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Battle of Sedgemoor
Assessment of the Battle
This was a small, isolated battle which did not have any direct major political or social consequences. But it was equivalent in scale to a number of the lesser battles of the Civil War and it was the first significant battle for several of the best known regiments of the British army. Also, in command of the royal infantry that night was John Churchill, later to distinguish himself as one of our greatest generals, now better known as the Duke of Marlborough. Most importantly however Sedgemoor has a place in popular consciousness both as the last pitched battle fought on English soil and from the vicious retribution exacted thereafter in the infamous Bloody Assizes.
Sedgemoor is often dismissed as a reckless adventure with no chance of success. Yet when examined in detail, with a clear understanding of the landscape as it was in 1685 and of the exact royal deployment, the reality is quite the opposite. The attack is in some ways reminiscent of Sir William Waller’s dramatically successful surprise attack on a royalist army at Alton during the Civil War. Monmouth was making the very best use of the resources to hand, exploiting the opportunities that the landscape offered and seeking out the enemy’s greatest weakness. But in most battles the element of luck plays an important part and for Monmouth the luck simply ran out.
Monmouth knew his inexperienced, poorly trained and ill equipped army, though it outnumbered the enemy nearly two to one, was no match for Feversham’s professional force in a pitched battle. This may have been why he failed to exploit the opportunity at Norton St Philip. He needed to catch the enemy by surprise and neutralise their advantages in cavalry and artillery. To do this he made use of expert local advice on the terrain and reconnaissance as to the exact enemy deployment. Monmouth recognised the enemy’s weaknesses and designed a relatively simple strategy to exploit those weaknesses while as far as possible ensuring his own troops’ shortcomings were not exposed.
The frontal attack along the Bridgwater to Weston road, that Chenevix Trench claims should have been made, would have proved suicidal, as would a similar attack along the lane and across the moor direct from Bridgwater. The approach was guarded by a well defended outpost of musketeers and both crossings of the Bussex Rhyne were covered by numerous artillery. Monmouth saw his only hope was to catch the enemy in camp with an attack from the least expected direction. He could not match the firepower of Feversham’s artillery. He knew was outgunned both in the size of the pieces and their number – with just 4 small iron pieces compared to at least 16 on the royal side. But he knew Feversham had made a dramatic mistake by deploying all his artillery together against an attack along the main road. Monmouth had a simple strategy to exploit this. The upper crossing of the rhyne was not apparently defended or is so only lightly and once taken the artillery was a sitting target for Grey’s cavalry. The attacking cavalry would have a clear run at the enemy artillery once they were over the upper plungeon because the drove route between Bussex island and Westonzoyland was wide and hedged on all sides, taking them right around into the rear of the artillery train camp.
The infantry advance also was relatively simple direct advance once formed up in battalia, which they managed in the dark with relative success. The royal deployment, with no artillery pieces in support of the infantry as one might normally expect, also gave a substantial window of opportunity when Monmouth’s four small pieces could wreak havoc with the enemy infantry with his own troops free from such attack, as proved to be the case. If the royal infantry could be caught in camp and at night then there would again be critical minutes before they were ready to fight, even if their muskets were propped up outside each tent and Dumbartons’ perceptive commander had already laid out the ground ready for a rapid form up because he expected an attack. With the element of surprise the rebels could be in amongst the tents before the enemy had formed up and even if they had they would still be vulnerable to a rapid assault in which they would be outnumbered once it came to hand to hand fighting. Monmouth had the added advantage that in the dark his own inexperienced troops would not be faced by the sight of the enemy they had to engage until the very last moment.
Monmouth’s greatest weakness was in cavalry. Untested in battle and riding horses that had not been acclimatised to warfare, they would be no match for the professional cavalry in the royal army, yet without effective cavalry support the rebel infantry would soon be overwhelmed in an open landscape by the royal cavalry. This is why the rebels had, according to Peyps, dodged amongst the enclosures of the West Country all through the campaign (Bryant, 1947, 123 n.20). But on the night of the 5th July the royal cavalry were mostly quartered in Westonzoyland village and, although Feversham had ordered that the horses be kept together and ready saddled, it would take valuable minutes for the troops to form up and then reach the field. In that critical window the inexperienced rebel cavalry would have almost free hand.
The attack was simple, so long as the luck held. The plan depended on exploiting the darkness and the mist to avoid the detachments of royal cavalry that were deployed to discover any attack from across the moor. There were inevitable problems with such a night attack following the narrow lanes to reach the moor and then passing through the narrow defile of Langmoor stone, but with luck this could be achieved. The difficulties arose at the two key crossing points of the rhynes. It was only at the last minute, after an unexpected delay and when they were within striking distance of the royal camp that the luck ran out. But even then, had Grey found the upper plungeon and managed to break into the royal camp then the rebels may have had a chance of victory given the chaos such an attack would have caused. Even a professional army would have been hard pressed to form up in battalia in the dark under direct attack. Without a fully organised infantry force opposing the crossing of the rhyne then the rebel infantry, once they arrived, could have attacked in formation as Wade had intended and the outcome could have been very different. Crucially, there would have been no time for the royal artillery to be brought up from its defensive position more than 500 metres away.
Monmouth’s attack was a high risk venture and he paid the cost, but it was not a completely hopeless cause until Grey failed to find and cross the upper plungeon – and that is something we still haven’t found today!