In the middle of September, 1625, the great expedition by which Charles the First and Buckingham meant to revenge themselves upon the Spaniards for the ignominious failure of their escapade to Madrid was still choking Plymouth harbour with disorder and confusion. Impatient to renew the glories of Drake and Raleigh and Essex, the young King went down in person to hasten its departure. Great receptions were prepared for him at the principal points of his route, and bitter was the disappointment at Exeter that he was not to visit the city. For the plague was raging within its walls, and while holiday was kept everywhere else, the shadow of death was upon the ancient capital of the west.
Hardly, however, had the King passed them by when the citizens had a new excitement of their own. The noise of a quarrel broke in upon the gloom of the stricken city. Those within hearing ran to the spot and found a sight worth seeing. For there in the light of day, under the King's very nose, as it were, a stalwart young gentleman of about sixteen years of age was thrashing the under-sheriff of Devonshire within an inch of his life. With some difficulty, so furious was his assault, the lad was dragged off his victim before grievous bodily harm was done, and people began to inquire what it was all about.
Every one must have known young George Monk, who lived with his grandfather, Sir George Smith, at Heavytree, close to Exeter. Sir George Smith of Maydford was a great Exeter magnate, and his grandson and godson George belonged to one of the best families in Devonshire, and was connected with half the rest; and had they known how the handsome boy was avenging the family honour in his own characteristic way, they would certainly have sympathised with him for the scrape he was in.
For the honour of the Monks of Potheridge in North Devon was a very serious thing. There for seventeen generations the family had lived. Ever since Henry the Third was King they had looked down from their high-perched manor-house over the lovely valley of the Torridge just where the river doubles upon itself in three majestic sweeps as though it were loath to leave a spot so beautiful. By dint of judicious marriages they had managed to be still prosperous and well connected. It was no secret indeed that they claimed royal blood by two descents on the distaff side. For the grandmother of George's father, Sir Thomas, was Frances Plantagenet, daughter and co-heiress of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle; and his grandfather's grandmother, as co-heiress of Richard Champernown of Insworth, had brought him the Cornish bordure and kinship with King John through Richard, King of the Romans, and his son, the Earl of Cornwall.
But of late things had been going very hard at Potheridge. Sir Thomas had succeeded to a heavily encumbered estate, and his attempts at economy had done little or nothing to better his position. An increasing family added to his difficulties and his sorrows. Ten children had already been born to him, and four, including his two eldest boys, were in the grave. Thomas was now the future heir, and then came George. After him was his favourite brother, the quiet studious Nicholas who was to be a parson; and then little Arthur the baby, who became a soldier like George. George had been born on December 8th, 1608, and was now nearly seventeen years old. He grew up a handsome lusty boy, and from his earliest years his daring and spirit had destined him to be a soldier. It was the career of all younger sons of metal, and few can have looked forward to it more ardently than George Monk. It was the tradition of his family. His uncle Richard had died a captain; his uncle Arthur had fallen in 1602 at the glorious defence of Ostend by that renowned captain, Sir Francis Vere. His great-uncle, Captain Francis Monk, had sailed with Drake and Norris in their famous descent upon Portugal in 1589, and having been severely wounded at the storm of Corunna, had died a few days afterwards when the fleet was driven by stress of weather into Peniché.