Driving from Bridgwater to Langport and passing through Weston Zoyland, a sign at the former parish church announces that it is the Battle of Sedgemoor Visitor Centre. The building that was once used to hold five hundred prisoners from the defeated rebel army is now a place for tourists.
Monmouth’s army were always going to be losers. Many of them were ill-equipped Somerset peasant farmers who had nothing by way of military training, they were men without a hope of military victory when they were faced with the army of King James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6th July 1685; hundreds of them were cut down by musket and artillery fire. The battle was only the beginning of a tragic period in Somerset history, it was followed by the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge Jeffreys, in which more than 300 of Monmouth’s ragged band were condemned to death.
There were no winners, though. James himself would be deposed in 1688 and his armies in Ireland defeated in 1690-91. Soldiers who had fought with him were expendable, as were all soldiers.
Langport had suffered the effects of battle some forty years previously, on 10th July 1645. Crown forces had been routed by Cromwell’s men; Cromwell regarding it as a mercy from God. The retreating Royalist soldiers had set fire to buildings in Langport to try to hamper the progress of the Parliamentarian troops and had been attacked by local “clubmen,” local men who had been armed by the Crown but who had turned on the king’s men in order to protect their town.
The battle of Langport was a victory for Cromwell, but most who participated were losers. The Royalist army suffered heavy casualties, those retreating were harried by the pursuing Parliamentary forces. Many lost their lives along Wagg Drove, many died in the retreat.
But the men of Cromwell’s army were to find that they were losers. Among the officers, the men who had joined in the Putney Debates, the idealists who believed they were creating a new society, there must have been a sense of their hopes having been betrayed. Cromwell was brutal in his treatment of those who opposed his authoritarian rule. Among the men who had fought in the New Model Army, there must have been a sense of disappointment at the grim protectorate that emerged, and a sense of it all having been a futile effort when the monarchy was restored in 1660.
The battlefields within a few miles of here are a reminder that, for nearly everyone who goes into battle, wars only create losers.