James, Duke of Monmouth, was born in the Netherlands, the illegitimate son of King Charles II and his mistress, Lucy Walter. At the time, Charles was living in exile following his father’s execution during the English Civil War.

As an illegitimate son, James could never inherit his father’s throne. However, both before and after his birth rumours circulated that Charles and Lucy had been secretly married. James encouraged these rumours and continued to insist throughout his life that his parents had been married.

James was later brought to England and, in 1663, at the age of 13, he was created Duke of Monmouth. A month later, he was appointed a Knight of the Garter.

He distinguished himself in several wars and notable battles and gained a reputation as one of Britain’s finest soldiers. He was made colonel of His Majesty’s Own Troop of Horse Guards and the King directed that all military orders should be brought first to James for approval, thereby giving him command of the royal forces.

James further proved himself when he was given command of a small army raised to put down the rebellion of the Scottish Covenanters. Despite being heavily outnumbered, he defeated the rebels at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.

James’s victory over the rebels was to become ironic, as he would later turn rebel himself.

James acquired Moor Park mansion in Rickmansworth in 1680, and lived there for a considerable period of his life.

In the same year, James became involved in a romantic scandal when he proposed to Baroness Henrietta Maria Wentworth, despite the fact that she was engaged and he was already married.

Lady Wentworth’s mother forced her daughter to accompany her back home to get her away from James, but James followed them and even moved in with them.

Despite this public scandal, James was growing in popularity among the people. This was in large part because he was a Protestant, whereas the official heir to the throne, the King’s brother and James’s uncle, had openly converted to Roman Catholicism.

Officials became concerned that James would become a rallying point for Protestants who might seek to place him on the throne. They forced James into exile in the Dutch United Provinces, where he was joined by Lady Wentworth.

No doubt angered by this enforced exile, James led the Monmouth Rebellion after hearing of the death of his father. He landed with three ships at Lyme Regis in Dorset with a plan to take the throne from his uncle. As he marched with his army, he declared himself king at various places along the route.

On July 6, 1685, the two armies met at the Battle of Sedgemoor, the last clear-cut pitched battle in England.

James’s makeshift force could not compete with the royal army, and he was defeated.

Following the battle, James disappeared and a reward of £5,000 was offered for his capture.

James had exchanged clothes with a shepherd before fleeing the scene of the battle. Dogs were put onto James’s scent and they traced him to a cluster of small farms, where he remained concealed all day, with soldiers surrounding the area and threatening to set fire to the farms.

James was finally found and arrested early the next morning.

King James II took the unusual step of allowing his nephew an audience. Despite this, he had no intention of offering him a pardon. Even when James offered to convert to Catholicism, the King would not be dissuaded.

James was taken to the Tower of London to await his execution. He was attended by a priest but denied final Eucharist as he refused to admit that his relationship with Lady Wentworth had been sinful.

It is said that, before laying his head on the block on Tower Hill, James asked the executioner to finish the job with one blow.

Accounts of what happened vary. Some claim it took eight blows to finally sever James’s head from his body, while the official Tower of London record states five. Others say a knife was at last employed to finish the job.