In Pepys’s famous words, James, Duke of Monmouth was ‘the most skittish, leaping gallant that ever I saw, always in action, vaulting, or leaping or clambering’. Reading Anna Keay’s biography of the adored illegitimate son of Charles II, this image of his energy appears paramount — as Monmouth seems to live his life at speed several times over before his death, by order of his uncle James II, at the age of 36, in a horribly botched execution on Tower Hill.
Born only months after the regicide of Charles I, he was the product of his father’s brief liaison with Lucy Walter, infamous for loose morals and for having reputedly planned to murder her maid by stabbing a large upholstery needle into her ear as she slept. A traumatic childhood was marked by his father’s repeated attempts to have him kidnapped. Charles eventually succeeded in having his son snatched from his mother’s care when Monmouth was seven, but not before the boy had been imprisoned in the Tower by the Cromwellian regime.
The Restoration brought with it a stunning reversal of fortune. Monmouth’s first London home had been above a barber’s shop in the Strand. Now he was allocated expensively decorated rooms at Whitehall, close to the new King’s private apartments. Titles and money were lavished on him. He married an heiress, though he was forever unable to live within his means. His charm and dark, mesmerising beauty made him an object of national and international fascination. When he cut his hair it caused a sensation in Paris. When he won a barefoot race, he ran a second and won that too. He was a natural crowd-pleaser and lapped up the applause.
Pepys thought him an idle wastrel and believed Monmouth would come to nothing. But his courageous conduct at the siege of Maastricht altered public perception of him, and his proud, doting father appointed him captain-general of the armed forces. In the political world he began to be perceived as a future Protestant deliverer from the threat of Catholic autocracy posed by the future James II. In the final, tragic phase of his life, Monmouth united with members of the Whig opposition determined to overthrow the principle of hereditary monarchy and exclude James from the succession. Monmouth would be replaced as the legitimate heir (a difficult proposition as it was highly unlikely that his parents were ever married).
Keay’s study of Monmouth, the first for many years, is meticulous in its attention to scholarly detail and invaluably fills a gap in the historiography. But what distinguishes her as a biographer is her unflagging appetite for the drama and poignancy of the story, and her skill and fluency in portraying it. I can’t remember the last time I read a historical biography that so vividly evokes the atmosphere of another age, whether it be the Caroline palaces of the era or the flat, watery darkness of the battlefield at Sedgemoor, England’s final field battle, where Monmouth made his last stand in 1685.
Keay knows that she is swim-ming against the current in proposing that Monmouth was both more principled and honourable than posterity has generally been inclined to see him, and there is no disguising the fact that her book is very much intended as a vindication. Occasionally she goes too far and turns weak-kneed in the face of Monmouth’s charms. She refuses, for instance, to acknowledge the stubborn vein of petulance that seems such a strong aspect of his character, and her arguments are by no means always as conclusive as she suggests (she lets Monmouth completely off the hook when it comes to the nasty attack on Sir John Coventry, who had his nose slit by Monmouth’s Life Guards).
There can be no doubt, though, that her overriding interpretation of Monmouth as a man of honour is correct. In the end it was his allegiance to this unspoken code that led him to press on with his invasion when the omens were far from auspicious. Keay’s description of the slaughter of the surviving rebels at Sedgemoor by James II’s forces is horrifyingly compelling, as is her account of Monmouth’s own last minutes. After five failed attempts to sever Monmouth’s head with the axe, the executioner Jack Ketch resorted to a knife to sever the remaining sinews of his neck. When he finally held up the head, ‘There was no shouting but many cried.’