Battle of Norton St Philip

Battle of Norton St Philip

27 June 1685

Why was there a Battle at Norton St Philip?

After the Battle of Keynsham, the Whigs tried to march free of the Government Army. On the night of 25 June, they headed east, bypassing Bath. After leaving a rearguard at Bath, Monmouth marched south towards the London Road at Warminster, reaching Norton St Philip late on 26 June. With his soldiers, exhausted, covered in mud and wet, Monmouth ordered them to encamp. While his soldiers encamp on the fields near the church, the Duke turned the George Inn into his Headquarters. To protect the camp, the Whigs deployed sentries and set-up a barricade across the road from Bath into the town. This was manned by Captain Vincent from Wade’s Regiment.

Early the following morning, the Whig Army formed up and by late morning the bulk of the baggage, foot and horse were marching towards Frome. Only the Duke, his Lifeguards, the Artillery and Wade’s Regiment remained in town acting as a rear-guard.

During 26 June Feversham learnt of Monmouth’s move to Norton St Philip (called Philips Norton in 1685) and ordered all his forces to rendezvous at Bath. This included the Guards battalions, Churchill’s Brigade, several Militia Regiments, and fourteen troops of Cavalry and Dragoons. Early the next morning after arraying his considerable force outside Bath, Feversham advanced with his vanguard, under Churchill. At the front of the column was the newly promoted Captain Lloyd with a troop of cavalry, then came the Duke of Grafton with Hawley’s company of Grenadiers, followed by Captain Parker and two troops of Horse Grenadiers. Behind these came a mixed musketeer battalion under Colonel Kirke. This also contained the combined grenadier companies from the Foot Guards, Kirke’s and Trelawny’s plus musket divisions from Kirke’s and Trelawny’s, in all around 500 soldiers. These were supported by 4 troops from Lord Churchill’s Dragoons and 3 troops of Lifeguards. The main column contained six troops of cavalry, the three Foot Guard battalions under Lord Sackville and three or four Battalions of Militia. The rear-guard had an Artillery train of 8 guns and the remaining soldiers from Kirke’s and Trelawny’s under Lieutenant Colonel C. Churchill.

What happened in the Battle of Norton St Philip?

At around 11 in the morning, Lloyd’s men came down the lane into the town of Norton St Philip, and rode into Vincents men at the barricade. After a brisk exchange, Lloyd withdrew to report to Feversham, who then ordered Grafton to attack with the Grenadiers under Hawley. As the Grenadiers advance down the lane, a firefight develops but slowly Hawley’s men push back Vincent after assaulting the Barricade. However, Wade then brought up the rest of the Regiment and advanced against the flank of the Grenadiers. Vincent reformed his company and supported by a troop of Whig horse, he launched a counter-attack.

The fight in the lane

Hearing the battle unfold, Feversham ordered Lloyd back down the lane supported by Parker with the Horse Grenadiers. Then Kirke’s commanded musketeer Battalion was deployed either side of the Lane, and advanced down the flanks of the lane towards the town. In the field above the lane entrance, Churchill deploys the Dragoons along the hedges at the top of the lane. Feversham took up a position on the ridge that overlooked the town with the Lifeguards. Meanwhile, in the lane Grafton’s horse is killed from under him but Lloyd’s troopers arrive just-in-time. With the Horse Grenadiers engaging Wade’s men in the Lane, Lloyd cut his way through to Grafton. With their right flank hard pressed Hawley’s Grenadiers cut their way through the hedges on the left.

Wade’s men were in a struggle with the Horse Grenadiers when Kirke’s musketeers opened fire into their open left flank. This forced Wade to pull back the left wing of his battalion, easing the pressure in the Lane. Over on the left side of the Lane, Kirke’s musketeer engaged Whig reinforcements, giving the remounted Grafton and the beleaguered Hawley an escape route. Behind Wade, Holmes Regiment extended the Whig flank and after deploying into line attacked the Government musketeers. In the Lane, Vincent supported by Monmouth’s Lifeguards, and two companies of Scythes squeeze out the Government soldiers.

Picture from 1686 edition of Mallet, Art of War.

With the support of more Whig Horse, Holmes’ soldiers attack Kirke’s men stationed behind thick hedgerows. Initially the combat was close, but Holmes’ scythe men cut a path through the branches. Outflanked, Kirke’s men broke, and ran to safety amongst the dismounted Dragoons. Over on the Whig right flank, the Government forces had also pulled back to the top of the Lane. However, now supported by two gun’s, Vincent soldiers smashed their way  up the Lane to outflank Churchill’s Dragoons.

With more Whig Infantry extending the battle line, Churchill retreated his men out of the fight, leaving the hedgerows in the hands of Monmouth’s cheering soldiers. However, covered by the Lifeguards and five troops of Cavalry, Kirke’s broken men reach the safety of the main army that was deploying along the hill side. Seeing the Horse covering their enemy’s flight the Whig officers stopped their men from crossing the last hedgerow. In the centre, Monmouth had reached the top of the Lane and deployed the Artillery facing Feversham Army.

The Artillery Duel in the Rain

As rain started once more, from his position overlooking Monmouth’s Army, Feversham was reluctant to attack. Especially as his rear-guard was still to arrive with the Artillery. The General could only watch as the Whig Artillery opened fire from the centre of their line. Feversham could see that the enemy held a strong defensive position, but the left flank could be turned, and the Whigs defeated. However, it was not until around 3 o’clock that his own Artillery came up and could start throwing iron shot back into the enemy ranks.

As the rain washed away the blood from the Lane, Monmouth could only watch as the Government army deployed above him. The Duke could count eight battalions of foot, against his five, but there was an equal number of cavalry at around sixteen each, but the enemy had 8 guns to his 4 light pieces. Although Monmouth had possibly 7,000 men, Feversham had close to 5,000 in a strong position. The Duke could not ask his men to attack uphill, against such a large force with such good cavalry. His only hope of victory was to draw the enemy down onto his men in the hedgerows armed with muskets, scythes and pikes. Here the enemy cavalry would be neutralised, and the enemy foot cut down. Victory would be his and the campaign all but won.

After two hours of bombardment neither side had done any damage to their opponents. Feversham gave up, and ordered his aide-de-camp to find shelter and billets for the Army. To the muffled cheers of the Whigs below them, at around 5 o’clock, Feversham starts withdrawing his men to Bradford-on-Avon, leaving the battlefield to the Duke of Monmouth. Feversham had lost eighty Grenadiers, Dragoons and musketeers, while the Horse Grenadier lost over 60% of their equipment. However, the cost of the victory was high for Monmouth, some of his senior officers were injured, while four Captains had died. In all about twenty Whig soldiers had been killed, and another 40 lay wounded in carts heading to Frome. The Whigs had won the Battle of Norton St. Philip, but it had lost the Whigs a critical day’s march towards London and the Army needed to rest.

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This account is based on a more detail description of the Earl of Argyll’s & the Duke of Monmouth’s campaign of 1685 available from Helion & Company in my Book Fighting For Liberty.