Part of a new series on revisionist history, speculating on tiny changes in British history that could cause a ‘butterfly effect’.
James Scott, the first Duke of Monmouth was the eldest – and probably favourite – of Charles II’s twelve bastard children. His notorious and adored father come again, a court favourite and a Protestant to boot, it is unsurprising that those disaffected with Charles’ Catholic and ineffectual brother – James II – rallied around Monmouth and tried to put him forward as the true heir to Charles II.
Monmouth’s rebellion was impulsive and ill-planned and resulted in his troops being thoroughly routed, he himself being hauled out from where he was hiding in a ditch, and subsequently undergoing one of the most famously botched executions of all time – apparently it took seven blows of the axe to behead him.
But what if things had come off better for ‘Jemmy Scott’? How would things have gone if we’d ended up with the bastard son of a Welsh woman of middling gentility as King of England?
Monmouth (known to his mother and then friends as ‘Jemmy’) had an understandably hectic upbringing. His royal grandfather’s head had been lopped off and his father was floating around the continent in exile, shaking his rather impotent fist at the Republicans who had taken over his kingdom, racking up huge debts and siring bastard children here and there. As a result of the unsettled childhood, Monmouth was poorly educated, but this didn’t stop him becoming a star of his father’s Restoration court, after Charles took back his crown in 1660.
Now made into the first Duke of Monmouth, ‘Jemmy’ became a rather spoilt and indulged teenager, surrounded by the excess of his father’s hedonistic court. He was married off to a gorgeous and filthy rich heiress when he was 13 and she only 12 (although he of course emulated his father with a bevy of mistresses and illegitimate children). He grew in time to become a great soldier and was respected by his peers.
Although Monmouth certainly had vices, they were cast in imitation of his father and so were easy to forgive. He was a womaniser and terribly vain, dressing in the most flamboyant fashions and elaborate wigs. The way he placed his hats – at a jaunty angle – became widely known as the “Monmouth cock”. He was devastatingly good looking – unsurprisingly, as the son of the handsome king and a gorgeous courtesan (Lucy Walters was always referred to as ‘beautiful’ and ‘bold’, even by her enemies!). He also inherited his father’s charm and easy-going manner and never forgot the importance of the common touch. During the Great Fire of London he stood bare-foot, ankle deep in the water, passing buckets down the fire-fighting line and the Londoners never forgot it.
As Charles aged it became clear that he was not going to have a legitimate child to succeed him. First in line to the throne was his brother James. James was Catholic, pro-French and wanted to go back to the days before the Revolution, where Kings of England ruled with absolute power. He wasn’t a popular choice. Protestants and those politically opposed to James began casting about for another heir and settled upon the beloved Duke of Monmouth. Hearing about the grumblings, Charles II sent both his son and brother out of the country to try and calm the situation down.
Monmouth fled to the Dutch Republic with his mistress Henrietta Wentworth, to the court of his cousins William and Mary of Orange. Charles II died in 1685 and James claimed the throne, forcing William to banish Monmouth or risk bad relations with England and Scotland. William advised that Monmouth stay out of trouble and live a happy life with his mistress, to go east to Hungary or the Palatine. Unfortunately, Monmouth listened instead to those urging him to return to England and take up arms against his uncle. Monmouth was convinced; Henrietta Wentworth pawned all her jewels and valuables to secure him money for his journey.
Unfortunately, when Monmouth landed, most of his promised support never materialised. His followers were mainly farmers and craftsmen, not trained soldiers, and he barely had enough money to keep everything together. He was roundly defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor, his pitiful troops destroyed. After a brief sojourn in the Tower of London where he begged unmanfully for his life, he went to the block and order was – for a time – restored.
Of course James’ Frenchiness and Catholicism and fascism was only going to go uncontested for so long. In 1701 his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband (his nephew) William of Orange were invited to invade England and take over, which they duly did (known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’), becoming William III and Mary II. The Bill of Rights was passed stating that no Catholic could ever succeed to the throne of England, a move that ultimately lead to the ‘German’ Hanoverians coming to the throne. William and Mary were also given the throne under more stringent Parliamentary control than even Charles II had been – it was a large step towards the modern constitutional monarchy we would recognise today.
Monmouth (and his heirs) were safely Protestant – indeed, that was a large part of his appeal! – so it is likely that if his rebellion had succeeded, there would have been no ‘Glorious Revolution’ and we could have a completely different Royal Family today (Sarah, the Duchess of York is a direct descendant of Monmouth – interesting!). Although in time there would probably have proved need and opportunity for Parliament to take more control (and pass acts like the Bill of Rights), this may have not been for generations.
There would, of course, have been those who balked at paying homage to a bastard king, but with the illustrious William the Conqueror an illegitimate son himself, at least Monmouth would have been in good company… Prior to the death of Charles II, Protestant activists were so desperate to make Monmouth ‘James II’ as opposed to his Catholic uncle that they began to spread rumours that Charles and Lucy Walters had actually been legally married (something that Lucy had sworn up until her death). This of course would have made Monmouth legitimate and the uncontested heir. Nice try! I imagine if he had become King, there would have definitely been some retrospective whitewashing involved and – miraculously! – documents proving that Charles had married Lucy whilst in exile would have appeared.
Two final tidbits on the man who might have been king. The guards at the Tower of London love to relate the ghoulish story where Monmouth’s severed head was taken up after the execution and sewn hastily back onto his body, the whole thing hurriedly shoved in a bed and a ‘charming’ posthumous portrait of the Duke of Monmouth ‘sleeping’ painted. Intense!!
There are many people throughout the ages who believe that the infamous “Man in the Iron Mask” was actually Monmouth, based on the reasoning that James II could not bring himself to execute his own nephew, and so sent him to be put into the custody of his cousin Louis XIV of France. As Monmouth resembled Charles II so closely, Louis declared that he be forever masked…