The late 1670s and early 1680s saw a constitutional crisis in England and Scotland, as a growing group of nobles, with some popular support, attempted to prevent a Catholic heir to the throne from succeeding as king, and resorted to plots, conspiracies and open rebellion when parliamentary methods failed.
The English Civil War had left resentment among some of the population about the monarchy and the penalties which had been imposed on the supporters of the Commonwealth. Fears of a potential Catholic monarch persisted, intensified by the failure of Charles II and his wife to produce any children. This was spiced not only with growing resentment of Charles’ methods of governing and the growing centralised power of the monarchy, but also the widespread survival of veterans of the English Revolution – old Cromwell supporters, civil war soldiers, remnants of the Leveller and Fifth monarchist movements, non-conformists in religion whose freedom to worship had been established in the war then severely curtailed under the restoration… For instance you have figures like Colonel Henry Danvers, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republican groups around 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, said to have been plotting establish a republic and redistribute property. (Although this last may have been black propaganda against them?) Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!
A turbulent mix, with lots of anti-popish populism and suspicion thrown in. Ploys abounded.
A defrocked Anglican clergyman, Titus Oates, exposed a supposed “Popish Plot” to kill Charles and to put the Duke of York on the throne – largely a combination of conspiracy theory and witch-hunt. The Earl of Shaftesbury, a former government minister and a leading opponent of Catholicism, attempted to have James excluded from the line of succession. Some members of Parliament proposed that the crown go to Charles’s illegitimate son, James Scott, who became the Duke of Monmouth. In 1679, with the Exclusion Bill – which would exclude the King’s brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, from the line of succession – in danger of being passed, Charles II dissolved Parliament. Two further Parliaments were elected in 1680 and 1681, but were dissolved for the same reason. The Exclusion Crisis contributed to the development of the English two-party system: the Whigs were those who supported the Bill, while the Tories were those who opposed it. Ultimately, the succession was not altered, but James was convinced to withdraw from all policy-making bodies and to accept a lesser role in his brother’s government. Monmouth was a protestant, popular, although something of a chancer…
During 1682 tensions were rising across the country, as the king got older and the prospect of his brother succeeding inspired plots, attempted mini-coups… Monmouth was persuaded by the protestant conspirator Lord Shaftesbury to progress through several counties in triumphant and semi-rebellious processions, in 1680s thorugh the southwest of England , and in September 1682 in Cheshire and Merseyside… The rapturous receptions there indicated some of the feeling of dissatisfaction, projected onto a royal playboy, who was flattered into slowly believing he could be a rival for the throne.
Whether or not Monmouth was himself conspiring at this point to seize the throne, he was certainly the figurehead for many who did want to see the Duke of York excluded and even Charles deposed… His popularity when he travelled the country seemed an opportunity, to many notables opposed to any hint of Catholicism, but also to the ‘arbitrary’ royal power and increasingly modern centralised state, that often trespassed on the interests of wealthy aristos and merchants (similar to the questions and conflicts that had led to the Civil war). It would certainly later persuade Monmouth himself that he had a chance of seizing the throne from his uncle.
On Bonfire Night, November 5th, for 80 years a bonanza fest for anti-catholic hysteria, London saw its usual rowdy scenes, with multiple bonfires, drinking, burning of effigies… This year, however, the festivities were jacked up a notch, and the usual good humoured banter seemed to have a subversive edge: about 10 o’clock, 500-600 people marched through the city shouting ‘A Monmouth! No York!’ They then proceeded to try to burn the Mitre Tavern on Poultry, smashed the windows of prominent ‘Tories’ (high church, seen as neo-catholics), and attempted a few lynchings… The rioting continued into the next night. Arrests followed – and 13 men were condemned to death.
Early in 1683, “Six apprentices of the City were found guilty of a riot committed on the 6th of Nov. last, for which they were fined twenty marks, and sentenced to stand on the pillory, which was accordingly performed, two in Cheapside, one in Cornhill, the others in various parts of the City, but instead of having any abuse offered them,— which is usual in such cases— not a pin*s head was flung at them, instead they had money, oranges, etc thrown to them during their stay before the pillory.” For the authorities did not venture to place them in the pillory — and ** a bottle of wine was brought to the two in Cheapside to drink the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Shaftesbury’s health.”
