The Prayer Book Rebellion: Mark Stoyle on how the 1549 rising almost changed Tudor history
The religious reforms of the Protestant Edward VI, inspired by the Reformation, were not welcomed by all in his kingdom. In 1549, thousands of people rose up in revolt in Devon and Cornwall. Although ultimately crushed with the help of mercenaries from Europe, and its leaders executed, historian Mark Stoyle asks whether this Prayer Book Rebellion could have toppled the Tudor state
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On Whit Monday 1549, William Underhill and William Seagar – two respectable inhabitants of the little Devon village of Sampford Courtenay – got into an argument with their vicar at the parish church. They told him that they disliked the new Book of Common Prayer in English, which had recently been introduced by an act of parliament and which he had read in church the day before. They urged him to revert to the traditional service in Latin instead and, after some debate, he acceded to their request.
Within hours, the church had become the centre of a popular demonstration against the Protestantising religious policies of King Edward VI, which sought to remove all vestiges of the traditional Catholic faith. Within days, that protest had spread to the surrounding country parishes, and within weeks it had engulfed the whole of Devon and Cornwall.
- On the podcast | Mark Stoyle charts the Prayer Book Rebellion and how the rising almost changed the course of Tudor history
Self-appointed captains soon emerged to lead the protesters, prominent among them being Underhill and Seagar themselves. In July, they assembled an army of common people and laid siege to the regional capital, Exeter. From there, they sent a list of demands to the government in London, insisting that all further moves towards Protestantism should come to a halt, and that the Church of England should be restored to the position in which it had been left by the king’s father, Henry VIII, at the time of his death.
The rising is widely remembered today as the “Prayer Book Rebellion”. This epithet perhaps suggests a somewhat softer episode – more like a theological debate – than the bloody reality. In truth, the strength of feeling among the “rebels” fuelled a rapid and violent response to enforcement of the Protestant Reformation. And new analysis shows that the rising wasn’t merely a minor, localised “stir”, but came close to succeeding in its goals in the West Country – and even in the very seat of government.
What happened in the Prayer Book Rebellion?
Lord Russell had been sent down from London to quell the disturbances. Vastly outnumbered by protesters and finding it almost impossible to raise local support, he was forced to dispatch a series of desperate pleas for help to the government. Only after Russell had been sent substantial reinforcements – including several bands of hardened mercenary soldiers from Italy, Burgundy and Albania – was he finally able to break through the besieging forces and advance, to relieve Exeter.
Russell’s troubles were not yet over. His opponents had regrouped at Sampford Courtenay, from where they continued to defy him. Russell gathered still more reinforcements, and in mid-August he marched out from Exeter at the head of an army of 8,000 men. With this force he finally crushed the protesters, slaughtering them in a brutal, day-long battle fought out amid the fields and hedgerows surrounding the village where the trouble had initially begun.
At least one local priest was hanged in chains from his own church tower... according to the best contemporary estimate, the insurrection resulted in the deaths of some 4,000 'rebels'
Scores of captured rebels were subsequently executed, with at least one local priest being hanged in chains from his own church tower. The civilian population also suffered. A contemporary writer noted that, in the wake of the rebels’ defeat, Russell’s troops “ravage[d] the land, as did the foreign horsemen… who did great destruction in the country… by taking goods, as well as by capturing people and forcing them to pay ransom like soldiers”.
According to the best contemporary estimate, the insurrection resulted in the deaths of some 4,000 “rebels”. Bearing in mind how much smaller the population of the West Country was in the 16th century than it is today, this was an enormous figure. Indeed, it seems fair to suggest that the so called Western Rising of 1549 was the single most traumatic event in the region’s history between the Black Death of the 1340s and the Civil War of the mid-17th century.
What sources are there for the rising?
The insurrection was the most determined attempt to reverse the course of the Reformation, yet for centuries its importance has been overlooked by historians. This is partly because we know surprisingly little about it. And much of what we do know comes from a single writer, the antiquarian John Hooker. Born in Exeter, Hooker was still in his twenties when he helped to defend the city against the insurgents.
