It was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion between the troops of the rebel James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth who was attempting to seize the English throne and James II of England. James II had succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother Charles II on 2 February 1685; James Scott was Charles' illegitimate son.
After landing from the Netherlands at Lyme Regis in Dorset, there had been a series of marches and skirmishes throughout Dorset and Somerset. Eventually Monmouth's poorly equipped army was pushed back to the Somerset Levels, becoming hemmed in at Bridgwater on 3 July, and ordered his troops to fortify the town. The force was made up of around 3,500, mostly nonconformist, artisans and farmer workers armed with farm tools (such as pitchforks):
The royalist troops led by Louis de Duras, 2nd Earl of Feversham and John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough were camped behind the Bussex Rhine at Westonzoyland. The infantry forces included 500 men of the 1st Regiment of Foot (Royal Scots), two battalions of the 1st or King's Royal Regiment of Guard's (Grenadier Guards) led by Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Grafton, 600 men of the Second Regiment of Guards and five companies of the Queen Consort's Regiment (Kings Own Royal Border Regiment). The Horse and Foot, the Royal Train of Artillery was camped along the road to Bridgwater. The Royal Cavalry, with seven troops, 420 men of the Earl of Oxfords, the Kings Regiment of Horse (Blues and Royals), the King's Own Royal Dragoons and three troops of the King's Horse Guards (Lifeguards) made up the army.
The Duke eventually led his untrained and ill-equipped troops out of Bridgwater at around 10.00pm to undertake a night-time attack on the King's army. They were guided by Richard Godfrey, the servant of a local farmer, along the old Bristol road towards Bawdrip. With their limited cavalry in the vanguard they turned south along Bradney Lane and Marsh Lane, and came to the open moor with its deep and dangerous rhines.
There was a delay while the rhine was crossed and the first men across startled a royalist patrol. A shot was fired and a horseman from the patrol galloped off to report to Feversham. Lord Grey of Warke led the rebel cavalry forward and they were engaged by the King's Regiment of Horse which alerted the rest of the royalist forces. The superior training of the regular army and their horses routed the rebel forces by outflanking them.
Monmouth escaped the battlefield with Grey and headed for the south coast, disguised as peasants. They were captured near Ringwood, Hampshire. He was taken to the Tower of London in London where he was, after several blows of the axe, finally beheaded.
After the battle about 500 of Monmouth's troops were captured and imprisoned in St Mary’s Parish Church in Westonzoyland, while others were hunted and shot in the ditches where they were hiding. More were hung from gibbets erected along the roadside. The royalist troops were rewarded with Feversham being made a Knight of the Garter, Churchill promoted to Major-General and Henry Shires of the artillery receiving a Knighthood. Other soldiers, particularly those that had been wounded, received allowances ranging from £5-£80. Some of the wounded were amongst the first to be treated at the newly opened Royal Hospital Chelsea.
The king sent Judge Jeffreys to round up the Duke's supporters throughout the south west and try them in the Bloody Assizes at Taunton Castle. About 1,300 people were found guilty, many being transported abroad, while some were executed by drawing and quartering.
The battle of Sedgemoor is often referred to as the last battle fought on English soil, but this is incorrect: the Battle of Preston in Lancashire was fought on 14 November 1715, during the First Jacobite Rebellion, and the Second Jacobite Rebellion saw a minor engagement at Clifton Moor near Penrith in Cumbria on 18 December 1745. A more accurate statement would be that Sedgemoor is the last pitched battle fought on English soil.
A collection of poems (Sedgemoor) exploring this crucial, but neglected, episode in English history was written by poet and academic Malcolm Povey and published by Smokestack Books in 2006. The poems move between 1685 and the present, from England to Kosovo and Iraq, highlighting "the continuing cruelties of empire and hierarchy".
Povey's book received widespread praise, especially for its originality: "Not many poets try something as different and ambitious as this. It deserves to be widely read.