was at the heart of the
Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth, a bastard son of Charles
II, led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. Although
having some initial successes, the rebels were always short of men and
materials, and failed to push beyond the county of Somerset
borders. The battle that sealed the fate of the rebellion took place on Sedgemoor, near
Bridgwater, on 6th July 1685. This was the last battle ever fought
on English soil. Somerset
James took revenge on the rebels in no uncertain way. Trials were held throughout the West Country of people who had any connection with the rebellion, under the direction of Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys. The savagery of the proceedings, and the summary nature of the justice that was meted out to many, led to them being known ever since as the “Bloody Assizes”.
More than 1400 people were brought before Jeffreys and his colleagues, and most of the accused were sentenced to death, many by “hanging, drawing and quartering”. However, some 800 sentences were commuted to transportation to the
West Indies, where the victims were treated as virtual
slaves on the plantations.
So what has this stone building on a quiet
farm to do with all this? Although most of the trials were held in the county
towns of Somerset Winchester, Dorchester and Taunton, others took place in much smaller places, such as
the that is only a few miles from
the battle site of Sedgemoor. The old courthouse is still there, although it has
long been absolved of its legacy as a place where terrible justice was
delivered to peasants who had the misfortune to get caught up in a rebellion
they probably had little understanding of. village of Kingweston
Among the trials held in
(although probably not at Kingweston) were those of a group of schoolgirls,
aged 6 to 14, whose crime was to wave at the Duke and his soldiers as they rode
past. The punishment was a fine so heavy that it could never be paid. Somerset
James II was far more like his father (Charles I) than was his brother (Charles II), at least in terms of his ignorance of the arts of practical politics. James’s oppression of the West Country came home to roost three years later when William of Orange followed Monmouth’s example and landed in the south-west at the start of his campaign for the Crown. The men of
were happy to support William, and
the strength of their opposition to James meant that there was to be no second Battle of Sedgemoor. Somerset
Folk memory can be long and unforgiving. Even today, when battle re-enactments of Sedgemoor take place, some pub landlords have been known to refuse to serve the men playing the parts of James’s soldiers!
As for Kingweston, it went back to sleep, and the farm where the courthouse now stands offers excellent bed and breakfast!
© John Welford