The Monmouth Rebellion was an attempt to overthrow the new Catholic king James II and ended in defeat at Sedgemoor.

Battle of Sedgemoor Memorial. Photo by Rog Frost.
Battle of Sedgemoor Memorial. Photo by Rog Frost.

The Monmouth Rebellion was one of two uprisings—one in England, and the other in Scotland led by Archibald Campbell, the 9th Earl of Argyll.

James Duke of Monmouth was persuaded by Argyll to lead an uprising against James II as they believed only an armed rebellion could save Britain from Catholic absolutism.

Argyll’s rebel forces landed in Scotland in June 1685 but the uprising was quickly stopped before it began. He was captured en route to Glasgow. He was convicted of treason and beheaded on 30 June.

James II’s government agent, Bevil Skelton, in Amsterdam had reported activities regarding “His Majesty’s rebellious subjects in the Low Countries”.

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth on horseback (Henri Gascar, 1672)
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth on horseback (Henri Gascar, 1672)

The Monmouth Rebellion

Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 11 June 1685 to raise the standard of rebellion against his uncle, James II of England. His invading force, consisting of 83 men, set sail from Holland on 24 May in three ships, with a quantity of arms and no money.

King James II of England and VII of Scotland. Portrait by Nicolas de Largillière, c 1686.
King James II of England and VII of Scotland. Portrait by Nicolas de Largillière, c 1686.

He enjoyed considerable popularity in London and the West Country as he believed England would rebel against the new Catholic king.

Monmouth was declared King of England for the first time at Taunton.

The West Country men who rallied to his cause Monmouth were mainly from the urban and industrial classes of Somerset, West Dorset and East Devon. Recruits also included farmers and agricultural labourers, but most learned their living as tailors, cloth workers and carpenters. They were driven by the belief to defend themselves and the Protestant religion against an autocratic, papist king. Monmouth was a convenient and popular figurehead whose military experience offered the chance of victory against James’s army. Monmouth defeated a rebel army at Bothwell Bridge in 1679 – similar to the one he now commanded.

Over 7,000 men joined Monmouth but he could supply arms to only 1,500 and the rest used whatever weapons they brought from home, including hatchets, knife or a scythe tied to a pole as a home-made halberd.

A professional Dutch gunner’s service was also hired but his artillery consisted of four cannon and many of his 800 cavalries also lacked proper training or equipment.

John Churchill (c 1685–1690) by John Closterman.
John Churchill (c 1685–1690) by John Closterman.

James II sent Louis de Duras 2nd Earl of Feversham and John Lord Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough) to lead 2,500 royal troops to deal with the insurrection in the west of England.

Monmouth led his men on a march to take Bristol but they were stopped by Churchill’s cavalry, so they were chased south by Feversham’s men.

When hopes of support from Scotland faded, Monmouth risked a surprise night attack against the royal troops in the marshy wastes of Sedgemoor (Westonzoyland) near Bridgwater in Somerset, on 6 July 1685.

A sentinel (or a traitor) fired a shot when the rebels were one mile away from the royal camp. The element of surprise was gone.

Recovering from the initial surprise, Feversham’s more experienced soldiers dealt ruthlessly with the attackers, particularly the cavalry under Churchill. The rebels were doomed as they didn’t stand a chance.

Monmouth was defeated by his own military and political ineptness, lack of planning and the vast majority’s massive indifference.

About 1,300 rebels lost their lives and many more were taken prisoner. Monmouth had already fled, disguised as a shepherd. Two days later he was found hiding in a ditch, captured and taken to London. He was already condemned as a traitor by an Act of Attainder rushed through by Parliament.

Monmouth’s Bungled Execution

George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem by William Wolfgang Claret
George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem by William Wolfgang Claret

His boastful claims to majesty disappeared as Monmouth humbled himself by begging on his knees before James. He claimed he was forced against his will to declare himself king. James was appalled by such cowardice and refused to pardon his nephew.

Monmouth prepared for execution as he begged the executioner not to mangle him and paid a hefty bribe. The executioner bungled the beheading as the first blow was only a gash. Monmouth turned his head as if he was ready to complain. A further four strokes failed to kill him. Monmouth’s head was eventually severed with a knife on 15 June.

Judge George Jeffreys sentenced 1,000 of the prisoners to either transportation or death during the so-called “Bloody Assizes”.


Falkus, Christopher, The Life and Times of Charles II, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London, 1972 (Reprinted 1984)

Harris, Tim, Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms 1660-1685, Allen Lane (Imprint of Penguin Books), London, 2005

Oliver, Neil, A History of Scotland, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2009

Smurthwaite, David, The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain, Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1984 (Reprinted 1994)

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001

Starkey, David, Monarchy: From the Middle Ages To Modernity, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006

Sweetman, John, A Dictionary of European Land Battles, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1984

© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 16 April 2010.

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