The capture of the Duke of Monmouth in a ditch at Horton, on the southern edge of the Cranborne Chase near Wimborne, was one of those moments in British history that though not an obvious turning-point, were crucial nonetheless.
Even though the rebellion by Monmouth, whose group included Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, had been quickly put to the sword following a rout at the Battle of Sedgemoor, if Monmouth had managed to get to Poole and escape to Holland, who knows what trouble he could have stirred for his uncle, James II. As it was, just over one month from landing at Lyme Regis with three ships from Holland in early June 1685, Monmouth was beheaded at Tower Hill.
Born in Rotterdam to Lucy Walter and her lover, Charles II (who was living in continental exile following his father’s execution), Monmouth spent his early life in Schiedam; he always claimed his parents were married, and that he possessed their marriage lines but he never produced them.
After landing Monmouth published a “Declaration for the defence and vindication of the protestant religion and of the laws, rights and privileges of England from the invasion made upon them, and for delivering the Kingdom from the usurpation and tyranny of us by the name of James Duke of York”: King James II responded by issuing an order for the publishers and distributors of the paper to be arrested, while Monmouth declared himself King at various places along the way including Axminster, Chard, and Taunton.
After Monmouth fled following defeat at Sedgemoor, where James’s forces were led by John Churchill, later 1st Duke of Marlborough and son of Winston Churchill, squire of Minterne Magna near Sherborne, rewards were posted.
At Horton Heath Monmouth, disguised as a shepherd, was spotted by an old lady, Amy Farrant, while climbing a hedge with his last companion, a German officer named Buyse, who was soon captured; a few hours later a militiaman Henry Parkin, while searching beneath an ash tree, discovered another exhausted figure and a search of his pockets disclosed the badge of the Knight of the Garter, golden guineas and recipes for cosmetics, revealing that this was no ordinary shepherd.
Many of Monmouth’s supporters were later tried at the ‘Bloody Assizes’, headed by Judge Jeffreys, that started at Winchester on 25 August 1685, after which the court proceeded to Salisbury, Dorchester, Taunton, and finally Wells.
More than 1,400 prisoners were dealt with; most were sentenced to death, with some 300 either being hanged or hung, drawn and quartered. Elisabeth Gaunt had the distinction of being the last woman burnt alive in England for political crimes while Dame Alice Lyle, who lived outside Ringwood, had her sentence commuted from burning to beheading.
One of the prisoners was Monmouth’s surgeon Henry Pitman, who later wrote a short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony that included a spell as a castaway, and gets the nod from author, Tim Severin, in Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002), as the real-life Robinson Crusoe-figure; there has even been a suggestion that Defoe got the name ‘Robinson Crusoe’ from a gravestone while fleeing through Horton churchyard.
Today though Monmouth’s sheltering ash-tree is long-gone the approximate location is on ‘Monmouth’s Ash Farm’ which can be accessed by Public Footpath; also there are two pubs in the New Forest named ‘The Alice Lyle’ and ‘Monmouth’s Ash’.