Clearly the rioters had a great deal of popular support… What isn’t totally clear is the basis of the rioters’ anger, though it appears from to have been more of the usual Bonfire night anti-catholicism, rather than necessarily radical sentiment… But the two were often mingled together at this time, the idea that Catholicism meant tyranny and protestantism liberty, at its most simplest, but also with more complex religious and political ideologies underlying.
Monmouth gathered support from the remnants of the republican and fifth monarchist undergrounds, who had plotted and schemed against the restored monarchy from 1660s on, though largely futilely and increasingly penetrated by govt spies, and manipulated by political opportunists, leading ‘Whigs’ and anti-catholic nutters… Stalwart civil war era republicans, ex-Cromwellite soldiers, even former levelers and fifth monarchists who had ended up opposing Cromwell, all dipped into the plotting and would up snared in conspiracies like the Rye House Plot, and supporting Monmouth’s 1685 rebellion against James when he became king. To some extent the November 1682 riots were a prelude or an episode in this long murky resistance.
The Rye House Plot was a shadowy London conspiracy which, early in 1683, [Whigs] may well have discussed murdering the King as he returned to London from the Newmarket races. What the Rye House Plotters actually planned and wanted are much debated. Some believe Monmouth and other prominent Whigs led by Shaftesbury to be planning the murder or abduction of the king. on June 12th 1683 Josiah Keeling, a minor Whig figure in the City, made a deposition before Secretary Jenkins saying that a few weeks prior he had been engaged in a conspiracy with old Cromwell supporter Richard Rumbold and others to assassinate the King on his return from Newmarket.
Whether this was true or not, the Tories seized on the admission: many Whigs were forced out of the country, among the Duke of Monmouth (although he tried to convert to Catholicism and grassed up a few of the plotters first, showing his unwavering commitment to the cause).
When Monmouth ‘invaded’ England in 1685, following Charles II’s death and James’ succeeding to the throne, he won most support among the West Country poor, including impoverished and discontented, but notably, among them, a number of former levellers or those who looked back to the Commonwealth and the civil war political ferment for inspiration. People who turned out to cheer Monmouths as he marched through Devon and Somerset openly wore green ribbons – the emblem of the Levellers. Around the campfires of the rebel ‘army’ who rallied to his cause, political discussions were said to have taken place about the kind of kingdom the rebels thought they were fighting for, which directly echoed the highly politicised soldiery of the New Model Army, the Putney Debates, the Agreement of the People… Whether Monmouth himself would have approved or any successful Monmouth regime would have even tolerated such assertions (a dubious question at best), elements of his support were again stating the old Leveller principle that the common people of the nation have a right to a say in the direction of the country, the law – all social strata are concerned in how society is run. The revolutionary potential of this idea had terrified the restored Stuart regime throughout king Charles’s life (most of all when working people rose up, as in the Bawdy House riots or the 1675 silkweavers’ riots in London); its re-appearance in Monmouth’s army have led some to call the rebellion the last Leveller uprising.
However, the radicals’ and non-conformists’ desperate hope that this royal bastard would bring about the triumph of the ‘Good Old Cause’ was not only over-optimistic, but misplaced. There were not enough of them, and large numbers of potential rebels in other areas did not come out in support; possibly very sensibly guessing that it wouldn’t end well. The rebellion was heavily defeated, 100s of rebels killed in the battle of Sedgemoor, and many more brutally executed in the reprisals thereafter; and when king James was ousted 3 years later and replaced with William III, it was by the conservative elements opposed to arbitrary royal power in their own interests. The powerful who masterminded the Glorious Revolution, created a political settlement based on a constitutional agreement, yes, but based on top-down hierarchy, not a radical conception of the nation that would allow all social classes a voice in power.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar