One of the talks I do for local history groups is the ‘Historic Graffiti of Montacute House’. A few years ago, I undertook a project to record the graffiti at Montacute, of which there is a fair amount. The talk attempts to bring to life a glimpse of the social history through the graffiti.
There is one particular piece of graffiti that intrigues me. I refer to it in the plural (as opposed to graffito) as there are 3 elements to it. It is scratched on a diamond pane in the long gallery, overlooking the east garden. It is made up of a tree, a name and a date. The name is ‘Alexander Sommer’ and the date ‘1683’. My attempt to find an Alexander Sommer has not led to anyone that I can link to Montacute. There is a Baptismal record for an ‘Alexander Somer’ at Frome St Quintin in Dorset for the date 7 November 1667. If it was this person, they would have been 16 in 1683. There is also a record of marriage between an Alexander Summer and Jane Harner in 1641 at Queen Camel in Somerset. The date of 1683 would have been 42 year later from the marriage. Beyond these records the trail runs dry.
Montacute House East Front – The graffiti is on the 2nd floor (Long Gallery) on the window of central projection
On turning attention to the tree, it is curious to note that from the Restoration of 1660, the oak tree became part of the iconography adopted by Charles II. Trees also are a feature of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion – in particular the ash and sweet chestnut.
This second half of the 17th C was a time that had families and neighbours opposed to another. A time of tension and passion that led to social change. The peace and links to Europe that King James I sought was undone by his son Charles I (1600-1649) in his tyranny underpinned by his belief in absolute monarchy. It was a time of religious tension after Charles II had been restored and made his catholic brother, James (Duke of York) his heir. This led to the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 when the Duke of Monmouth and his supporters fought to overthrow James II. This rebellion failed and the Duke was executed. Then in 1688 William, Prince of Orange invaded and overthrew James, who was allowed to escape to France.
The West Country had its part to play in the events of the 2nd half of the 17th C. Maybe the tree at Montacute, dated 1683 was reflecting possible events? This post looks at 3 tree stories that may have some significance relating to the Montacute tree.
(1) BATTLE OF WORCESTER & CHARLES II’s ESCAPE
The Battle of Worcester took place on 3rd September 1651. Charles II (1630-1685), leading a mainly Scottish army, met Cromwell’s New Model Army at Worcester. The latter had an army twice as large as Charles’s and it ended in a disastrous defeat for Charles’s forces.
Royal Oak near Boscobel House, Worcestershire
Charles’s escape from Worcester became legendary. He retold the story many times of his resourcefulness, cunning and charm. He hid from the Parliamentary soldiers at Boscobel in the famous oak tree after the battle. The tree is still there today (well, a direct descendant!). He then made his way south, through to South Somerset. From there he made his way to Dorset and along the coast to Shoreham where he was able to cross the channel to Normandy. Today there is a 625-mile long-distance footpath named the Monarch’s Way, which can be walked to experience the escape route.
His army were not so lucky. Many of the Scots were either killed, taken prisoner or deported to the West Indies to work as indentured labourers.
Robert Phelips (1619-1707), the 2nd son of Sir Robert Phelips of Montacute House (c. 1586-1638) had been a Royalist officer in the Civil War. He had been with Charles at the Battle of Worcester and assisted him in his escape. At Montacute, Robert’s elder brother, Edward Phelips II (1613-1680) resided. Whilst Robert was trying to arrange passage to France from the south coast, Edward travelled to Trent Manor in South Somerset (near Yeovil) and conveyed the news of Robert’s plans to Charles who was in hiding there. This was around 28th September 1651.
Col. Edward Phelips II (1613-1680)
© National Trust Collections
Whilst this time in 1651 was 32 years before the date of the graffiti of 1683, it may have some link. Edward Phelips II had died in 1680 but his brother Robert was still alive. It would have been unlikely he was at Montacute but the living memory of Worcester and Charles’s escape may have still been strong at the house and in the area.
