The Last Royal Rebel: The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth

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  • Author:
    Anna Keay,
    This is a fascinating and readable biography of an important, misunderstood and very romantic rebel-figure of the late seventeenth century in Britain. The bad news is that The Last Royal Rebel is a chunky hardback. Recently published, at the time of writing it is not yet available in paperback. It can however be bought as a Kindle e-book.

    This is the first biography to be written for many years of James, Duke of Monmouth, King Charles I I's eldest bastard son. Monmouth is one of those figures about whom we think that we know everything: stunningly handsome, vain, weak, spoiled; a dandy, with as much sexual self-control as a tom-cat – or as his father. Eventually Monmouth's vanity caused him to claim the crown and lead a foredoomed rebellion against his uncle, King James II. It predictably came to grief at Sedgemoor. Monmouth was discovered after the battle, cowering in a ditch. Convicted of treason, his career came to a horrible end at the hands of an incompetent executioner wielding a blunt axe. End of story.

    Dr Anna Keay's research shows Monmouth to have been a more interesting and complex person than the above caricature. The charges of being a wastrel, a womaniser and a fop were justified in Monmouth's early youth, part of which was spent at the court of his cousin, King Louis XIV of France. However even the most dissolute young men eventually grow up. Monmouth had to have a career; he took to soldiering and proved to be very good at it; not only showing gifts as a strategist but a personal bravery which was inspiring to the troops under his command and a nightmare to his senior commanders, one of whose instructions was to ensure that, if at all possible, Monmouth should return alive to his fond father.

    Initially Monmouth fought for Louis XIV in some of his many wars. Showing a courage worthy of “H” Jones, he took and then re-took an important fortification during the siege of Maastricht, leading from the front. His companions in this hair-raising exploit were John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, and one of the most celebrated soldiers in history; Charles de Batz-Castelmore, Count d'Artagnan. Monmouth and Churchill survived; d'Artagnan and quite a number of others did not. Later Monmouth would fight with equal courage against Louis XIV, in the army of his other cousin, the Dutch Statthalter, William of Orange.

    Monmouth came unstuck over politics. His politics would at times severely strain his relationship with his doting father and led to his rebellion against his uncle James, whose close friend he had formerly been. Because Monmouth was, rather unexpectedly, a man of principle, he refused to compromise and tow the official Stuart line, which was that essentially nothing had changed since Charles I's time. In reality it had: since the Restoration of 1660, the system of two-party government had come into being. The Cavaliers were now the Tories, loyal to the Stuart dynasty and still believing that the King should have the last word on policy. This went with High-Church Anglicanism and, in a few cases, with discreet sympathy for Popery. The Roundheads had become the Whigs; distant ancestors of the Liberal Party. They considered that England had a constitution, albeit not written down, so that it was or should be, a constitutional monarchy; that the King should not attempt to rule without Parliament or raise taxes without good cause. In the last analysis, Kings, like everyone else, were answerable for their actions. The Whigs were explicitly Protestant.

    Monmouth was a Whig. He had thought through and discussed his ideas with, among others, John Locke, the empirical philosopher and one of the most influential political thinkers of the age. Locke promoted the social contract theory and was an acknoweldged influence on Voltaire. He thought very highly of Monmouth. Monmouth also appears to have been a serious Protestant, despite his mistresses and a small flock of bastards. Apart from the mistresses, none of this appealed to Monmouth's father or his uncle.

    Monmouth's rebellion failed partly through bad timing. Monmouth was well-placed to see what a danger James II and VII posed; how determined he was to become an absolute monarch and how he was equally determined to make Roman Catholicism the national religion. However many English and Scots people, who were not as well-informed as Monmouth, were inclined to give King James the benefit of the doubt. In 1685, when Monmouth's rebellion took place, Oliver Cromwell still cast a long shadow. The restored monarchy was seen as the best guarantee against another civil war and a new military dictatorship. They did not want to rock the boat; or rather, the Ship of State. The rebellion failed through lack of sufficient support and Judge Jefferies dealt ruthlessly with the surviving rebels.

    By 1688 James II had demonstrated to everybody's satisfaction that he was as bad as Monmouth had believed him to be. Monmouth's former friend and cousin, William of Orange, invaded that year, following the birth of James Edward, Prince of Wales (the Old Pretender). This time there was great popular support and King James fled. William had made a careful study of Monmouth's rebellion and made sure that he did not repeat his mistakes. The Revolution of 1688 explicitly established an early form of constitutional monarchy and a long period of Whig government. Monmouth's view had prevailed, although he was not alive to see it.

    Two final canards: Monmouth was not cowering in a ditch when he was captured. He was sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. When he later said that his political advisers had urged him to claim the throne, he spoke the truth; that had not been his original intention. He died very bravely.

    My only criticisms are that Anna Keay seems never to have heard of “whom”; she uses “who” all through the book. Her punctuation is erratic, too. But this is still a superb and well-illustrated book. It deserves the many good reviews that it has received.

    Four-and-a-half Mr Mushroom-heads.

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