A gradual tide of resentment had been building up across the country ever since the 1530s, when Edward’s father, Henry VIII, made the decision to break from Rome and establish a new form of religious worship. Ripples of disaffection and unrest surfaced as the crown dissolved the monasteries and seized their wealth. Henry had already faced down a huge uprising in the north of the country in 1536 and, by the time his son came to the throne in 1547, religious discontent was rife.
With a nine-year-old king in power, government sat temporarily in the hands of royal councillors. This state of affairs caused consternation among a large section of the population, who feared that powerful men were forcing the king towards Protestantism, the new branch of Christianity created by the Reformation. Some wished to delay religious change until Edward came of age but, undeterred, the regime issued a new set of injunctions for religious reform in 1547.
Soon afterwards, it ordered that inventories should be drawn up listing the possessions of every parish church in the country – and, in doing so, awakened widespread fear that these goods, too, would soon be confiscated by the crown. These policies angered many and helped to contribute to a serious rising in west Cornwall in 1548 – a disturbance that is often seen as a precursor to the great rebellion of the following year.
Then, in 1549, the government introduced a new Book of Common Prayer. Printed in English, the book was alien to the common people, who were accustomed to hearing their church services in Latin. It proved even more incendiary in Cornwall, where many people still spoke Cornish, a Brythonic language very like Welsh. Here, the replacement of the Latin service with an English version awoke cultural sensitivities as well as religious ones.
In June 1549, the county exploded into rebellion and thousands of angry commoners, together with many parish priests and some gentlemen, gathered at the ancient hill fort of Castle Canyke near Bodmin. Within a few days, the rebels had captured all who remained loyal to the king, and nowhere in Cornwall held out in support of the crown.
The protest soon spread to the Devonshire village of Sampford Courtenay, where, the day after the new prayer book came into force, the villagers demanded that their priest wear his old garments and read from the old service book. The minister swiftly reverted to “his old popish attire and sayeth mass and all such services as in times past accustomed”, while a local yeoman who tried to oppose the protestors was killed.
The events at Sampford Courtenay had a snowball effect and soon many other local people were demanding that their traditional ways of worship be restored. In fact, such was the strength of the opposition to the book that a powerful force of Cornish rebels were soon marching over the Devon border to join forces with those of Sampford Courtenay.
In July 1549, the combined force of Cornish and Devon rebels – by now some 4,000–6,000-strong – made the fatal decision to besiege Exeter, the regional capital, whose inhabitants remained loyal to the crown. The siege dragged on for six weeks “until the famine was so sore, that the people [of Exeter] were fain to eat horse-flesh”.
“The rebellion was the outcome of an accumulation of grievances, some of which dated back to before Edward came to the throne”, says Professor Mark Stoyle of the University of Southampton. “The revolt was primarily fuelled by religious conservatism, but a desire to protect Cornish cultural distinctiveness also played its part.”
Among the list of demands that the rebels sent to the government was one which stated that: “We will not receive the new service because it is but like a Christmas game, but we will have our old service of matins, mass, evensong and procession in Latin not in English, as it was before. And so we the Cornish men, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English.”
The insurgents failed in their attempts to seize Exeter. The government ordered John Russell, First Earl of Bedford, to put down the rebellion and – after assembling a powerful army – he marched to the city’s relief. Several thousand rebels were killed during a series of brutal engagements fought on the eastern side of the city. Then, in a battle fought at Sampford Courtenay on 17 August, the royal army of some 8,000 men finally crushed the insurgents.
The rebels’ courage and dedication to the cause is well documented, and even Lord Grey, a leader of the royal force, stated that he had never seen such determination. One contemporary chronicler stated that they were at “[such] a point that they would not yield to no persuasions nor did [they], but most manfully did abide the fight: and never gave over fighting until that both in the town and in the field, they were all for the most part taken or slain”.
The surviving rebel leaders were run to earth at Launceston Castle and taken to the Tower of London to await their punishment. Devon and Cornwall’s desperate bid to stem the tide of Protestant reformation was over.
Where history happened
St Nicholas Priory, Exeter
Where a group of angry women led a religious protest
This Benedictine Priory was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII. At that time, assaults on the priory church had sparked off a popular religious protest of the sort that would later lead to the Prayer Book Rebellion. In 1535, workmen were sent to dismantle the church’s rood loft – the space located above the image of Christ’s death that hung in most Catholic churches – which was decorated with Catholic imagery. On hearing of this, a group of enraged local women broke down the locked church door and pursued the workmen who were attacking the symbols of their faith.
