The Monmouth Summer by Tim Vicary

1685. King Charles II dies unexpectedly, and is succeeded by his brother James II, England’s first Catholic monarch since Bloody Mary. English Protestants feel threatened, and King Charles’s illegitimate son, the handsome young duke of Monmouth, rises against his uncle in armed rebellion. The rebellion turns young Ann Carter’s world upside down. Eighteen years old, she is betrothed to Tom Goodchild, a Protestant shoemaker; but secretly loves Robert Pole, an officer in King James’s army, who offers to take her to London as his mistress. Ann knows it is her duty to marry Tom, but does not love him; so when he marches away with the rebels, she imagines him being killed – which would set her free. But she knows such thoughts are wicked; her father is a rebel soldier too, like all the men of her village. So who should she pray for, when musket balls start to fly? What matters most – love or loyalty?

When I was asked to review this book, I jumped at the chance. As readers of this blog will know I have a bit of a thing for all things Seventeenth Century (despite having not really done much on it recently…), and a book set in the midst of the 1685 West Country Rebellion seemed like my perfect historical novel. Now I’ve said in before, and I’ll say it again – I’m not a big fan of historical fiction; but this turned out to be one book that was the exception to the rule. In a nutshell, I thought that this book was a masterpiece. My love of the Seventeenth Century includes pretty much everything from James I onwards, but I have a particular love of the English Civil Wars, Restoration and more recently, Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685. Over the past year or so I have been devouring non fiction books on James Duke of Monmouth and his rebellion; and it also helps having grown up near many of the towns featured in both the historical rebellion, and this novel. And from the get-go, I devoured this book.

Vicary’s writing style is second to none in this book. From the very first page, as we are introduced to the people of Colyton, and in particular the Carter family, the world in which the characters live in seems to burst from the page and come alive. Vicary weaves his prose together masterfully, and as I read I could quite clearly imagine the scenes being described. And as the story began to pick up pace, and the rebel armies of the Duke of Monmouth began to clash with the Royalist troops, it was as if I could hear the musket shots in my ears. It’s not often that a book does this to me, and when it happens it is a real breath of fresh air. As I was reading through however, I did notice a couple of odd grammar mistakes such as full stops in random places throughout the sentences, but I can overlook this as it wasn’t blindingly noticeable. As well as this, I really loved the way the Vicary made his characters speak. The town where the story is mainly set, Colyton, is a real town located in East Devon; and throughout the prose, the characters speak in a west country accent. And Vicary makes this clearer by having the characters actually speak as those in the West Country did (and still do for the most part!):

“Good day Mr Carter! Sorry ’bout Methuselah! Come here Methuselah, you stupid beast! You’m scarin’ they ‘orses!”

Almost all of the characters spoke like this throughout the story, and it really endeared many of them to me. It’s little things like this that can change a book from a good book, to an excellent one.

As I mentioned previously, the story follows the inhabitants of Colyton (a fun fact: known as the most rebellious town in Devon due to their part in the Monmouth rebellion) as they hear of King Charles II’s bastard son coming back from overseas to try and take the throne back from his Catholic uncle, James II. The main character of the story is Ann Carter, a young lady born to a good Puritan family, and she is betrothed to Tom Goodchild. The problem for Ann however is that she is secretly in love with Robert Pole, second son of the local Lord and a supporter of King James. Ann finds herself torn as the men of her village march off to war (including her father) and to fight for the Duke of Monmouth. She is betrothed to marry Tom, who she does not love; yet in love with a man who her father would likely end up meeting on the field of battle. The character of Ann is an interesting one and throughout the narrative you can really see how desperate she is to break free of the ties that bind her to the village and to see the bigger picture. So much so she finds herself highly tempted when Robert offers to take her to London as his mistress. And you can see this throughout the entire story – she fights to stay true to her family’s wishes, to marry Tom and remain true to her faith yet at the same time delights in escaping the village and travelling with the army. And yet despite this new found freedom she finds herself entangled in a life where she must face life or death decisions and finds out that the world is not one to be viewed through rose tinted glasses.

I was incredibly pleased also with the amount of research that went into this book. As a bit of a seventeenth century nut (who, to my shame, was in the Sealed Knot at one point as a musketeer), I was paying quite close attention to the description of the battles, and the musket drill. And it was spot on. And even though I was only ever in a pike block once in my time with the knot (and was rather drunk at the time, thanks for that Nantwich!), I couldn’t see any issues with the pike drill being described in the story either.

All in all, a fantastic story right from the get-go that includes some of the most names and faces of the Seventeenth Century – Prince Rupert, Judge Jeffries and the Battle of Sedgemoor. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Seventeenth Century and looking to read a well researched, action packed story of an incredibly famous rebellion in English history.

You can pick up Tim Vicay’s novel from Amazon UK and Amazon US for kindle.

15th July 1685 – The Execution of James, Duke of Monmouth

Plate showing the execution of James, Duke of Monmouth

I’ve written a lot about the Duke of Monmouth recently, and I have to say that I find him absolutely fascinating. This young man who believed so wholeheartedly that his mother had legally married his father and he was the legitimate heir to the throne, this young man who believed in his claim so much that he rebelled against his uncle James II. His story is exceptionally sad and his end exceptionally brutal.

