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.