Book Review. The Last Royal Rebel by Anna Keay.


480 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (19 May 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408827824

The Duke of Monmouth was one of those figures, so seemingly common in the 17th century, whose life was made for novelists. However the interpretation of his life has varied greatly since his death. Much as if it was a work of imagination he is by turns useless, conniving or a paragon, and as such tends to be able to be crafted into whatever a given writer requires.

I know of him best as the leader of the rebellion that carried his name. Having already read a book about the last Jacobite Rebellion, it seemed almost fate that a biography of Monmouth should appear before me. In feel and look it is very similar to Bloomsbury’s other rebellious publication mentioned above. The same fine production standard is in evidence here, with a good selection of images to accompany the text. In both cases the central protagonist, the Prince in question, stares out from their respective dust jackets. The wigs are different but the purpose was much the same, they both had a claim to the throne.
The differences between Charles Edward Stuart, who is the only other contender to the title of “Last Royal Rebel” and his relative James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, who the author grants this title, were at once acute and similar. And we can allow ourselves a little comparison for amusement. Charles Edward was born with everything, he had a good education, his parents lavished him with whatever he wished, groomed from birth to fulfil a specific destiny. However he was terribly naive, immature and totally inexperienced with handling people. He had the Jacobite advantage of knowing he could depend on a small but important power base in Scotland, which almost guaranteed an experienced, if small army of effective fighters to support him.
Monmouth on the other hand was born with little. To begin with his father and mother were never married, and mother used him as leverage to maintain a standard of living. This prompted his father Charles II, to have him kidnapped, principally to shut up his embarrassing mother. Uneducated until he was about six, Monmouth was lucky enough to become closer with his father than any other living soul, and as a result was quickly lavished with titles, riches and, interestingly given modern conceptions of 17th century parenting, affection.
Monmouth at first showed little aptitude for anything other than soldiering and his military career coincided with an interesting early entente with France, while Charles II and Louis XIV fought the Dutch with rather mixed results. Unlike his Jacobite relative, Monmouth was a talented officer, he was also humble and quite good at summing up his own strengths and weaknesses. All in all, despite his lack of education and shaky beginnings by the 1670s he seemed to present a picture of a perfect Prince. And that was the problem.

Charles Edward was seen as a similarly perfect Prince, but he was legitimate if exiled. Monmouth was illegitimate, but actually he was a much more attractive package than the mercurial Bonnie Prince Charlie. Both were barred from the throne, but Monmouth never really seems to have plotted to attain it while his father was alive. Some people had other ideas however. Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York was an out and out catholic. Multiple times the Whigs attempted to remove him from the line of succession, and it was a more than popular idea that Monmouth would fill the gap admirably. Immensely popular with the people, but all too often a victim of those who would use him, due to his father’s irritating ambiguity regarding his birthright, Monmouth first fell out with James, his uncle and then his father and he had therefore essentially lost everything by the time Charles II died. A sense of duty, a sort of moral obligation and an undeniable gullibility allowed him to be talked into becoming the figurehead of a proposed and rather slap dash rebellion to unseat James, whose son it was feared would be raised a Catholic.

Militarily speaking Monmouth was capable of commanding a successful invasion. Logistically however the odds were stacked against him. Always popular with the people recruits were never a problem, but he was unable to draw any political support from the nobility. Also unlike later Jacobite rebellions which could count on the fierce fighting qualities of the Scottish highlanders all Monmouth could bring to the field were ill trained agricultural labourers and townsmen. No match in a stand up fight with the professionals of the Royal Army.

Anna Keay has provided a very welcome modern biography of the Duke of Monmouth. And in it she wishes to make several things clear. Monmouth was the last royal Rebel, and by that she means not the last man of royal blood to try for the throne, but the last of the accepted royal family. It is a narrow distinction in honesty. The successive Jacobite princes were accepted as King by many more people that Monmouth was, and by far more of the nobility. Monmouth had been part of the inner circle, but he was exiled like the Stuart’s and as such the assertion lacks some metal.
Another point stands on firmer ground. Monmouth by his presence caused a reaction that paved the way for the Glorious revolution. Without a Protestant alternative to the Catholic succession, the ground could not have been prepared for William and England’s second partial constitution.
The biography is a sympathetic one, certainly Monmouth has his share of critical biographies, and this one focuses mostly on his better points, which as I’ve said are fairly considerable. His greatest flaw, seems to have been his neediness, his filandering and the issue of often being lead around by the nose by whoever would show him kindness or support. Indeed if I’m not mistaken Royal Rebel strays into sentimental territory now and again, but it creates a very accomplished image of the man in question.
To say that it is well written almost goes without saying, indeed it’s quite lyrical in places, imbued with a humour not out of place with the subject of Charles II’s court.
This will be a must for all lovers of the 17th century and I enjoyed it immensely.


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