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Narrative History of the County of Somerset
by Brenda Ralph Lewis & David Nash Ford


Tudor & Stuart Times

Though many of the old families of Somerset survived the devastating Wars of the Roses and managed to hold onto their lands, the accession of King Henry Tudor to the throne of England, and later the dissolution of the monasteries, brought opportunities for many 'new men' in the county. The Pophams, a family of lawyers who became Lords Chief Justice; the Wyndhams of Orchard Wyndham, the Phelips of Montacute, Sir Edward Rogers, Sir Ralph Hopton and others. New or old, they served the crown in many matters of National import. Sir Amias Poulett, of that ancient family of Hinton St. George, for instance, was one of those chosen to escort Princess Catherine of Aragon through the county, upon her arrival at Crewkerne from Plymouth. Successive descendants were Governors of Jersey and a younger Sir Amias was appointed keeper of Mary, Queen of Scots. He became a strong supporter of her execution.

Ordinary Somerset men followed their lords in such events. Soldiers from Dunster were almost certainly present with Sir John Luttrell at Boulogne in 1544 and, three years later, at the Battle of Pinkie against the Scots. Naval contingents from Somerset were also abroad. Thomas Wyndham took a squadron of three ships to Morocco in 1552 under Master John Kerry of Minehead; and John Leach took The Emanuel from Bridgwater on Frobisher's third Voyage, in 1578, in search of the North-West passage to India. In later years, Somerset settlers in the Americas, included Sir Ferdinando Gorges of Wraxall who founded New Plymouth (1628) and became Lord Proprietary of Maine; Nicholas Dodge of East Coker who established a settlement at Block Island; Richard Tucker of Stogumber and George Cleaves of Brompton Ralph founded Stogumber in New Somersetshire and Falmouth in Maine; and Richard Treat of Pitminster who was one of Charles II's patentees for Connecticut.

By the 16th century, when the geographer John Speed visited the county, Somerset was a place of great diversity. Speed noted pasture for livestock, birds and fish in the recently drained wetlands near Glastonbury and valuable lead and other mineral deposits in the Mendip Hills. Local coal was used for smelting iron and lead and the quarries at Ham produced quality building stone. The following century, however, brought turmoil to this idyllic rural scene. The Civil War between King Charles I and his Parliament, tore the the inhabitants of Somerset in two. The Somerset gentry, and most of the rural population, were Royalists, even though they disliked some of Charles' policies, while support for Parliament was represented by the puritans, particularly in the towns, in the north of the county. When Parliament tried to take control of the local militia, the two sides swiftly divided and the first armed skirmish in Somerset was a victory for the Royalists at Marshall's Elm (near Street) in the late summer of 1642. Despite this encouraging start, the county was dominated by Parliament throughout 1643. Fortunes changed the following year, though, when the Royalists regained the upper hand under the command of Sir Ralph Hopton. He besieged Taunton, Bridewater and Dunster and finally drove the Parliamentarians from Somerset at the bloody Battle of Lansdown.. Their victory was not conclusive, however, and the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Langport in 1645 heralded the beginning of the end for their cause in the county. Bridgwater fell soon afterward and Bath, Farleigh Hungerford and Dunster were not far behind. Having been a battleground over which armies marched, fought, plundered, burned, the inhabitants of Somerset were reduced to a state close to destitution. Garrisons remained throughout the Commonwealth period, after the King's execution in Westminster (Middlesex), but hope still remained for the eventual restoration of his son, Charles II. The people of Somerset were substantial supporters of him at the (disastrous) Battle of Worcester in 1651 and he escaped through the county soon afterwards: staying at Abbot's Leigh, Castle Cary and Trent. He was only finally able to take up the throne nine years later.

Charles II's brother, James, was not so popular when he took the Crown upon his sibling's death. Through the influence of his mother, he had become an unashamed Catholic and there was a popular Protestant following which wished to exclude him from the Royal succession. In Somerset, support was encouraged for the eldest of Charles' illegitimate children, James, Duke of Monmouth, by a vocal Tunaton goldsmith named Thomas Dare. Early in 1680, Monmouth made a semi-Royal progress through the county, but was later forced to flee abroad. However, by June 1683, he had raised enough support to attempt an insurrection in his favour and he landed at Lyme Regis (Dorset) with three small ships. An army of four regiments began to take shape within days, and they marched through Axminster (Devon) and Chard to Taunton, where they were given a rapturous welcome. Two days later, Monmouth proclaimed himself King. His troops - though mostly made up of local craftsmen - grew as they moved on through Bridgwater, Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet. However, before they were able to cross the Avon and reach the great prize of Bristol, Royalist forces began closing in from all sides. Plans changed quickly. Monmouth decided to make for Warminster, then Wells, then Bridgwater again. Eventually his preference was for Gloucester; but word reached him that the Royalist forces, which had stopped at Weston Zoyland, were not yet dug-in and he took the opportunity to attack. The ensuing Battle of Sedgemoor lasted only perhaps an hour and a half. Monmouth's army, hampered by being unable to cross the deep Bussex Rhine never came to grips with the King's infantry and, instead, were cut down by horsemen on all sides and the mighty Royalist guns. Nevertheless, it was a close run thing till the end. Eventually the King's men won through. Five hundred rebel prisoners were herded into Weston Church and the villagers are said to have buried 1,384 dead. The Duke of Monmouth was acptured and died on the scaffold in July 1685.

Around this same time, Roman Bath was already a popular tourist centre - though Speed had earlier written that it "reeketh like a seething pot continually, having a ... sulphurous odour and a somewhat unpleasant savour." Reeking or not, the waters at Bath proved very beneficial, especially, it was believed, for women hoping to conceive. One visitor was Mary of Modena, James II's second wife, who gave birth to a son in 1688, eight years after she took the waters at Bath. The King had been desperate for a son to succeed him, but his unpopularity was not to be so easily put aside. The unfortunate lad, James Edward Stuart, the Catholic child of Catholic parents, was destined never to inherit the throne of fiercely Protestant England.

Next: Georgian & Victorian Times

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