In non-fiction, facts are always king, but sometimes the facts can appear improbable, even impossible. The resulting question is sometimes answered with an expert assumption or opinion, but all too often they remain unconvincing. For me, the burning unanswered question about the Monmouth Rebellion was how did the Duke of Monmouth expect to win with a pitchfork army? To this, the standard answer is that he was a badly advised fool. But surely after seven years leading the British army, General Monmouth was no amateur soldier, especially as he had been offered command of a European Army in 1684. This doesn’t sound like a fool. It was this question that started 20 years of research and a book contract.
However, after my first trip to the National Archives at Kew, it became clear that my book draft, and history was overflowing with assumptions and rather thin on facts. Therefore, as a historian there were two options; go with the established view, or return to primary sources and rewrite history. With the Monmouth Rebellion in little pieces all over the archive floor, the first task was to create piles of evidence and rebuild my knowledge.
It was through this process that the Government intelligence reports in the British Library came to light, and these opened my eyes to the true Monmouth Rebellion story. As this new source of information was cross-checked and put into a timeline, it became clear that the invasion was well organized, and not a last minute adventure. Indeed the death of King Charles II simply crystalised the plans that were already underway in Holland. One report even detailed the exiled Whigs in Utrecht celebrating the news of the King’s death.
By cross-referencing these untapped accounts with the War Department records and State minute books found in the National Archives, a more realistic history came into focus. One that described how Monmouth, with help from the Prince of Orange, turned existing plans into a coordinated military strategy and used the established anti-Government network to muster support in England. At the same time, while officers were recruited by Captain Foulkes, Monmouth turned his attention to buying colours, drums, and purple coats for the five infantry regiments to be raised in England. They detailed how Monmouth used his Dutch family connections to store and ship arms through London to the west country, and enabled the hire of the warship Helderenburg.
All this forgotten intelligence shows that this was no random event, but a structured invasion, with the equipment needed for an army of 5,000 soldiers. To turn the enterprise from a Rebellion into a ‘just war’, Monmouth published a declaration of war that laid out the grievances, objectives and ultimately promised peace as the outcome. This policy was straight from Tracte de la Guerre ou Politique Militaire published in 1677. Which, according to the notes in his pocket book was one of the last books read by Monmouth.
While Monmouth’s every move was being tracked by spies, these reports resulted in hundreds of arrests being made in England. But Monmouth turned this into a clever deception plan and used these agents to feed false information to King James II in Whitehall. Therefore, when news of Monmouth’s departure from Holland arrived in Whitehall, the King believed Monmouth would be landing in Scotland in support of the Earl of Argyll. However, a fortnight before Monmouth’s landing, an intercepted letter detailing the invasion plans mobilised the Militia. These part-time soldiers blocked the roads and garrisoned the key towns. It was this piece of intelligence that stopped Monmouth from marching rapidly on London from Lyme Regis after his landing on 11 June 1685.
Far from being a lost cause, the original reports demonstrate a real fear in Whitehall. A fear that Monmouth could win. Importantly, it is also clear that all this happened with the tacit agreement of the Prince of Orange, the King’s son-in-law, the future King William III. In 1686, with a need to justify his actions and with the benefit of hindsight, James II wrote an account of the campaign. This shows that the old adage, ‘history is written by the victors’ is all too true, as James’ story forms the basis of most accounts of the Monmouth Rebellion, of the Duke of Monmouth and of his mother Lucy Walter.
Sometimes when history doesn’t add up, it is time to step back, look under the covers and return to primary sources. When it comes to the Monmouth Rebellion, rather than facts being king, it’s now clear that the King wrote the facts. My new account of the Monmouth Rebellion, ‘Fighting for Liberty’ is published by Helion & Company.