Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Last Royal Rebel

Monmouth begs for mercy -- a Victorian depiction

By Ray Jones

The Last Royal Rebel, the life and death of James, Duke of Monmouth
by Anna Keay (2016)
Published by Bloomsbury, London (2016)
ISBN: 9781408846087l; RRP £21.99

This book covers an interesting period of British history, and Anna Keay does it in a very readable way and from a serious academic background.
James, Duke of Monmouth, was the illegitimate son of Charles Stuart who became Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660.When Charles died suddenly in 1685 Monmouth, who was in exile on the continent, returned to Britain and attempted to depose his Catholic uncle James II. It can hardly be called an invasion with one ship and a handful of men.
Well, nothing new there you might think. Feudal history is strewn with families squabbling over power. But this came at a sea change in British history when feudalism had crumbled, and the monarchy had been overthrown by Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution – only to creep back in a revised form after Cromwell’s death.
To some it may have seemed that the Revolution had changed nothing. But the fundamental shift had occurred; Charles II was invited back under conditions set by the anti-feudal and capitalist oriented forces that had been behind the Revolution. In future the struggle between the Monarchy and Parliament would continue, but now with, in the last instance, Parliament in the driving seat rather than the monarch.
Charles II fought a rather indolent war of attrition against the restrictions on him and his brother James II looked set to confront them. But the balance of power was made clear by the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. James II was deposed by the virtually unopposed invasion of the Protestant William of Orange, invited by the real power brokers.
Keay unfortunately claims that the “Civil War”, although complex, was essentially about “forms of worship”.
Outwardly at least, this book is an attempt to rescue Monmouth’s character from charges of him being a bit of a light-weight, of being inconsistent, unreliable and morally dubious. She does her best but is not altogether convincing.
History is, as we know, most often written by the victors. Monmouth had a grisly end on the scaffold so it is fair to question the judgements that followed – but the facts as far as we know them (and indeed as far as Keay presents them) do not present Monmouth in a good light.
He is obviously torn between being loyal to his father the King, to whom he owes everything and is the likely source of any future advancement, and his ambitions and principles. And so he goes in and out of royal favour.
He was presented by some radicals as the great hope of Protestantism in the face of Charles II’s ambiguousness (he almost certainly converted to Catholicism on his death bed) and James Duke of York’s (later James II) open Catholicism. But it didn’t stop Monmouth fighting for Catholic Louis XIV of France in his youth or offering to convert when pleading for his life after his defeat.
His reputation as soldier, which was very high in some quarters during his life-time, might have been secure if not for his “invasion” and his final battle of Sedgemoor. Both came apart because of a lack of accurate reconnaissance.
Monmouth badly misjudged the true level of his support in England, especially amongst the ruling classes, before he sailed for the West Country and at Sedgemoor he led his largely untrained army on a night attack over ground that he did not know enough about.
Keay fails to explain satisfactorily why Protestant forces did not rally to Monmouth’s cause in the way they did with William of Orange not many years later. Why did people like John Churchill (later first Duke of Marlborough), who had fought shoulder to shoulder with Monmouth on the continent, fight against him at Sedgemoor but then support William of Orange?
Could part of the answer be that they had serious doubts about his character?
Whatever its weaknesses however, this book is packed with interesting information and is a good read.

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