One of the workmen took refuge in the church tower but was followed “so hotly” that he was forced to jump out of the window, whereupon he cracked his ribs on the ground below. The women were only subdued after one of the city aldermen brought a group of armed men to disperse them. The strength of religious conservatism in the South West was already clear – among women just as much as men.
Although the church wing of the priory no longer stands, its stones were used to repair the city walls nearby. The remains of the surviving parts of the priory now house a Tudor museum.
St Keverne, Cornwall
Where the archdeacon of Cornwall was brutally murdered
The village of St Keverne, situated in what was once the heartland of Cornish-speaking west Cornwall, was the seat of a major rebellion against the crown, in 1497. Trouble broke out here again in April 1548, when the people of St Keverne learnt that the archdeacon of Cornwall – an unscrupulous individual named William Body – had begun removing images from the church in the nearby town of Helston. Accompanied by their parish priest, Martin Geffrey, the inhabitants of St Keverne set off for Helston – joined by many of their neighbours along the way.
Despite seeking refuge in a nearby house, Body was dragged out by the crowd and murdered. Retribution was swift and brutal. The mob, which had swelled to around 3,000 people, was dispersed by the arrival of Sir William Godolphin and other justices of the peace, and eight Cornishmen were executed at Launceston. Martin Geffrey was taken to London where he was hanged, drawn and quartered; his severed head was placed on London Bridge.
St Keverne church may still be visited, and there is a monument in the village square commemorating the earlier rebellion which began here in 1497.
Sampford Courtenay church house, Devon
Where a peacemaker was stabbed to death by his neighbours
A great deal of the action that took place during the Prayer Book Rebellion centred on the small village of Sampford Courtenay near Dartmoor, and it was here that a mob killed an opponent of the uprising.
Soon after the protests at Sampford Courtenay had begun, a local yeoman farmer, named William Hellyons, came to the village and tried to remonstrate with the rebels. The angry villagers took Hellyons prisoner and dragged him to the nearby church house “where he so earnestly reproved them for their rebellion and so sharply threatened them… that they fell in a rage with him: and not only with evil words reviled him, but also as he was going out of the church house and going down the stairs, one of them… with a bill struck him in the neck, and immediately notwithstanding his pitiful requests and lamentations, a number of the rest fell upon him and slew him and cut him in small pieces”. In August 1549, Sampford Courtenay was the location for the rebels’ last stand, and it was here that they were finally crushed.
The 15th-century church house still stands, as do the steps outside on which Hellyons was murdered. It is highly likely that the church house itself was used as a headquarters by the local rebel leaders.
St Michael’s Mount, Marazion, Cornwall
Where loyalist gentlemen fled from the rebels
St Michael’s Mount, located just over 350 metres off Mount’s Bay, began life as a port for Cornwall’s tin industry before being granted to the Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel in France after the Norman Conquest. However, despite its religious background, the mount has seen many sieges and battles in its long history.
In June 1549, as the rebels gathered at Castle Canyke, those Cornish gentlemen who remained loyal to the crown attempted to find secure places of refuge. A number of them believed they would be safe on St Michael’s Mount, partly because it is an island, which can only be reached on foot at low tide.
However, Humphrey Arundell and a force of rebels waited until the tide was out before crossing to the island. Then, carrying bundles of hay in front of them to act as shields, the rebels advanced up the hill to the fortress itself. Frightened and short of food, the loyalists within the castle surrendered.
St Michael’s Mount is still a hugely popular tourist attraction and is now in the care of the National Trust.
The guildhall, Exeter
From where the defence of Exeter was coordinated
The rebels’ six-week siege of Exeter placed the city under tremendous strain, not just from a military perspective, but also in terms of allegiances. Many of the city’s inhabitants were sympathetic to the insurgents, and Exeter’s defenders were worried that “traitors within” might open the gates to the rebel forces.
A serious dispute took place after the mayor of Exeter forbade groups of men from leaving the city to tackle the rebels, a move that culminated in the imprisonment of one Bernard Duffield who demanded that he should be allowed to lead an assault. On hearing the news, Duffield’s daughter “came more hastily than advisedly unto the mayor” to demand her father’s release. When this was refused she “waxed so warm that not only did she use very unseemly terms and speeches unto the mayor but also, contrary to the modesty and shamefacedness required in a woman, especially young and unmarried, ran most violently upon him and strake him in the face”.
