Sedgemoor, on 6 July 1685, was the last pitched battle on English soil. It was a fiercely-fought but one-sided contest which saw a rebel army of Protestant West Country peasants, equipped with a motley array of weapons from pitchforks to old firearms, squaring up to the disciplined, professional soldiers of the Catholic King James II.
The brilliant John Churchill – the future Duke of Marlborough – was the redcoats’ deputy commander.
The rebels had taken up their ancient arms in support of another James – James Scott, Duke of Monmouth – the handsome but feckless illegitimate son of Charles II, who, from his Dutch exile, plotted to take the throne from his unpopular uncle and undo James’s attempts to return England to the Catholic Faith.
On 11 June, Monmouth invaded Dorset, landing at Lyme with three ships and some 300 supporters to stake his shaky claim to the throne.
The sturdy ploughmen of Dorset and Somerset flocked to ‘King Monmouth’s’ blue banner, but after marching rather aimlessly around the West Country for four weeks, they were brought to bay by the king’s men on the Somerset Levels outside the town of Bridgwater.
Though still slightly superior in numbers (4,000-3,000) to the royal army, Monmouth knew that his inexperienced rabble would stand no chance in a conventional battle with well-drilled soldiers. He planned, however, to overcome this disadvantage by mounting a surprise night attack and rout the king’s army before they awoke to their peril.
He was aided by a local man, Richard Godfrey, who offered to guide the duke’s army through the drainage ditch ‘rhynes’ criss-crossing Sedgemoor.
After spying out the lie of the land from the tower of Bridgwater church, Monmouth ordered his men – with the infantry divided into colour-coded units called the red, yellow regiments and so on – to march towards the royal camp behind the 15m (50ft) wide Bussex Rhyne outside the village of Westonzoyland.
Leaving between 10pm and 11pm, the rebels were under strict orders to move silently, with each man empowered to stab his neighbour if he made the slightest sound. Despite such precautions, Godfrey lost his way in the mist and they were heard by a royal sentry as they crossed the Langmoor Rhine, still a mile short of the camp.
A pistol was fired and messengers galloped off to warn of the rebel approach.
With all surprise lost, Monmouth ordered his cavalry forward in a desperate general assault. His horsemen were stymied by the wide Bussex Rhine before they could get to grips with the now thoroughly awakened royal army. The unequal contest was soon over.
Monmouth’s peasants were cut down by volleys of musket fire, and royal dragoons pursued the stragglers, cutting them down with their swords. Survivors were herded into Westonzoyland church, and many were hanged on gibbets along the Sedgemoor tracks.
Start at St Mary’s parish church, Westonzoyland, where hundreds of prisoners were held after the battle, and which has a large interpretation panel on its wall. Follow the lane beside the church northwards towards Bussex Farm.
There is another battlefield interpretation panel here at the eastern end of Sogg Drove on the site of the now vanished Bussex Rhine, the fatal barrier from behind which the royal army inflicted such carnage
on the rebels.
Follow Sogg Drove westwards and take a sharp right-hand turn north-east down Langmoor Drove to the stone battlefield memorial that lies in a field where graves of those slain at Sedgemoor were found. The monument, erected in 1927, refers to Sedgemoor and other British battles.
A second attempt
Return to Sogg Drove, continue westwards and take sharp right hand turn to the south down Penzoy Drove roughly following the course of the Bussex Rhine. At bottom of the drove, turn sharp left (east) to return to Westzoyland.
Monmouth himself fled the battlefield by horse, but was found hiding in a ditch near Ringwood, Hampshire, two days later. He was brought to London where, despite abjectly grovelling for mercy before his uncle, he was beheaded on Tower Hill. But James’s vengeful triumph was short-lived.
Three years later, in 1688, a more competent commander than Monmouth – William of Orange – also invaded the
West Country from Holland, with a professional Dutch army.
The royal army defected en masse to William’s Glorious Revolution, led by John Churchill, ironically the man who had helped defeat Monmouth at Sedgemoor, and James’s brief and cruel reign was over. Monmouth – albeit posthumously – was avenged.
HOW TO GET THERE
Westonzoyland is on the A372 four miles south-east of Bridgwater, which has the nearest railway station.
The Sedgemoor Inn
19 Main Road, Westonzoyland, TA7 0EB
Examine battlefield souvenirs before enjoying excellent, reasonably priced food and drink.
Westonzoyland also houses a small Pumping Station Museum illustrating the industrial history of the Somerset Levels.
OS Explorer Map 140
Grid ref: ST 352 355