This is what the good people of Lyme Regis said in June 1685. The ships did not come into the harbour at Lyme, but proceeded a little further west to land at an empty beach, since known as the “Monmouth Beach”. On board the 32 gun frigate “Helerenbergh”, was James, the Duke of Monmouth, from exile in Holland. He was the Protestant illegitimate son of King Charles II, who had died that year, but King Charles had recognised his Catholic brother James as his successor. Fearing that King James II would make England catholic, spurred on by his supporters Monmouth decided to challenge the succession.
About 80 armed men landed on the evening of 11th of June, together with 4 cannons. Monmouth knelt in prayer, wearing the Order of the Garter, before his deep green standard with “Fear Nothing but God” embroidered in gold. The West Country was chosen for the invasion as it was then very anti-Catholic.
Within three days several thousand men, Protestants and some Dissenters, signed up to follow Monmouth, including a third of the males of Lyme. Although it has become known as “The Pitchfork Rebellion”, most of the volunteers were tradesmen and yeomen. They were not armed or trained to fight.
The spirit of the time encouraged spying and informing the magistrates. A Bridport man, William Bond, had earlier plagued local Quakers, informing about their meetings and non-attendance at the Parish Church. At an alehouse in Hawkchurch, about 4 miles from Lyme, he heard that some of the rebels were hiding in a field nearby. He went there, but was knocked down. One of the rebels took his pistol and shot him “in the belly”, apparently the favoured target of the day. He was taken to a house, “cursing and swearing” until he died. The Quaker record says “So ended that wicked informer”.
Two customs officials rode post-haste to London to the MP for Lyme, interestingly called Sir Winston Churchill. King James was informed of the landing. Soon the local militia was on standby in the south west and a group camped just east of Bridport, to intercept communication between Lyme and Weymouth.
About 10 pm on 13th June Monmouth sent 300 men to Bridport, under Lord Grey and Lieutenant-Colonel Venner, entering Allington early next morning. They met little resistance until they reached the Bull Inn (now Hotel), where two Militia Deputy Lieutenants, Edward Coker and Wadham Strangways, had billeted themselves. They opened fire from their bedroom window and Coker shot Venner “in the belly”. The rebels immediately stormed the Bull. Coker was killed by Venner. Strangways was also killed in the fight. The rebels meanwhile attacked a barrier near the end of East Street where the Militia were strong and killed several men. They shot Lord Grey’s horse under him and took some prisoners. The wounded Venner ordered a retreat back to Lyme, taking several local prisoners with them.
Monmouth decided to attack Axminster next, where the militia “melted away”. On Thursday they entered Taunton, with little opposition and more rebels joined the cause, including Prideaux of Forde Abbey. Monmouth declared himself “King” in the Market Place on Saturday 20th June. He then proceeded on to Bridgwater, Bristol and Bath, but the Royalist army, better equipped and trained under John Churchill (son of Sir Winston) met them at Frome and the tide began to turn.
On the 1st July Monmouth fell back to Wells, then retreated to Bridgwater, and a major battle at Sedgemoor, in Somerset, on 6th July resulted in his defeat. His army had used all their ammunition and Monmouth fled the field at 4 am. Some 1,500 of the men who had joined him were killed in action, out of over 3,500. The remainder were taken prisoner. Monmouth hid in crops growing on Horton Heath, but was seen by an elderly woman who reported it to Churchill’s men. Later he was found asleep in a ditch and identified by a magistrate at Holt Lodge, Somerset. He and others were taken to Ringwood. He wrote remorsefully to his uncle, the King, to no avail and was taken to London for execution on 15th July. He was allowed the privilege of being beheaded.
After the hostilities King James sent Judge Jeffreys to Dorchester where he set up what became known as the “Bloody Assizes” at the Antelope Hotel. He tried 312 rebels from Saturday 5th September, condemning 74 from Dorset to death, to be hung, drawn and quartered, boiled and burnt. Jeffreys was suffering from a kidney complaint, which probably did not improve his mood. Many more were to be transported to the West Indies, reports varying from 175 to 900. A handful were to be fined and/or whipped once a year for seven years. The London executioner, Jack Ketch, came and carried out executions at Weymouth (12 persons), Lyme (12), Sherborne (11) and Bridport (10). Not all of these people may have come from their place of execution. Jeffreys went on to serve out similar sentences at Exeter and other places. Some of those on trial were not involved with the rebellion, being away from home was considered sufficient. A fisherman from Charmouth had encountered the three ships as they arrived and it is said that he went on board to sell his fish. He came ashore with Monmouth’s men, but did not join them. Nevertheless he was executed at Wareham.
The severity of the sentences created considerable shock in the West Country and caused religious conflicts. These were only allayed when the protestant William of Orange entered a few years later.
The event was illustrated on a pack of contemporary playing cards, as described in Cullingford’s “A History of Dorset”, including 12 portraying Monmouth’s entry into Lyme, his standard, 7 rebels killed in a fight at Bridport and several of the trial and execution.
Edward Coker who was from Mapowder, Dorset was commemorated on a brass in Bridport Parish Church. Strangways has a memorial in St Mary’s, Mordon, near Swindon, Wiltshire. A stone at Sedgemoor commemorates the battle.
It has been said that the bedroom window of the Bull in Bridport was bricked up after the events of 1685. However, when I was shown the room, then called the Venner Room, a few years ago, this was not the case and the window was only partly obscured by furniture. I noticed recently that the Bull Hotel now has a discreet sign advertising “The Monmouth Bar” over a ground floor room.
Bridport History Society is unable to meet in the hall at present, so are holding Zoom meetings on computer. Those wishing to attend by zoom, please contact Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard on 01308-425710, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Next meeting Tuesday 13th October at 2.30 pm, “Loders Back-Along” by Bernard Paull.
Cecil Amor, Hon President of Bridport History Society.