15 to 20 June 1685
Monmouth break the Militia at Axminster
That evening, news reached Monmouth that the Devon Militia, possibly 5,000 strong, was heading east. The following morning the Whigs would break-out from Lyme and march to Taunton to gather more arms and recruits. It was now a race against time, with the Devon and Somerset Militia looking to join forces at Axminster, blocking the Whigs line of march. In Bridport, Strangeways had been joined by another Militia Regiment. Elsewhere, Government forces moved into Bristol and while the regular soldiers had started marching to Salisbury. On the morning of 15 June, Monmouth was close to being surrounded and cut-off from his power base and his source for more recruits.
It was not until 11 o’clock on 15 June that Monmouth’s Army marched north from Lyme. Due to a lack of wagons, the Whigs left behind a small amount of Powder and around 2,000 suites of cavalry armour. As they came within sight of Axminster the vanguard could see the Devonshire Militia closing on the important town. As they doubled their pace the Whigs reached the town to discover that just moments earlier the Somerset Militia had also reached the outskirts from the North. However, word quickly spread within the Government ranks that the Devonshire Militia had joined Monmouth and that it was a trap.
Without a shot being fired the Somerset Militia fled back towards Crewkerne and Chard. Monmouth’s men quickly secured the bridges and with the arrival of the main army advanced to meet the men from Devon. This time it took a single volley from the Whigs to persuade the Militia to retreat toward Exeter. Not a single man had been killed and the road to Taunton was open. During the night those Militia sympathetic to the Whigs made their way into Axminster, increasing the size of the Army.
Monmouth is proclaimed King
From Axminster, Monmouth marched to Chard, and then Ilminster, before entering Taunton on the 18 June. Here the Whigs were welcomed as liberators, with cheering crowds and hundreds on keen recruits. Over the next couple of days, the Whig Army was remodelled into five regiments of foot, a company of Artillery Guards for their four pieces and around 15 troops of horse. In all between 5 and 7,000 men. To strengthen the Infantry combat ability, along with the Guards, each of these Regiment contained a company of mixed Scythe’s and muskets. These would act as the assault soldiers in place of the Grenadiers found in the British Army. On the 19 June, the Whig cavalry skirmished the Government troopers at Ashill and had the better of the fight. The following day, 20 June, the Duke of Monmouth was proclaimed King by the Magistrates of Taunton.
How did the Government React?
On 17 June the London the mood was sombre after the news of Axminster had reached the King. As a result, he ordered the Earl of Feversham to command the Army to be sent West as Lieutenant General. This would contain the Guards Regiments, more Cavalry, and a larger train of Artillery from the Tower. Feversham was an experienced officer and the senior General Officer in the Lifeguards, his rank placed him above Colonel Lord Churchill, who was promoted to Brigadier General.
The King had also received intelligence that the Whigs would be marching on Bristol. With this knowledge, a flurry of messages went out to all the Militia commanders instructing them not to engage the Whigs but cover Bristol and the London roads. At the same time, Churchill was ordered to take the vanguard, still mustering at Salisbury, and block Monmouth’s route to Bristol. Unfortunately, Churchill had rushed south with a couple of troops of horse, and by the time the instructions from Whitehall found Churchill at Ilminster on 19 June, it was too late. The vanguard had left Salisbury on 19 June under Colonel Kirke, and were following Churchills instructions to march to Dorchester, leaving Bristol exposed and the London road open.
On 19 June, the Feversham marched out of London at the head of 1,800 Foot Guards in three Battalions, three troops of Lifeguards, a Troop of Guards Horse Grenadiers, two troops of Dragoons and two troops of Cavalry. The Tower artillery train, with five companies of infantry and another troop of Cavalry would follow on three days later. Feversham would be marching on the Bristol road, via Chippenham and Bath.
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.