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One of the most harrowing episodes in the history of England's West Country began on 11th June 1685.
This day can be called the first of the Duking days: - so called because that was the day that Charles II's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, sailed into Lyme Regis harbour. In May 1685, Monmouth set sail for South West England, a strongly Protestant region, with three small ships, four light field guns and 1500 muskets. He landed with 82 supporters, including Lord Grey of Warke and gathered around 300 men, at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 11 June.] King James was soon warned of Monmouth's arrival: two customs officers from Lyme arrived in London on 13 June having ridden some 200 miles (322 km) post haste.
There had been rumours that Charles had married Monmouth's mother, Lucy Walter, but no evidence was forthcoming, and Charles always said that he only had one wife, Catherine of Braganza.
Monmouth was a Protestant. He had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army by his father in 1672 and Captain-General in 1678, enjoying some successes in the Netherlands in the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Monmouth's military reputation, and his Protestantism, made him a popular figure in England. An attempt was made in 1681 to pass the Exclusion Bill, an Act of Parliament to exclude James Stuart, Charles II's brother, from the succession and substitute Monmouth, but Charles outmanoeuvred his opponents and dissolved Parliament for the final time. After the Rye House Plot to assassinate both Charles and James, Monmouth exiled himself to Holland, and gathered supporters in The Hague.
James II marshalled his troops and on the night of July 5th the Battle of Sedgemoor took place. Not surprisingly, because of the lack of proper equipment, Monmouth's army was soon routed. Monmouth himself fled the battlefield and was found three days later cowering in a ditch at Ringwood in the New Forest.
When he was brought before King James in London he wept, begged and pleaded for his life. He even promised to become a Catholic if his life was spared. It was no use; he was beheaded on Tower Hill in London on July 15th 1685.
The bloodshed had only just started. The infamous Judge Jefffreys was sent by King James to Taunton to mete out justice to the rebels. The trials became known as the 'Bloody Assize' as more than 200 were hanged, drawn and quartered, and 800 transported to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations.
One of Monmouth's followers captured after the battle of Sedgemoor was a famous runner. He was promised his life if he could out-run a horse. He was roped alongside a stallion and raced across Somerset beside it. The horse is said to have tired before he did but his captors broke their promise and hanged him anyway!
Heddon Oak near Crowcombe is one of the trees still pointed out as a 'Gallows Tree'. It is said that sometimes the clank of chains and gasps of choking men can be heard there.
Another fugitive from the battle, John Plumley the Lord of Locking Manor escaped to his home and hid near-by, but his pet dog gave away his hiding place, and he was hanged. His distraught wife swept the dog up in her arms and plunged down Locking Well to her death.
The cruelty and bloody aftermath of the battle of Segemoor still haunts the memory of the West Country and stories of ghosts seen, and ghosts heard, abound still to this day.
The Duking Days were not destined to become a time of happy memories.