The last pitched land battle in England happened at Sedgemoor, just outside Bridgwater in Somerset, in 1685. And if hadn’t been for a man with a pistol, and an unexpected ditch, it might have ended quite differently.
|Earl of Feversham|
The two generals on either side were Louis Duras, the Earl of Feversham, and James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. In June 1685 Monmouth had landed with three ships at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, where he recruited an army mostly composed of Protestant West Country cloth workers and artisans, with whose aid he hoped to depose his Catholic uncle, King James II. The army of Louis Duras, and his second in command John Churchill (later the Duke of Marlborough), consisted entirely of professional soldiers. Their job was to crush Monmouth’s rebellion as quickly as they could.
In the three weeks between 11th June, when he landed, and 1st July, the date of the battle of Sedgemoor, Monmouth had done his best to equip and train his part-time soldiers. They were well armed with the latest up-to-date flintlock muskets, shiploads of which he had brought from Holland. Some pikeman had eighteen foot pikes, others had scythe blades tacked to long poles. And to their credit they had already fought two small battles, at Bridport and Philips Norton, in neither of which they had been defeated.
Monmouth’s main problem, however, was his lack of trained cavalry horses. When he landed, he was convinced that many English gentlemen and old friends from his army days – including John Churchill – would ride in to join him, bringing skilled horsemen with him. But very few did. And so his cavalry, led by his friend Ford, Lord Grey, had to make do with such horses as they could beg or steal. Not surprisingly, at their first battle in the crowded streets of Bridport, these animals panicked and bolted, carrying their riders with them. The same problem would bedevil Monmouth at Sedgemoor.
Monmouth's men moved fast. On 21st June they were in Taunton, where Monmouth was proclaimed King. On 25th June they were outside the walls of Bristol, the second city in England. But then, instead of attacking, they retreated, trudging back towards Bridgwater which they had passed on their journey east. It seemed Monmouth had lost the initiative, suffered a fatal lack of
confidence when the promised cavalry did not arrive.
But then, in Bridgwater, he regained his courage. Standing on top of St Mary's church tower by the city walls, he could see the royal army settling down to camp on the flat marshy ground of the Somerset Levels, about five miles away. As the sun set, a mist began to rise, hiding everything from view. And his scouts brought him hope, in the shape of a local countryman, who knew the moorland outside the town intimately.
‘I can bring you to them, my lord,’ he said. (or something very similar) ‘If your men are quiet, and don’t speak, I can bring you right into the enemy camp before anyone knows you’re there.’
To Monmouth it seemed a risk worth taking. ‘Who dares, wins,’ he might have thought to himself, as he ordered the army to prepare. Boots and horses’ hooves were muffled with rags, buckles secured so they would not clink. And then shortly before midnight, the town gates were opened and the army filed out – a long line of men, mostly on foot, following the countryman’s lead.
It was dark, and the mist was higher than a man’s head. To avoid getting lost, men held onto their friends, sometimes clutching the jacket of the man in front. There was a scarey moment when they all had to stop, listening to the hooves of a royalist cavalry patrol crossing the road in front of them. But nothing happened, and the line of silent soldiers trudged on, first north, then turning south-east towards the enemy’s camp.
And then they came to a ford. The Somerset Levels are a wide, flat marshy area, only a few feet above sea level, drained by a network of ditches called ‘rhines’, some five feet across, some wider and deeper, like small canals or rivers. Their guide knew the best places to cross, he had assured Monmouth of that. But to some men – and horses – water can be frightening, especially at night, when it’s black, and of an unknown depth. And it was while they were crossing a ford, within a few hundred yards of the enemy camp – you can imagine the hesitations, the urgent whispers, the officer’s orders not to splash or curse or fall over, not to make a noise of any sort –that a pistol went off.
Was it an accident, or treachery? At the time, the man who fired claimed, of course, that it was an accident, and it may well have been. But much later, when he was on trial in front of Judge Jeffreys, Captain Hucker claimed he’d done it on purpose, to warn the royal troops. Jeffreys, to his credit, despised this excuse. ‘First you betray your King, then you betray your fellows,’ he said. 'There is no mercy for such as you.’ When he was sent back to prison, his fellows nearly lynched him.
Whatever the reason, the pistol shot awoke Feversham’s sentries. As Monmouth’s men waded through the ford, they heard shouts in the darkness ahead of them, and drums calling men to arms, rat-a–tat-tat! But they still had a chance. The enemy was alarmed, confused, and only a short distance ahead; their surprise had almost worked. And they had been practicing their drill for three weeks now, as if their lives depended on it – which they did. So under their officers’ shouted orders – no need for silence now – they deployed into lines; musket men in the middle, pikemen to right and left – and advanced to where the light of camp fires and slow match was becoming clearer in the mist.
The enemy were in a state of shock and panic – they still weren’t ready. Whereas Monmouth’s men had been visualizing this moment all evening, ever since they left the town. And unlike Feversham’s men, they had modern flintlock muskets, which they had fired in anger several times already.
But then, as they advanced towards the enemy, they saw the rhine.
It wasn't as wide or deep as the river Rhine in Germany, of course not, but it might was well have been. Right there between themselves and the men they were about to attack there was another unexpected drainage ditch. No-one had warned them about this. It was full of black water maybe fifteen yard wide, and who knows how deep? Their officers urged them to cross it, some going down into the water themselves, but somehow, the thought of wading across that black unknown depth while the enemy soldiers stood on the far bank firing down into them was just … too much.
They couldn’t do it.
And so, instead, they stood on their own bank and fired back. They fired well, for a while, their new flintlock muskets performing as well or better than the matchlocks of their enemy. But the element of surprise was gone; and with it, all their advantage.
Feversham’s men, now they were awake, had two deadly advantages. Firstly, their cavalry. Monmouth’s cavalry had no more success than the infantry at crossing the rhine. They tried to urge their half-trained farm horses into the water and failed. They searched for a ford but had no idea where it was. So they trotted up and down uselessly in the darkness, until Feversham’s cavalry – who’d found the ford in daylight – rode across and chased them away.
|canister of grapeshot|
The other advantage was artillery. Monmouth had dragged a few small field guns through the mist and darkness to the battlefield, but Feversham had far more. That was why it had been vital for Monmouth’s men to cross the rhine and get into the enemy camp straight away: so that they could capture the enemy guns and either spike them or turn them against their own men. But instead, here they were, still standing on their own side of the rhine, a sitting target for enemy’ field guns. Guns loaded with grapeshot, which could tear through a file of soldiers, killing five or ten men at a time.
And so they lost. They stood there until they could take it no more, and then they fled, some running, some marching grimly down the road to Bridgwater. Monmouth fled on horseback, to be found hiding a field a few days later. The last battle on English soil had been won and lost.
But if Captain Hucker hadn't fired that pistol, and Monmouth's men had dared to cross the rhine – who knows? History can turn on very small moments.
Tim Vicary's novel of the rebellion, The Monmouth Summer, is available as paperback and ebook on Amazon US and Amazon UK. See also his website and blog