Robert Phelips did gain from his assistance after Charles II had been restored. He became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 1687 to 1689. He died in 1707 at the age of 88 and was buried in Bath Abbey. His epitaph reads:
In the reigns of Charles I, Charles II and James II he stood out as a steadfast and energetic champion of the English Church and the lawful monarchy against all treasons, both Scottish and English. The times changed, but he did not change with them.
(2) THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROYAL OAK
The Knights of the Royal Oak was an award proposed in 1660 at the time of the Restoration of the English Monarchy. It had been intended to reward those who had supported Charles II during his exile in France (1651-1660).
Edward Phelips II of Montacute (1613-1680) was proposed as a recipient. However, the idea of the Order was abandoned as it was realised that it could stir up old conflicts. An idea of a more inclusive public holiday was established instead. This was ‘Oak Apple Day’ (or ‘Royal Oak Day’). The 29 May was set aside as a public holiday which remembered the date of the Restoration – 29 May 1660 when Charles entered London on his 30th birthday.
To celebrate people would wear oak leaves in their hats. It still is recognised today in some English villages, although it ceased to be a public holiday in 1859.
Charles II was determined to keep alive the daring story of his escape of 1651 alive. Does the tree in the Long Gallery relate to Oak Apple Day of 29 May 1683?
Medal of the Knights of the Royal Oak – reverse
Copyright British Museum [i]
(3) THE DUKE OF MONMOUTH REBELLION
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685), in Garter Robes
© National Trust Collections
In the summer of 1680, the Duke of Monmouth (the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II) made a progress in the southwest, including around South Somerset. He was noted to have come to the house of the Speke family at White Lackington House near Ilminster, who were particularly involved in radical politics. It was here that the Duke met many supporters in the park of White Lackington House and took refreshments under a large, sweet chestnut tree. It was described later in 1844:
‘When the Duke came within ten miles of White Lackington House, which is one mile distant from Ilminster, he was met by two thousand persons on horseback, whose number still increased as they drew nearer to Mr. Speke’s. When the company arrived there, they were computed to amount to twenty thousand. To admit so large a multitude, several perches of the park paling were taken down. His Grace, his party and attendants, took refreshment under the famed sweet Spanish chestnut tree, now standing, which measures, at three feet from the ground, upwards of twenty-six feet in circumference.’[ii]
The sweet chestnut tree was thereafter known as the ‘Monmonth Tree’. It came down in a storm on Ash Wednesday, 3rd March 1897.[iii]
Sweet chestnut at Montacute House
Rye House Plot of 1683 & the Spekes of White Lackington
One of the major events of 1683 was the Rye House Plot which was a plan to assassinate Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York (the heir to the throne). The plotters were Whig extremists. The plan was to attack Charles and James as they returned to London from the races to at Newmarket in spring 1683. However, a fire at the races caused them to return to Windsor early. Rye House, near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire was where a force of men was concealed in order to carry out the ambush as Charles and James passed by. The Duke of Monmouth had been implicated as a conspirator in the plot.
In Somerset, Sir John Trenchard was arrested in relation to the Plot (he was the MP for Taunton), but later released. 10 Nov 1682 he had married Philip Speke (unusual name for a girl), the daughter of George and Mary Speke of White Lackington.
George Speke was somewhat outspoken in his political views and very pro the protestant Duke of Monmouth. He came under suspicion with the Rye House Plot, and he fled to the Netherlands. His house was searched numerous times for papers and arms during 1683.[iv] I wonder whether the staunch Royalist, Edward Phelips III (1638-1699), at the time owner of Montacute house, and his troops were doing the searching?
