgwater to satisfy himself that the rebels were still there. He just missed the tail end of Monmouth’s marching army, and only when he reached Bridgwater did he learn that the rebels had left the town.
At about the same time that Oglethorpe realised the scale of his failure, Monmouth was getting his men across the Langmoor Rhine, and confirming his plan with his senior commanders. Lord Grey was to t
We cannot be sure who fired it. Captain John Hucker of Monmouth’s horse maintained at his trial that he shot deliberately, to betray the attack, but his tale was as unconvincing then as it is now, and they hanged him anyway. It was probably one of Compton’s troopers, out creasing the moor, who fired his pistol in the air the minute he saw columns of rebel infantry on the move, and then rode towards Chedzoy to find Compton himself. Compton sent at least one trooper to camp to raise the alarm, and as he spurred towards Westonzoyland he collided with part of the rebel horse. Lord Grey had predictably missed the northern plungeon and had turned north of the Bussex Rhine rather than south of it, so was now separated from the royal camp by a belt of water which was effectively impassable to poorly trained cavalry in the dark.76 There was an inconclusive scuffle in which Compton was shot in the chest, but the damage was done.
Behind the Bussex Rhine the king’s infantry had turned out of their tents to form up on the open ground south of the ditch. Their drums were now beating. Some regiments had been issued with new flintlock fusil, but others had the older matchlock, and the glow of match-cord flickered out along the line as the corporals, whose job it was to keep a light handy, lit their men’s matches. The official account tells of ‘my Lord Churchill having command of the foot and seeing every man at his post doing his duty’, and the infantry’s swift response to the alarm speaks loudly for its training and discipline, and his precautions. All chance of surprise, and with it Monmouth’s battle, was now lost.
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