When the Protestant King Charles II died, he was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II. Non - Conformists throughout the country were worried that James would impose religious constrictions. When James, Duke of Monmouth (the illegitimate son of Charles II) landed at Lyme Bay in June 1685, many in the area joined his army to overthrow the King.
This short, disastrous rebellion ended in defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor in that July. Five Judges, most notably, the Lord Chief Justice, George Jefferies travelled to six "Bloody Assizes" in the South West, between August and September sentencing approximately 300 men to be hung, drawn (disembowelled) and quartered. Their remains were nailed in public spaces as a warning to others not to copy the rebels. This was not the case for everyone who was sentenced for treason.
Preceeding the rebellion, five years earlier the Duke of Monmouth had made a tour around the West Country staying with various prominent land-owners. Whitelackington House (now Dillington House) was owned by George Speke; it is reported that the Duke
'had lunch under a large chestnut tree in Whitelackington Park where he doffed his hat to the large crowd (supposedly 2,000) which had gathered to see him'
This, it is suggested led to strong links between the Duke and the family. Two of Speke's sons, John and Hugh, joined Monmouth's army. After they were convicted all three were pardoned by James II, probably by paying a huge fine. A third son, Charles, was not so lucky. Although innocent, he was at Oxford University at the time, he was hung in the Market Square in Ilminster because Judge Jefferies claimed that the 'family owed a life'.
William Strode of Barrington Court is reputed to have entertained Monmouth several times. He also escaped the death penalty by paying a large sum to James II. Supporting the Duke came at a heavy price for Edmund Prideaux of Forde Abbey. He was the only person to have bribed Judge Jeffries 'who insisted on a huge bribe to obtain a pardon' This was granted on March 20th 1686. Jeffries used the £15,000 he was paid by Prideaux as part of the price he paid for his Leicester estate. Although he had entertained the Duke of Monmouth, no evidence has been found that Henry Sydenham of Chilworthy House was tried for treason. Two of his sons died at Sedgemoor, so it can assumed that the family had sympathies with the cause.
Those without enough money to buy their freedom went to the gallows. Twelve men were hung in Chard on what became known as 'The Hanging Tree', situated where Tesco's is now; Humphrey Hitchcock came from Thorncombe, the eleven others came from further afield. Here is the link between our research on slavery - if they avoided hanging, then the rebels were sent as slaves to the West Indies for ten years, where they were sold to plantation owners for between £10 and £15.
Six years later they were pardoned. Few returned home because, as slaves, they had not been paid for their labour, so couldn't buy a passage on a ship. Thirty-nine men from Chard were transported. Judge Jefferies died in the Tower of London in 1689, when James II was ousted from the throne.
Amazingly, the death penalty for treason or high treason was only scrapped in 1998.