Pandemonium ensued and rumours abounded that the mayor had been killed. Soon, armed men converged on the guildhall, from where the defence of the city was being coordinated. Although calm was eventually restored, the episode highlights the fear of internal attack which gripped the city’s defenders at this time.
The guildhall has been at the centre of Exeter’s civic life for 800 years and is still open to visitors.
St Mary’s church, Chipping Norton
Where a vicar was hanged in chains from his church steeple
The troubles of 1549 were by no means confined to the far south-west of England, and Edward’s government had to work hard to firefight other uprisings, which were occurring across the country at the same time. One of these took place in Oxfordshire after royal commissioners started to take inventories of local church goods. Determined to protect their churches, several hundred commoners rose up in arms and attacked the property of local gentlemen, trashing their parks and killing their deer.
The proximity of Oxfordshire to London meant that word of the uprising quickly reached the government and Lord Grey was instructed to deal with the rebels. Grey’s troops soon dispersed the insurgents, and on 19 July 1549 an order was issued for the execution of the rebellion’s ringleaders. Henry Joyes, the vicar of Chipping Norton, was sentenced
to hang in chains from his own church steeple as an example to others.
St Mary’s church, Chipping Norton, is open most days and the tower from which Henry Joyes was hanged still stands.
Clyst St Mary medieval bridge, Devon
Where over 900 rebel prisoners were slaughtered
The Battle of Clyst Heath was perhaps the bloodiest engagement of the entire rebellion, culminating in the brutal murder of over 900 rebel prisoners, in addition to those killed in combat. Lord Russell and his royal army, including Italian and German mercenaries, began their march on Exeter on 3 August 1549, defeating a group of insurgents two days later. Rebel troops under Humphrey Arundell regrouped in the village of Clyst St Mary but were subsequently defeated by a royal force led by Sir William Francis.
Clyst St Mary was set alight by Russell’s troops and the remaining rebel forces retreated to the medieval bridge across the river. Here the insurgents stood their ground for a while, but sheer weight of numbers eventually prevailed and the rebels were driven from the bridge, with many of them taken prisoner. Fearful of another rebel attack, the commanders of the royal army subsequently ordered their soldiers to kill the luckless captives. A contemporary chronicler later recorded that it took just ten minutes to slit the throats of all 900 rebel prisoners. The siege of Exeter was abandoned and the remaining rebels withdrew to Sampford Courtenay.
The sandstone bridge across the river Clyst, where rebel forces stood against Russell’s troops, is Devon’s oldest bridge and formed part of the main road connection between Exeter and London for over 700 years. Although the bridge is closed to traffic, pedestrians and cyclists can still cross.
St Thomas church, Exeter
Where a rebel priest was hanged
Once the rebellion had been crushed, the king’s forces exacted a brutal revenge on the rebel leaders. Robert Welsh, a Cornishman by birth and the vicar of St Thomas church near Exeter, was condemned to death for his part in proceedings, and the same Bernard Duffield who had been imprisoned in Exeter during the siege was tasked with the execution. Duffield “caused a pair of gallows to be made and to be set up upon the top of the tower of the said vicar’s parish church of St Thomas and all things being ready and the stage perfected for the tragedy, the vicar was brought to the place and by a rope about his middle drawn up to the top of the tower and there in chains hanged in his popish apparel… having a holy water bucket… a pair of beads and such other like popish trash hanged about him”.
Allegedly, the remains of Welsh’s body hung there until Mary succeeded her brother Edward in 1553. One historian has suggested that captured rebels were marched past the church on their way to Exeter so they could witness their comrade’s gruesome corpse. St Thomas church was badly damaged during the English Civil War, but was repaired soon afterwards. The church and the tower can still be seen today.
The Tower of London, London
Where the rebel leaders met a gruesome end
After their final defeat at Sampford Courtenay in August 1549, some of the rebel leaders fled but others, including Arundell, were captured and brought to Launceston Castle in Cornwall where they spent several weeks in the dungeons before being transferred to the Tower of London.
On 27 January 1550, the final act of the rebellion took place when Arundell and several other rebel leaders were led out to be drawn on hurdles through the City of London to the gallows at Tyburn and on “that gallows suspended, and while yet alive to be cast down upon the ground and the entrails of each to be taken out and burnt before their eyes while [they are] yet living, and their heads then cut off and their bodies to be divided into four parts.”
The Tower of London is one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions and is open to the public throughout the year.
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Words by Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Mark Stoyle, professor of history at the University of Southampton and author of West Britons: Cornish Identities and the Early Modern British State (UEP, 2002).
This article was originally published in the December 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine