Marlborough, p.17Richard Holmes
Most of Grey’s horsemen crossed Dumbarton’s front unengaged by yelling out that they were militia horse under Albemarle. But when challenged by 1st Foot Guards (commanded by Monmouth’s half-brother the Duke of Grafton), some replied with the rebel field-word ‘Monmouth and God with us,’ and both battalions of 1st Foot Guards in turn replied with a volley, as did the right-hand companies of the Coldstream. This was too much for Grey’s men, who broke back across the moor, some of them colliding with the two rearmost regiments of foot, the Blue and the White, which were forming up after crossing the Langmoor Rhine. The three remaining regiments, Red, Yellow and Green, managed to get into line ‘but not in good order’, just across the Bussex Rhine from the royal army’s right flank.
The rebel gunners had trundled three small field guns all the way from Bridgwater, and now swung them into action between the Yellow and Green regiments towards the left of Monmouth’s line. The rebels got to within ‘half musket shot’ of their enemies (Nathaniel Wade thought that the Red Regiment was within thirty or forty paces of the Bussex Rhine), stood their ground, and fired. Monmouth’s cannon, manned by Dutch professionals, made better practice than his infantry, most of whom, like many soldiers in battle for the first time, shot too high. Sending blasts of case-shot across the Bussex Rhine, the guns were soon doing serious damage to Dumbarton’s men and the right-hand battalion of 1st Foot Guards. Churchill, having satisfied himself that his line was properly drawn up, sent one troop of the Royal Dragoons across to the southern plungeon, and directed Lord Cornbury to take two more across to the right to support Dumbarton’s. He also ordered three light field guns to take station on the right of Dumbarton’s and pushed another three forward to join the first battalion of 1st Foot Guards. There is a pleasing story that Dr Peter Mews, Bishop of Winchester, a Dorset man who was accompanying the army, used his carriage horses to tug at least one of the guns into action. He had been a royalist captain during the Civil War and had fought in Holland after it, and was just the sort of prelate who saw no harm in praising God and passing the ammunition, but it is impossible to confirm the tale.
Cornbury’s dragoons, probably dismounted, were in action against the Green regiment on Monmouth’s left. They hit its colonel, Abraham Holmes, killing his horse beneath him and leaving him badly wounded on the ground. Churchill crossed the ditch nearby when the infantry eventually moved forward and asked Holmes, ‘Who art thou?’ Holmes replied glumly that he was not in a condition to tell. By this time some of the royal horse had mounted and ridden out of Westonzoyland to attack the right flank of Monmouth’s infantry. There is a possibility that they missed their way in the dark, swung back too close to the royal line and were duly shot at by their own infantry, but we cannot be sure.
When Feversham reached the field he divided his horse into two groups, and sent them out across the two plungeons to threaten the rebel flanks, probably ordering them not to charge until it was light enough for them to see what they were doing. Oglethorpe, on the right, spurred on anyhow, collided with a party of rebel horse and was then beaten off with loss when he charged one of the rebel foot regiments. While the horse were getting out onto the moor, Churchill shifted Trelawney’s and Kirke’s, who had nothing to shoot at, across to the right, although by the time they came up with Dumbarton’s the sun was beginning to rise and the battle was entering its last phase. With daylight reducing the risk of further ‘friendly fire’ incidents the royalist horse charged the retreating rebel infantry. The guns were swiftly overrun, and the rebel foot, struggling off as best it could, was soon swamped. Churchill quickly pushed the grenadier companies of his infantry across the Bussex Rhine to support the horse. The grenadiers of Dumbarton’s took Monmouth’s own banner, whose motto Fear nothing but GOD might have seemed ironic to the rebel survivors now running for their lives to escape the broadswords of the pursuing horsemen.
Oglethorpe was sent post-haste to London with news of the victory: his mistakes had not cost him Feversham’s favour. Churchill rode straight for Bridgwater, which opened its gates at once. The settling of accounts began early: on 7 July a Dutch gunner and a deserter who had fought for the rebels were hanged in front of the whole army. That hard man Percy Kirke, now appointed brigadier to command both his own regiment and Trelawney’s, was left behind to secure prisoners and ensure that the dead were properly buried. Sedgemoor had cost the royal army about thirty killed, and another 206, most of them from Dumbarton’s and 1st Foot Guards, were to receive pensions for wounds received. At least 1,400 rebels had been killed in the fighting and pursuit.
Monmouth was captured, dressed in shepherd’s clothes, on 8 July. He had already been condemned by Act of Attainder, but cravenly begged the king for his life: James observed that he ‘did not behave himself so well as I expected nor as one ought who had taken upon him to be king’.77 He had recovered his courage by the time he was taken to Tower Hill for execution the next day but, despite a substantial tip of six guineas, with the promise of another six from a servant after the job was done, Jack Ketch, the executioner, failed to kill him with his first three hacks. He then threw down his axe and declared that he could not go on, but the furious crowd urged him to put Monmouth out of his misery. Another two blows failed to sever the duke’s head, and the executioner eventually worried it off with his knife. Ketch had to be escorted from the scene to protect him from the mob.
The trials of captured rebels began at Winchester in late August, and thereafter the ‘Bloody Assizes’, supervised by George, Lord Jeffreys, the lord chief justice, worked its sanguinary way across the West Country. Something over three hundred rebels were hanged, drawn and quartered, their executions taking place across the region and their quartered bodies distributed even more widely. Almost nine hundred were sentenced to transportation to the West Indies as unpaid labourers for four years, a term of exile soon increased to ten years. Churchill’s biographers whisk him back to London immediately after the battle, but in late September Jeffreys wrote to tell the king that Churchill, ‘who was upon the place’, would tell him what had been done to snuff out rebellion in Taunton, a comment that makes sense only if Churchill had first witnessed Jeffreys’ bloody handiwork and then returned to London.78 The property of traitors was forfeit to the crown, and some of it was passed on as reward to the victors of Sedgemoor. Feversham, made a Knight of the Garter, received the estates of the executed Alice Lisle, and Churchill was given the very considerable property of John Hacker, captain of rebel horse and prosperous Taunton businessman.
Churchill emerged from the campaign with great credit. Of his possible rivals, Theophilus Oglethorpe had not fulfilled his promise as a cavalry leader, and Percy Kirke was to establish an unpleasant (though probably exaggerated) reputation for casual brutality as he snuffed out the embers of the rebellion with his tough Tangier veterans, known ironically, from their paschal lamb emblem, as Kirke’s Lambs. However, Churchill’s role in the battle became politicised almost immediately, and too many of his biographers have taken contemporary polemic for historical fact. Feversham, a royal favourite and a Frenchman by birth, was not popular at a time when the French were seen as natural enemies. His depiction in the Duke of Buckingham’s play The Battle of Sedgemoor (which manages to combine both anti-French and anti-Irish prejudice) is valuable only as evidence of perennial English suspicion of Johnny Foreigner.
A pox take de Towna vid de hard Name: How you call de Towna, De Breeche? … Ay begarra, Breechwater; so Madama we have intelegenta dat de Rebel go to Breechwater; me say to my Mena, Match you Rogua; so we marsha de greata Fielda, beggar, de brave Contra where dey killa de Hare vid de Hawk, beggar, de brav Sport in de Varld.79
Feversham was a naturalised Englishman, had lived in England for over twenty years, and spoke the language well.
Thomas Lediard’s whiggish biography of Marlborough (1736) quotes an unknown author who affirms that Feversham ‘had no parties abroad, he got no intelligence, and was almost surprised, and like to be defeated, when he s
Winston S. Churchill claimed that:
Nothing could free the public mind from the fact that Churchill had saved and won the battle. The whole Army knew the facts. The officers included the Household troops, the Guards, and all the most fashionable soldiers about the court. They all said what they thought. Feversham’s martial achievements became a laughing-stock … The impression that this slothful foreigner was slumbering on his couch and that the vigilant Englishman saved the situation had more truth in it than the popular version of many historical events.80
If these well-placed officers did indeed know discreditable facts about Feversham, and trailed them about court, we may wonder why James appointed him to command his army in 1688 when the threat was infinitely more serious.
Feversham does not have to be a villain for Churchill to be a hero. Whatever the rumours of drunkenness or lack of vigilance, the royal infantry, his prime responsibility as the army’s second in command, was camped in good order with well-understood alarm drills, and Dumbarton’s provided an alert grand guard which established the right marker for its battle line. Once the fight was joined, Churchill shifted dragoons to both flanks, and paid special attention to his right, where Dumbarton’s Scots were under pressure. He moved his two left-hand regiments off to the right some time afterwards, but by this time the rebel attack was broken. John Tincey, whose recent scholarly account of Sedgemoor comes as close as we can hope to being definitive, reckons that: ‘By the time Feversham arrived the battle was won and he had little to do but, with the dawn, to organise the pursuit of a beaten enemy … Sedgemoor may not have been John Churchill’s most spectacular victory, but it must rightfully be considered to be his first.’81
Uneasy Lies the Head
Any historian surveying the next three years must account for the fact that the nations which applauded the defeat of Monmouth and Argyll in 1685 offered remarkably little support for James II in 1688. For Churchill’s biographers the task is even more specific: what made a man who acknowledged himself to owe everything to James, and who had helped keep him on the throne in 1685, betray him in his hour of need? We have the usual clash of polemics. James II’s many critics see him as a monster bent on imposing Roman Catholicism on his three kingdoms and obliterating those legal defences which stood in his way. In contrast, the Jacobite Life of James II, based partly on his own memoirs, maintained that James was a benevolent and paternalistic figure who
had given all the marks of love, care and tenderness of his subjects, that could be expected from a true father of his people: he had … encouraged and increased their trade, preserved them from taxes, supported their credit, [and] made them a rich, happy and more powerful people than they had ever appeared in the world.82
It is perhaps easiest to see 1685–88 as a sequence of interlinked royal miscalculations, in which maladroitness and bad luck loomed larger than malice or cruelty; and though James won most of the individual legal battles he lost the war. The Bloody Assizes had the effect (not wholly unlike the Dublin executions of 1916) of alarming many moderate men who had never wished the rebels well but did not relish the severities meted out to them. James’s own overt Roman Catholicism, the arrival in London of a papal nuncio and the apparent influence of James’s Jesuit confessor Father Petre created tension in themselves. They were, though, made far more disturbing to Protestants by the fact that in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given religious toleration to his Protestant subjects, and embarked upon a policy of forced conversion which drove tens of thousands of Huguenots into exile with dreadful stories to tell.
John Evelyn was shocked by what he heard.
The French persecution of the Protestants raging with the utmost barbarity, exceeded even what the very heathens used; innumerable persons of the greatest birth and riches leaving all their earthly substance and barely escaping with their lives, dispersed through all the countries of Europe. The French tyrant abrogated the Edict of Nantes … on a sudden demolishing all their churches, banishing, imprisoning and sending to the galleys all the ministers; plundering all the common people, and exposing them to all sorts of barbarous usages by soldiers sent to ruin and prey upon them; taking away their children; forcing people to mass, and then executing them as relapsers … 83
In the spring of 1686 English congregations were asked to contribute to a fund for the exiles. This ‘was long expected, and was at last with difficulty procured to be published, the interest of the French ambassador obstructing it’. The government ordered a book detailing the outrages inflicted on the Huguenots to be burnt by the common hangman, but even Evelyn, a committed royalist, thought that this was ‘no refutation of any facts therein’ but simply showed the French ambassador’s ‘great indignation at the pious and truly generous charity of all the nation’.84
Between 50,000 and 80,000 Huguenots arrived in England, where they were generally welcomed as fellow Protestants, even by the constrictive guilds of the City of London, for the skills they brought. The tales they told confirmed the worst English fears of an absolute monarchy with the stink of incense in its nostrils. Martha Guiscard of Fleet Street ‘came out of France, because Jean Guiscard, her father, was burnt at Nérac, accused of having irreverently received the host’. A wealthy gentleman who had to ‘abandon a great estate [was] condemned to be hanged: and his house demolished, and his woods destroyed’.85 Gilbert Burnet saw all this as ‘a real argument against the cruel and persecuting spirit of popery, wherever it prevailed … the French persecution came very seasonably to awaken the nation’.86 Another contemporary observer thought that: ‘The whole of Europe … is inundated with the enemies of Louis XIV since the expulsion of the Huguenots,’ and even Marshal Vauban lamented that France’s loss included ‘sixty millions of money, nine thousand sailors, twelve thousand tried soldiers, six hundred officers, and its most flourishing manufacturers’.87
English concern at the persecution of the Huguenots had two specific aspects. First, it was carried out without regard to class or wealth: indeed, it was the threat to ‘their property, rights or privileges’ that persuaded many Huguenot noblemen to give up their religion. To nervous Protestant gentlemen across the Channel, the process posed a revolutionary threat to the established social as well as religious order. Second, the regular army was the chosen instrument of terror. Dragoons were often quartered on Huguenot villages with licence to behave abominably, giving the process the name of the dragonnades and founding the verb ‘to dragoon’ in the English language. Armed resistance was crushed remorselessly: the marquis de Louvois told a military commander to ‘cause such destruction in the area’ that the example would teach other Huguenots ‘how dangerous it is to rise against the King’.88
Just as the abused often go on to be abusers, Huguenot exiles were not slow to take vengeance on those they believed responsible for their plight. At the Boyne in 1690 the Duke of Schomberg, himself a Huguenot, and a marshal of France before his exile, shouted to a shaky Huguenot regiment: ‘Allons, messieurs, voilà vos persecuteurs’ – ‘Come, gentlemen, there are your persecutors’ – and it immediately rallied. Conversely, some of the Wild Geese, Irish s
James quickly dissolved Parliament. He then proceeded to use the royal prerogative to dispense Roman Catholics from the Test Act, with a packed bench of judges finding in his favour in the collusive test case of Godden v. Hales in 1686.* He broke the Anglican monopoly of education by enabling Oxford fellows who became Catholics to retain their posts, and then imposed a Catholic president on Magdalen, the richest of Oxford’s colleges. County lieutenancies and magistrates’ benches were disproportionately reinforced by Catholics, and City livery companies and town councils across England saw the government’s opponents ejected. When the Duke of Somerset refused to conduct the public ceremonial for the reception of the papal nuncio on the ground that it was illegal, James replied: ‘I am above the law.’ ‘Your Majesty is so,’ replied the duke, ‘but I am not.’ He was dismissed from all his offices. Although the process worked almost as much to the advantage of Dissenters as it did to that of Catholics, it affronted Tory Anglicans in England and Protestants of the established Church in both Scotland and Ireland.90 James was alienating the very people who had backed his brother.
In May 1688 James found himself in a direct confrontation with Archbishop Sancroft and six bishops who refused to have an Indulgence, suspending the Test Act and allowing public Catholic worship, read from every pulpit. Tellingly, they would have been joined by Peter Mews, once a captain of royalist horse and a Sedgemoor veteran, had he been well enough to attend the crucial meeting. The bishops were arrested for seditious libel, and when they refused to give bail, arguing that, as peers, they did not need to do so, they were sent to the Tower. It gave the worst possible impression, and even the soldiers on guard there shouted ‘God bless the bishops.’ At their trial they argued that the Indulgence violated the law, which could only be changed by Parliament, and were acquitted. That night there were bonfires and fireworks across London, and even a number of symbolic pope-burnings. It was a substantial public rebuff for James.
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