By Steve Carter
It is unfortunate that overtime myths, like weeds in a lawn, take over our understanding of military history. They start as seeds in the form of gossip, or propaganda, but quickly spread once there is no longer a living memory of an event. Typically, this is feed by some desire to elevate one side over another or to raise an individual above their peers. These myths then quickly flower to emerge in secondary sources. It is here that they find fertile ground, to spread rapidly, as they are repeated, and reproduced, until they are transformed into reality. After this there is no way to stop their spread across the fertile ground of general history. After which these myths flower to spread even further into our consciousness.
Unfortunately, the Monmouth Rebellion is full of these myths, all repeated as facts across the general histories. One of these immensely popular myths is the constant story that Government commander at the battle of Sedgemoor, the Earl of Feversham, was asleep. To find a repetition of this story we need to look no further than the opening pages of Saul David’s, All the King’s Men. In this otherwise good work, we read ‘it was the rebels’ particular misfortune that, with Feversham still asleep in quarters nearby, the senior royal officer in camp at this moment was 35-year-old Major-General Lord Churchill…’ One can forgive Saul David because this perspective is stated as fact in many recent books and across the internet. This myth is normally expanded with the notion that Feversham was an incompetent, vain and inexperienced officer. In part, this is because Feversham’s second-in-command was Lord Churchill, the man that would become the Duke of Marlborough, after constantly defeating the French twenty years later.
Therefore, as Churchill was on the scene, it stands to reason that he must have won the battle, especially if Feversham was asleep during the encounter. This theory is occasionally supported by a quote from Oldmixon’s History of England, ‘the Alarm reach’d Weston, where Feversham was safe a-bed, and made not so much haste into the field, as to forget setting his Cravat string at a little paltry looking glass in one of the cottages.’ The immediate reaction for the reader, is that any general, worth his salt, would have thrown aside his useless cravat and raced to the battlefield in a dishevelled state. Therefore, with Churchill on the field, everything written about Feversham’s incompetence by Saul David and others must be true. But is it?
To answer this, we need to understand the mindset of the late 17th Century general. We know that Feversham, Churchill and the Duke of Monmouth all learnt the art of war in France under the great Comte du Turenne. It was here that they acquired useful battlefield experience and read the many French treaties on the art of war. These works covered more than weapon exercises, in truth they included everything from running a campaign to fighting a Battle, even detailing the duties of everyone from the General to lowest Lanspesade. It is within these forgotten manuscripts that we find the clarity needed to read between the lines within Oldmixon’s History of England and understand why Churchill was still in the Government camp, rather than asleep.
There are several late 17th Century treaties on the science of arms to explain the actions of Feversham and his ‘cravat’. One is called ‘Traite de la Guerre, ou Politique Militaire‘ and this details how a general should act and dress. It states that ‘it is not enough that the General excites the ardour of his soldiers by his speeches and by his joy, he must also excite them by the richness of his clothes, so that his exterior ornament stops the eyes of his troops on him. This gives his men a manner of admiration, that he proposes an extraordinary and magnificent adjustment. He must pass this day of the tumult on the battlefield, with the solemnity of Triumph.’ Therefore, far from being a sign of vanity and indifference to the situation, by checking his cravat, Feversham was demonstrating an understanding that he must always appear unflustered, calm and in control. Otherwise, his soldiers would fear the worst.
As to the reason why Churchill was in the camp, we need to turn to another French manual called the Art de la Guerre et la Maniere. This invaluable work formed the basis of the Abridgement of English Military Discipline, which was introduced into the British Army by Monmouth when Captain-General. Within these pages we find the military duties of the Major-General and learn that it was Churchill’s responsibility to ‘go every evening to take the orders from the general…and to distribute [these] to the majors of the cavalry, infantry and dragoon brigades to regulate the guards.’ It is, therefore, not Churchill’s superior generalship that puts him in the camp but his basic duty as Major-General and by Feversham’s direct command.
Once we look beyond the myth and understand the mind of the 17th Century general, rather than being lazy, incompetent, and asleep, it was Feversham’s actions and military discipline that won the battle. The incident with the cravat shows that when we recognize the duties of officers, we gain a fresh perspective on the battle of Sedgemoor. As if to underline the importance of these military treaties, when Monmouth was captured after Sedgemoor, he was found ‘to have his George, forty gold guineas and four books. The Duke’s pocketbook, a list of the Governments land and sea-forces, a manuscript on Fortifications, and a book on the Military Art.’ Clearly, Monmouth valued the science of arms enough to carry it with him, even when on the run.
In this pocketbook, Monmouth tells us that he read Traite de la Guerre, ou Politique Militaire in the months before the invasion. However, was this book the one on the military art that was found on the Duke, or was it the 1677 edition of the Art de la Guerre et la Maniere; or an original New method of Fortification; or an early French edition of De Werken van Mars of de KONST des OORLOGS; or may even have been Les Functions du Capitaine de Cavalerie, Les Functions de Tous les Officiers de l’Infanterie et Pratique et Maximes de la Guerre from 1675? We will never know, but Feversham’s cravat is just one example of how these books can remove the weeds that surround military history. To gain a new appreciation of the events of 1685, I have tracked down the military treaties read by Monmouth, Feversham, Churchill and the rest. The result is my next book to be published by Helion & Company, entitled Science of Arms. This new work will give the student of 17th Century warfare fresh insight into eyewitness accounts, news reports or battle maps. By using the original French and English texts, Science of Arms will enable the reader to understand the mind and training of every soldier, from the general to the musketeer, in the age of Monmouth from 1673 to 1685.
You can purchase Fighting for Liberty: Argyll & Monmouth’s Military Campaigns against the Government of King James, 1685 here.
 He received a message from Oglethorpe at around 12:45 in the morning, and the alarm was raised about 30 mins later. See Fighting for Liberty, Helion Publishing & Co 2020.
 Saul David, All the Kings Men, Penguin Books 2013, p.5
 Oldmixon, the History of England, p.703 (1720 edition)
 Today’s Lance Corporal
 There are two editions of this work by Paul Hay, Chevalier Marquis of Chastelet, both printed in 1678. The first was published in Paris, the second and cheaper version was the Dutch copy printed in Amsterdam.
 This work by Louis de Gaya was first printed in Paris in 1677 and updated in 1678.
 The first edition was printed in London in 1678, to be reprinted with only the weapon exercises. By the 1684 edition it had been expanded to cover, matchlocks and flintlocks, and the 1685/6 version has grenadier drills.
 Harleian miscellany 1745 Vol. 6, p.295
 British Library, Egerton MS 1527
 Monmouth read the was the Dutch edition
 This work by Vauban was first published in Paris in 1677 with the title Veritable Maniere de Bien Fortifier
 This set of three volumes was printed in Amsterdam in 1686, but it was based on a French book called Les Travaux de Mars, ou L’art de la guerre by Allain Manesson-Mallet, which was first published in Paris in 1673 and updated in 1684. An English edition was published in 1688.
 This work originally by Captain De Lamont, Chevalier De La Valiere, was first publish in 1675 and revised and reprinted in 1693.