[This is available as a podcast on iTunes]
He was unquestionably one of the handsomest of the Stuart men. Tall, dark, and seductive, James Crofts, later James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, was born in Rotterdam, the Dutch Republic, on the 9th of April 1649, to an exiled King Charles II and his mistress Lucy Walter.
James had a rather tempestuous upbringing, which involved his attempted kidnapping, and then he actually was eventually taken away from his mother and raised by the Crofts family. This is where James took his surname of Crofts. Upon the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, which followed the death of Oliver Cromwell and the downfall of the Puritan regime.
This Sexy Stuart was indulged to the point of being spoiled by his father. He was a teenager in the midst of his father’s merry, debauched Restoration court. This was a raucous environment where beauty was power.
He saw his share of battles, and was a skilled soldier, some even calling him one of the best soldiers of his age.
The Duke was not without character flaws, he was ambitious, and whilst ambition isn’t necessarily a bad quality, it can be bad if it blinds an individual from doing the right thing. Malicious schemers used Monmouth’s ambitious nature to lure him into plots and schemes, which would eventually lead to his undoing.
Monmouth was extremely passionate and his emotions often ruled his head. He could lash out violently at those he had believed had offended him or his father (he apparently slit the nose of one man who criticised Charles II for his many mistresses, and killed another who had simply asked him to be quiet during one of his debauched assignations). He was bad and beautiful, and this combination, highly intoxicating to many women, increased his allure.
Aye, he was lusty. As was the case with many Stuart men, Monmouth was extremely virile and had a strong libido.
Whilst he was endowed with goodly physical charms, he was poorly educated: he apparently couldn’t write or understand basic mathematics until he was ten, and at fifteen, he still complained mightily whenever he had to write a letter.
His father arranged his marriage to the twelve year old bride – the fabulously rich heiress Anna Scott, when Monmouth was a cute thirteen year old. Yes, thirteen is very young – but we have to remember that it wasn’t a shocking age for marriage at that time and given his social class. Marriage to Anna gave him the Dukedom of Buccleuch, but he remained known as Monmouth. The couple spent lavishly, and despite their wealth, they needed help to sort out their finances.
Monmouth was disloyal. He was a serial philanderer, and had offspring with his mistresses, most notably, Eleanor Needham.
As Monmouth grew up into manhood, with the lithe, elegant movements of his athletic body and the innate animal-like energy of his father, he was also amiable and down-to-Earth: again, no doubt inherited from his father, Charles II. Monmouth had a wonderful capacity to talk to anyone, rich or poor, and his easy nature made him easy to love. And love him they did. There was something compelling about Monmouth, and though he made a mess of things time and again, he was almost always forgiven. He was vain, and was often dressed in the most flamboyant fashions of his day, elaborate periwigs, and even placing his hat at a jaunty angle, which was known as the “Monmouth cock.
“…the first part of [Monmouth’s] life was all Sunshine, though the rest was clouded. He was Brave, Generous, Affable, and extremely Handsome: Constant in his Friendships, just to his Word, and an utter Enemy to all sort of Cruelty. He was easy in his nature, and fond of popular Applause, which led him insensibly into all his misfortunes…” – James Welwood, MD, acquaintance of Monmouth
It wasn’t all fashion and fun for the duke, according to Bryan Bevan’s book “James Duke of Monmouth,” Monmouth was given the task of examining the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of Edmondberry Godfrey during the Popish Plot of the late 1670s. He defeated rebels at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, and extinguished a fire from spreading in Southwark.
The diarist John Evelyn wrote that [Monmouth]
was a lovely person
An excellent dancer.
It was whilst dancing as a shepherd in John Crowne’s masque, “Calisto: Or the Chaste Nymph” that Monmouth first espied the woman whom he would regard as the love of his life, Lady Henrietta Wentworth. This was in 1675, and he was still attached to Eleanor Needham at this time. In 1680, he began to pursue Henrietta, scandalising the court. They continued their affair in secret, until Monmouth took refuge in her home at Toddington Manor in 1683, following the disastrous Rye House Plot, which he was implicated in. He looked upon Henrietta as his wife, and there is no evidence that he ever took another mistress after her.
He was exiled, and sought the generosity of his cousins William and Mary, where he lived in 1684 until the news of Charles II’s death reached them in February of 1685. James, formerly the Duke of York, and Monmouth’s uncle, became King, but as he was a Catholic, there were those who were against him. Monmouth, whose ambition was taken advantage of by several exiled Whigs, was convinced that he should take the throne.
He declared himself king at Taunton, and his followers were mainly farmers and artisans, not soldiers. Monmouth and his followers were destroyed at the Battle of Sedgemoor. The Monmouth Rebellion had failed; and he was captured soon after and he was hauled off to the Tower of London, where he pleaded in vain for his life to be spared. His was one of the most notorious executions in English history, for it was a botched job, taking some five to seven blows to behead him.
Monmouth shall always be a romantic figure – brave, seductive, handsome, virile, the reformed rake – his life and the insanely brutal manner of his death will continue to fascinate generations to come. The Duke of Monmouth is one of those individuals from history who live to shine brightly for a short time and then die young. My historical fiction novella about Henrietta Wentworth and the Duke of Monmouth was originally published in 2013 by Endeavour Press, and is now available as a paperback.