A blog researched and written by Cathedral volunteer Ken Smith
In 1945, two manuscript accounts of the Sedgemoor campaign of 1685 were given to the Cathedral library*. One of these was a small ten-page description by Adam Wheeler and the other a four-page foolscap account by an un-named officer in the Royal army. This short-lived campaign was the result of a landing at Lyme Regis by the protestant Duke of Monmouth – an illegitimate son of Charles the Second - in an attempt to raise enough support to challenge the rule of his Catholic uncle James the Second.
When received by the library, the manuscripts were damp-stained and partly decayed, but they have been skilfully restored. Personal accounts of the last major battle fought on English soil are interesting both from a local as well as a national historic viewpoint. Both accounts give a detailed picture of the course of the campaign from the viewpoints of two members of James the Second’s army. Of the two, I found that of Adam Wheeler to be the more interesting as he describes his experiences as a drummer in Colonel John Wyndham’s regiment of Wiltshire Militia. Reading Wheeler’s spidery but clear text, it is interesting to speculate how soon after the events he wrote them down. Were these words written soon afterwards as a means to deal with the trauma of the campaign or an account penned years later for his descendants? We shall never know. We know virtually nothing about Wheeler, but he was literate, numerate and knew some Latin. Clearly, he was a young man of some education and was likely to have been a Wiltshireman.
Wheeler's story begins with his regiment mustering in Salisbury market-place ”Accommodated fit for warre” on June 16,1685. We have to imagine the market-square as it then appeared, bordered on three sides by street-channels, with the Elizabethan Council House where the War-Memorial now stands.
On the evening of June 18, Wheeler records that “…about sixe of the clock in the evening, the drums beating and the colours displayed, leaving the citty we directed our march to Wilton being about two miles distant.” On the next day they marched to Market Lavington and, via Devizes, reached Chippenham on June 21. They continued to Bath the following day.
On June 25, Wheeler tells us that the Earl of Pembroke with some of the Wiltshire Militia foot-soldiers and cavalry, helped defeat a party of Monmouth’s army at Frome. He reports that the Royal army “…brought away with them, as prisoner, the Constable of that towne…who had proclaimed the Duke of Monmouth King”. He also mentioned “..several cruell and new–invented murthering weapons as sithes and the like…” This reminds us of the improvised weaponry carried by much of Monmouth’s force.
The Wiltshire Militia, along with other elements of the Royal army, arrived at King’s Sedgemoor, in the Somerset levels, on July 1. On July 6, Wheeler reports that “...between twelve and one of the clock in the morning” the Earl of Pembroke rode in haste to where Colonel Wyndham was quartered. The Earl cried out ”Colonell Wyndham, Colonell Wyndham the enemy is engaged”. Wyndham answered that he and his regiment were ready and asked Wheeler, being the only drummer in the house, to summon the Regiment. This, Wheeler “...presently performed”.
Wheeler’s record of events reflects his pride in being the man tasked to rally the Regiment, though he noted that “...some others of the Regiment did endeavour to have the credit ...attributed to themselves.” His account then goes on to describe his part in the battle in the third person: “...When the alarum was beaten by Adam Wheeler in Middlezoy according to the Lord Lieutenant’s command" the regiment marched through the village to Weston Moor “with as much expedition as possible”.
Of the final action of the campaign, Wheeler simply tells us “On the aforesaid sixth of July, the fight began very early in the morning; which battel was over within the span of two houres and the enemy received a totall rowte.” Afterwards, we learn, Wheeler says “The battel being over, his honour the Earl of Feversham (Royal Commander in Chief) came to the head of Colonell Wyndham’s Regiment and gave him many thanks for his readiness saying that his Majestie should not heare of it by letter but by word of mouth.”
Wheeler was then asked to tally the number of prisoners taken by the right wing of Wyndham’s Regiment. Using his drum as a desk he wrote down the numbers of prisoners as they passed by. He recorded some 228 men and noted that most were “tyed together” whilst some “...wounded in theire legs crawling upon the ground on theire hands and knees to Weston Church”. Indeed, a number of these wounded men died in the Church that night. Wheeler recalled that after the battle, according to local country-folk, some 1,384 bodies had been found, besides many more “unfound in the corne”. He remembers seeing a heap of 174 bodies piled up near one of the many burial pits. The horrors of war were not yet over for Wheeler, who also witnessed the hanging of Monmouth’s Dutch gunner together with a deserter from the Royal army, from a tree close to Weston Church. By July 11, the Regiment had been disbanded and was back at home. We can imagine that for the rest of his life, Wheeler would recall and probably regale others, with his memories of the campaign and his part in it.
It is, perhaps ironic, that, just three years after Sedgemoor, another invading force also landed in the West Country, also intent on unseating King James. But this force, better equipped, better led and with solid political support, succeeded where Monmouth had failed. William of Orange and James’s daughter Mary replaced James as joint Monarchs and, as the saying has it, the rest is history.
* Note by Emily Naish, Cathedral Archivist, both the Sedgemoor manuscripts have now been transferred to and catalogued within the Cathedral archive collection.