He began badly and ended worse. Often viewed as a minor historical figure, James, Duke of Monmouth, led an unsuccessful rebellion against his uncle James II at the start of that king’s short reign. The 36-year-old bastard son of Charles II, Monmouth was proclaimed king of England by his supporters on 20 June 1685. Less than a month later he was vanquished in the last battle to be fought on English soil, at Sedgemoor in Somerset. He is largely forgotten now, except perhaps in the southwest of England, where thousands of disaffected nonconformists, artisans and labourers rose to support him. There is a memorial stone to the battle outside the church of St Mary’s in Westonzoyland, on the Somerset Levels, where, in the aftermath of the rebellion, the defeated supporters of Monmouth, a Protestant, were rounded up like cattle. There they awaited the harsh sentences meted out by Judge Jeffreys, whose Bloody Assizes saw many of them condemned to death, though the majority were eventually transported, often to work as slave labourers in the West Indies. Women as well as men were among the rebels and one of them, Elizabeth Gaunt, became the last of her sex to be burned alive for treason in England. In the declining years of the 17th century the barbarous punishments of earlier times were still in existence. Monmouth himself was spared the horrors of hanging, drawing and quartering but he did not escape the block.
History is not kind to losers and historians have been dismissive of Monmouth’s life and character, depicting him as a physically impressive but morally bankrupt sponger, the spoiled illegitimate offspring of a father whose weaknesses he exemplified but whose political sense he conspicuously lacked. In this interpretation, Monmouth was a