Three hundred years ago in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed on the beach at Lyme Regis to raise a rebel uprising against King James II. It was a bold, Protestant rebellion fuelled by the discontent amongst all classes of people who risked everything to join him against the Catholic King. They marched across the South West in a ragtag army, attracting thousands of ordinary men to join the cause. Margery Hookings, who is directly descended from one of the rebels, takes a sneak peek at Monmouth, Lyme Regis’s new community play, written by Andrew Rattenbury and directed by Clemmie Reynolds. It’s being performed at The Marine Theatre in early July.
The last battle on English soil was fought at Sedgemoor, Somerset, on 6 July 1685.
It’s a scenario that sends a shudder through me, and always has, ever since I visited the battlefield many years ago as a teenager in the 1970s.
It became something of an obsession. Back in the early 1980s, I was lucky enough to interview the late W McDonald Wigfield at his home in Ilminster when I worked as a cub reporter for The Sunday Independent.
He was putting together a ‘roll call’ of rebels for a book, which was later published as The Monmouth Rebels.
“The popular uprising in the West Country know as the Monmouth Rebellion must be one of the best documented of all similar events in English history,” he states in the introduction.
“Between 11 June 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme in Dorset with a party of just over eighty men, and the defeat of his arm at Sedgemoor, in the heart of Somerset, on 6 July, a significant proportion of the population of West Dorset, East Devon and Somerset rose up in arms against the government of James II.
“Exactly how many took part will never be known: estimates of those who fought for Monmouth at Sedgemoor by those present vary between 3,200 and 7,000.”
Wigfield’s research for The Monmouth Rebels was meticulously staggering, detailing as it does nearly 4,000 names of those on the side of the hapless Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate and enigmatic first son of Charles II, where they came from and what happened to them. Some were hanged, some escaped and others were transported to the West Indies as slaves to service British plantations.
In Donyatt, near Ilminster, where I was born, eighteen men are listed as being in the rebellion. In the West Dorset village where I live now, seven men were caught up in it. At Bridport, twenty four men, and from Chard, more than one hundred. In Lyme Regis, again more than a hundred.
And the surnames of the rebels can still be found in these towns and villages today.
There are incredible tales of tragedy, romance and bravery behind the bare facts. For me, it’s one of the greatest West Country stories that has never really been told, apart from in the history books.
Years ago, I came up with the idea for an HTV programme about some of the Rebels’ descendants in the Caribbean. I was paid for the suggestion and desperately keen to be involved in making the documentary but it passed me by. I found out later that it had been made and aired and fronted by a prominent local historian.
Subsequently, I discovered that my 7 x great-grandfather on my mother’s side, William Crabb, was a Rebel, listed in McDonald Wigfield’s roll call as ‘a gentleman of Ashill’. Some accounts say he died at Ilchester ‘hung, drawn etc’ and others say he died in gaol.
I’ve yet to find out more about my father’s side of the family, the Herrings from Pitminster, near Taunton, who were involved in the Rebellion. Five of them are listed in the roll call and appear to have suffered various fates.
Clearly, I have unfinished business with the Monmouth Rebellion, so I was hooked when I learned that Lyme Regis was putting on Monmouth as its community play. But I lacked the confidence to audition for the production and, besides, I was away during May for rehearsals. However, when I saw a plea for people to step forward to do a play reading for the public, I jumped at the chance.
And so I found myself in St Michael’s Church Hall along with a handful of others who were there to do the same. Most, I think, would have then gone on to audition but me, I was just interested in the words and the story. And what a story it is. If you don’t have any tickets yet, get them while you still can.