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A relic of the Bloody Assizes of 1685

The English county of Somerset was at the heart of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth, a bastard son of the late King Charles II, led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. Although having some initial successes, the rebels were always short of men and materials, and failed to push beyond the Somerset borders. The battle that sealed the fate of the Rebellion took place on Sedgmoor, near Bridgwater, on 6th July 1685. This was the last battle ever fought on English soil.

James took revenge on the rebels in no uncertain way. Trials were held throughout the West Country of people who had any connection with the rebellion, under the direction of Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys. The savagery of the proceedings, and the summary nature of the justice that was meted out to many, led to them being known ever since as the “Bloody Assizes”.

More than 1400 people were brought before Jeffreys and his colleagues, and most of the accused were sentenced to death, many by “hanging, drawing and quartering”. However, some 800 sentences were commuted to transportation to the West Indies, where the victims were treated as virtual slaves on the plantations.

So what has this stone building on a quiet Somerset farm to do with all this? Although most of the trials were held in the county towns of Winchester, Dorchester and Taunton, others took place in much smaller places, such as the village of Kingweston that is only a few miles from the battle site of Sedgmoor. The old courthouse (the part of the building with the steps and the red door) is still there, although it has long been absolved of its legacy as a place where terrible justice was delivered to peasants who had the misfortune to get caught up in a rebellion they probably had little understanding of.

Among the trials held in Somerset (although probably not at Kingweston) were those of a group of schoolgirls, aged 6 to 14, whose crime was to wave at the Duke and his soldiers as they rode past. The punishment was a fine so heavy that it could never be paid.

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