Monmouth, by William Wissing

On 15th July 1685, after his defeat at Sedgemoor, James Duke of Monmouth was executed on Tower Hill. He was condemned to death by act of attainder and automatically found guilty of high treason against his uncle James II. Whilst imprisoned in the Tower, Monmouth had begged for mercy and written to the King – but of course the King never received the letter. And James II, in his exile admitted “I never saw the letter, nor did I ever hear of it till within these few days” – if he had seen the letter, would he have pardoned his nephew? James had at first said that Monmouth was to suffer a full traitors death of hanging, drawing and quartering but later decided that he should be beheaded upon Tower Hill and that the date of execution would be St Swithun’s Day, 15th July. The King wanted as many people as possible to see their hero die, and according to J.N.P Watson chose the date as a lesson to his nephew “for giving credit to so vain a prediction; for ‘tho Almighty God permits such divinations to fall out some times according as they are foretold, yet never to the benefit or advantage of those that believe them”.

Shortly before his execution, the Bishop of Ely and Dr Ken visited him to hear his confession. He shook off his fear, realising that St Swithun’s day would indeed be his day of judgement and became very sincere and dignified except on the matter of his mistress Henrietta Wentworth. He refused to admit that he had been living in sin with her, saying “I have heard it is lawful to have one wife in the eye of the law and another before God”. When he was challenged for saying this he replied, “Well, but if a man be bred up in a false notion, what shall he do when he has but two hours to live?”.

He told the bishops he would die a true Protestant, and he was then refused the sacrament. But he signed a paper renouncing his allusions to the throne for the sake of his children and also declared that his father Charles II had told him he was illegitimate although he was very careful not to admit it himself. He also asked that the King did not make his children suffer on his account.

On the morning of his execution he dressed carefully, wearing clean stockings, a fresh skirt and lace scarf, as well as a grey suit lined with black and a long periwig. His wife visited him that morning for a final farewell and fell to her knees begging his forgiveness if she had done anything to offend him but he told her she had been a good, dutiful wife. He also instructed his children to be dutiful to the King and to respect their mother.

He approached Tower Hill and the scaffold was heavily defended, and James II had given special permission for the scaffold to be draped in mourning cloth. As he climbed the steps and spied Jack Ketch he said “do your work well”. The crowd was huge, and thousands of people had flocked to see their hero die. It is said that Monmouth spoke very little on the scaffold, only to yet again defend Henrietta Wentworth, stating that he had not lived in sin with her and that she was a virtuous woman. He also stated that he said he would die “very penitent”. He was also asked to address the soldiers in front of the scaffold, as he ,  had been a soldier himself and he refused, saying he would take no speeches, but the men accompanying him on the scaffold kept badgering him saying that just 10 words would be enough. Some have said that at this point he made his “Martyr of the People” speech that he wrote in the Tower, but official reports deny this.

Monmouth now turned to Jack Ketch and addressed him, handing him a bag of six guineas, “Here are six guineas for you. Pray do your business well. Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him three or four times. If you give me two strokes I promise I will not stir”.

Following this he removed his waistcoat and periwig. He refused a blindfold and knelt, laying his head on the block. After a moment, he turned back to Ketch and asked if he could feel the axe. After he had done so he expressed his fear that the axe was not sharp enough. Ketch then stated that it was both sharp enough and heavy enough. The executioner himself had been unnerved by Monmouth’s mention of Russell, and he botched the execution completely. The first swing caught the side of Monmouth’s neck, making him heave up and look at Ketch in shock. The second made a slightly bigger gash and the third he missed all together. Ketch then threw the axe down crying, “God Damn Me, I can do no more. My heart fails me, I cannot do it!”. The crowd became angry, threatening to kill Ketch if he did not do any better. Ketch was ordered to pick the axe back up and finish the job, taking 3 more blows to kill Monmouth, though the head was still attached. He resorted to using a butchers knife that hung at his belt to finally remove Monmouth’s head. The crowd was still so indignant at the executioner that he had to be lead away by armed guard.

Portrait said to be of James Duke of Monmouth after his death, artist unknown (though possibly by Kneller)

James, Duke of Monmouth, was buried in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula inside the Tower of London alongside other noble and royal victims of the executioners axe.

The diarist John Evelyn wrote of his death, “Thus ended the quondam Duke, darling of his father and the ladies, being extremely handsome and adroit, an excellent soldier and dancer, a favourite of the people, of an easy nature, debauch’d by lust, seduc’d by crafty knaves…He was a lovely person”

I’m not going to lie, as I have been writing this I have been crying a little…actually that’s a lie because I am sobbing as I write this. Monmouth’s end was very grizzly, and such a horrible way for such a popular figure to die. Because he was popular, and he was loved. And no one deserves to suffer such a terrible death.

Tonight I shall be raising a glass to James, Duke of Monmouth.

Further Reading

Coward, B, 2012, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714, Pearson: Harlow
Watson, J.N.P, 1979, Captain General and Rebel Chief: The Life of James, Duke of Monmouth, George Allen & Unwin: London