Whilst visiting my cousin at his home in Wincanton (Somerset) during August, I was given a walk around the town centre. I was happy to see so many independent shops and businesses, but nothing gave me more of a smile than to see a small plaque that connected the town to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Regular readers of the blog may remember previous posts in which the year of 1688 has appeared. Every year the History with English team at University Centre South Devon recreate a stage of a walk in which William of Orange took when arriving in England in 1688 in order to claim the throne. But how about a little context (taken from one of the earlier posts regarding the William of Orange History Walk):

The year is 1688 and James II sits on the throne of England and Scotland. However, problems are stirring: James is a Catholic and there are many in the country who do not wish to return to the religious upheaval of the Reformation period (yes, we’re looking at you Mary I). Leading bishops petitioned against James’ Declaration of Indulgence, which provided greater rights for Catholics in the country; however, James reacted by imprisoned several of them in the Tower of London (one of their number was the Cornishman Jonathan Trelawny). Many of the nobility feared James asserting his royal authority and acted swiftly; their anecdote was to call out to William of Orange to come to England to become the new king.

William himself had royal blood in his veins and was also married to James’ daughter (Mary), and most importantly of all: he was a Protestant. William didn’t need much convincing – the power of England would help the Dutch in their fighting against the much larger French – and so he readied his troops and headed for England. Brixham was the landing spot, and the day itself – 5th November – served as a good omen. Yet another Catholic plot was to be rumbled and the Protestants, it was hoped by many, would prosper yet again. William’s army numbered up to 40,000 and he marched from the west-country to London to seize the throne. Rather than meet his rival in the field of combat James II fled to the continent, leading to the start of the reign of William III – the so-called Glorious Revolution (if we are to buy into the Whig interpretation of history).

The term “Glorious Revolution” is principally connected to the legislation passed by William’s new government; it provided the basis for the later evolution of a true parliamentary democracy and an end to tyrannical kings. But the term could also be applied to the military aspect of the revolution, particularly in it being primarily bloodless: William arrived and James fled.

However, my walk in Wincanton suggested that this “bloodless revolution” was not entirely bloodless. The blue plaque that I came across noted the following:


So, what happened here in 1688?

In late November 1688, a small pro-James patrol of over one-hundred men came toward Wincanton, having heard that some of William’s troops were in the area. This patrol was led by Patrick Sarsfield, who wanted to secure the area for King James. The advancing troops in question was a small group of thirty men led by Lieutenant Campbell, sent forward in order to secure horses and supplies for William’s army.

Campbell was in Wincanton when he heard of the news of Sarsfield’s force. An ambush was set up, in which his men – mostly Scottish soldiers – were to be well-concealed. When Sarsfield arrived he is reported to have had a conversation with Campbell, in which both men outlined their allegiances. Campbell told him that he supported the Prince of Orange, to which Sarsfield is said to have replied: “God damn you! I’ll Prince You!”

Fire opened, with Campbell being killed. Although Sarsfield had the superior number of troops, the Scottish troops were in strong positions, allowing the majority of them to flee the area. Sarsfield could claim a victory, and was then able to occupy Wincanton. However, the tide was soon to turn, with William’s invasion force arriving in Wincanton and taking the town for his cause.

Is this event fitting for the title of ‘battle’, as the plaque claims? There certainly was conflict, and several men died. However, this incident is more widely referred to as the ‘Wincanton Skirmish’, which is far more fitting when considering the wider view of the events of 1688. Technically, it was not a “bloodless” revolution, however, this Wincanton event is not much more than a footnote in the history of this period.