Monmouth Rebellion: Facts & History

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the history of the Monmouth Rebellion, when the bastard son of Charles II attempted to usurp the throne of England from his uncle, James II.

Transition of Power

Every four or eight years in the United States, a new president is sworn in. That peaceful, regularly-timed transition of power is a hallmark of our democracy and our government. The U.S. is rather unique in this regard; historically speaking, transitions of power could be dubious, contentious, and sometimes lead to war.

Such was the case with the 1685 accession of James II to the throne of England. In this lesson, we will discuss the circumstances surrounding the accession and why it led to the first true test of James' reign: the Monmouth Rebellion.

Two Jameses

The principal characters of the Monmouth Rebellion are James II and his nephew, James Scott. James II was the brother of King Charles II, who had been restored to the English throne in 1660 after nearly two decades of civil war and strife. The big problem for Charles - and the biggest problem for most kings of the period - was that of having a male heir to succeed him on the throne.

Charles and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, had failed to produce a male heir. But that does not mean Charles did not have sons. In fact, he had several, the eldest of which was James, whom he had with his mistress Lucy Walter in 1649 while the English crown was in exile in Holland. After Charles II was restored as King of England, he made his illegitimate son James the Duke of Monmouth in 1663.

But the Duke of Monmouth's illegitimacy precluded his ability to succeed to the English throne according to the conventions of the day. Instead, without a male son born of Charles and Catherine, the line of succession fell to Charles' brother, James. When Charles died in 1685, this James became James II, King of England, while James Scott, illegitimate son of Charles and Duke of Monmouth, got little else.

King James II
King James II

Anti-Catholicism

Things may have ended here if not for one key fact about the new king: he was Catholic. Anti-Catholicism was rampant among England's Protestant population in the 17th century. Various events during the English Civil War, especially the rebellion that occurred in Ireland (then a realm ruled by the King of England), were fueled by the religious friction between Protestants and Catholics.

Many Englishmen feared, both before and after the accession of James II, that James' fervent Catholicism would lead him to try to reintroduce the religion to England. After all, as head of the Church of England, this was his right. Whether James had any real plans or not to introduce Catholicism in England, it was a hotly debated topic then and now.

These anti-Catholic feelings in the country - as well as some likely jilted feelings on missing out on his inheritance - led the Duke of Monmouth to believe that a rebellion to place himself on the throne would be wildly popular among the majority-Protestant English population. James was further assured of his rebellion's success by his popularity during a tour of the country in 1680.

Rebellion

When his uncle took the throne in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth was living in Holland. In part of his own accord, and in part persuaded by English Protestants scheming against James II, the Duke of Monmouth agreed to land in England soon and raise a rebellion against his uncle. The plan was to quickly land in England with a small force before James II had time to solidify his rule over the country. Though the original landing force was to be small, the idea was that Protestant Englishman and the army would soon flock to the Duke of Monmouth's Protestant cause and join the rebellion's ranks.

James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth
Duke of Monmouth

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