Edward Phelips III (1638-1699)
© National Trust Collections
Montacute is some 9 miles from White Lackington (known as Whitelackington today). Malcolm Rogers describes Phelips as:
‘In the country he was a fierce enemy to his political rivals and an opponent of religious dissent. He was foreman of the grand jury (1680) on the Taunton radicals, and was described two years later as ‘very successful in bringing non-conformists to Church’. In the aftermath of the Rye House Plot (1683) he assisted in the search of the houses of ‘fanatics’ in Bridgwater, and burned the furnishings of their chapel.’ [v]
Other Trees of the late-17th C
Oak Tree in Ilminster Market Place
Charles Speke, son of Sir John Trenchard, was hanged from an oak tree in Ilminster marketplace. Charles had supposedly shaken hands with Monmouth as he passed through Ilminster in June 1685 (the Duke declared himself the rightful King along his route that would end at the Battle of Sedgemoor). However, Charles did not join his rebellion. Judge Jeffreys sentenced him to be hanged, even though he was told he had probably got the wrong Speke brother. Jeffreys said, ‘No, his family owes a life. He shall die for his brother, who is guilty being in the action, but has escaped.’[vi]
The Monmonth Ash, Dorset
After his forces were defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July 1685, the Duke fled to Dorset with the aim of getting a boat to Hollland from Poole Harbour. At the Woodyates Inn the Duke disguised himself as a shepherd (echoes of the escape of Charles II from Worcester – he disguised himself as a servant at one point). However, he was seen by an Amy Farrant, whilst climbing over a hedge near Verwood. A search was organised, and the Duke was found hiding in a ditch under an ash tree near Horton.[vii] He was executed on Tower Hill on the 15th of July 1685.
Edward Phelips III was the owner of Montacute in 1683, having inherited it from his father in 1680. It is impossible to know exactly who was at the house in 1683. There would have been servants, retainers, militia, family, visitors, people of business, etc. It was a tense time in Somerset as Phelips had placed himself at the centre of political activity, ready to strike at opponents and radicals and force the royalist cause.
The graffiti, scratched into the glass in the long gallery, is intriguing. There is a date, a name and the image of a tree, but no real clarity as to the who, what and why.
Was the tree meant as an oak tree in full leaf? Oak trees in particular were part of the image that Charles II had built for himself at the time of the Restoration in 1660. But what was Alexander Sommer in 1683 thinking of that he created the image? Was it related to Oak Apple Day? It would have been an important celebration. One can never know but it is curious as to how trees were important in the iconography of the latter half of the 17th C.
[i] ‘Medal’, The British Museum, < https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1844-0425-31 > [accessed 12 July 2021}.
[ii] George Roberts, The Life, Progresses, and Rebellion of James, Duke of Monmouth, & c. To His Capture and Execution: With a Full Account of the Bloody Assize and Copious Biographical Notices, Vol. I, (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844), p. 95.
[iii] H. St. George Gray, ‘Whitelackington and the Duke of Monmouth in 1680’, Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, <https://sanhs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/12-H-St.-G-Gray.pdf> [accessed 12 July 2021].
[v] Malcolm Rogers, Montacute House (Swindon: National Trust, 2009 repr.), p. 20.
[vi] Zook, ‘Speke, George (1623-1689)’.
Gray, H. St. George, ‘Whitelackington and the Duke of Monmouth in 1680’, Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, < https://sanhs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/12-H-St.-G-Gray.pdf> [accessed 12 July 2021]
Harris, Tim, ‘Scott [formerly Crofts], James, duke of Monmouth and first duke of Buccleuch (1649-1685)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography < https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/24879> [accessed 12 July 2021]
‘Medal’, The British Museum, < https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1844-0425-31 > [accessed 12 July 2021]
Roberts, George, The Life, Progresses, and Rebellion of James, Duke of Monmouth, & c. To His Capture and Execution: With a Full Account of the Bloody Assize and Copious Biographical Notices, Vol. I, (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844), p. 95
Rogers, Malcolm, Montacute House (Swindon: National Trust, 2009 repr.)
‘The Story of Monmouth’s Ash’, Verwood UK – History SITE http://history.verwood.org/monmouth’s_ash.htm[accessed 12 July 2021]
Zook, Melinda, ‘Speke, George (1623-1689)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/26099> [accessed 12 July 2021]