This experience obviously had a profound effect upon him because he later wrote a series of increasingly detailed accounts of what he termed “the Commotion or Rebellion in the counties of Devon and Cornwall”. (“The Commotion” was the conveniently neutral term subsequently used by local people to refer to the rising.) Without Hooker’s accounts we would know almost nothing about how the protests began or what happened during the siege of Exeter.
All of the subsequent histories of the insurrection have been based chiefly on his testimony. It is important to stress, though, that Hooker’s accounts, which were composed during the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I, were written from a very particular standpoint. Hooker himself was both an ardent Protestant and a proud Exonian. He had no sympathy for the protesters, whom he dismissed as “Papists” (Catholics); his writings chiefly aimed to celebrate their defeat and to commemorate the role Exeter played in it.
Moreover, because he had spent that summer confined to the city, Hooker was not as well informed as he might otherwise have been about the developments that had taken place elsewhere. His view of the insurrection is very much that of the man on the Exeter city walls, in other words. And because Hooker’s accounts were relied upon so heavily by later historians – including Frances Rose Troup, whose formidable book The Western Rebellion of 1549, first published in 1913, still remains the standard history of the rising – we continue to see the tragic events of that summer through a slightly distorted lens.
Prayer Book Rebellion timeline
Disquiet brews in Devon and Cornwall as proponents of the Reformation challenge religious conservatives.
21 January 1549
The Act of Uniformity establishes the new Book of Common Prayer as the only legal liturgy in England, replacing Latin missals.
10 June 1549
On Whit Monday, parishioners of Sampford Courtenay in mid-Devon decry the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer. Within days, the protests have spread across Devon and throughout Cornwall, with “captains” assembling an army of local men.
c18 June 1549
Lord Russell, the former lord president of the Council of the West, is sent from London to quell the rising – initially with only a small band of troops.
2 July 1549
Protesters outside Exeter, bolstered by volunteer forces – thousands later arriving from Cornwall under the leadership of Humphrey Arundell – begin a siege of the city that lasts five weeks.
c29 July 1549
Having penetrated no farther west than Honiton, Russell is confronted by a rebel advance and wins a pivotal battle at Fenny Bridges just west of the town.
6 August 1549
After finally receiving reinforcements, including foreign mercenaries, Russell’s army arrives in Exeter, where the siege is lifted.
17 August 1549
Having regrouped at Sampford Courteney, the protesters are routed by Russell’s 8,000-strong army in a bloody one-day clash. Hundreds of rebels die in the battle and subsequent repression.
27 January 1550
Leaders of the rising who had been imprisoned in the Tower, including Humphrey Arundell, are hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London. The rising is comprehensively crushed.
How much of a threat did the Prayer Book Rebellion pose?
In my own recent study of the rebellion, A Murderous Midsummer, I have attempted to readjust the focus. By pulling together the many new fragments of evidence about the rising discovered during the century since Rose-Troup laid down her pen, I have sought to reduce our reliance upon Hooker and to produce a new history of the “Great Commotion” in the west. My new account not only challenges the traditional narrative in various respects, but suggests that the protesters posed a far more serious threat to the central regime than has generally been recognised.
In fact, the roots of the rebellion stretched back some time before the outbreak of violence recognised as the Western Rising. Already, two years earlier, a doctrinal dispute had sprung up between a traditionalist Exeter Cathedral canon, Richard Crispin, and Philip Nicolles, a young Protestant firebrand. Crispin, who in 1547 had denounced reformed theology from the pulpit, had been challenged in print by Nicolles, and soon found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London.
For local religious conservatives, this was a clear sign of just how uncomfortable life was likely to be for them under the new, zealously Protestant regime. The resentment sparked by this affair may well have helped to pave the way for the later explosion of violence in 1549.
The ire expressed by people in the West Country at the imposition of liturgy in English was particularly virulent in Cornwall. The year before the much larger rebellion that began at Sampford Courtenay, a short-lived popular rising dubbed the “Cornish Commotion” erupted in the far west of Cornwall. This revolt, which was perhaps triggered by the regime’s imposition of a new “order of communion” in English, reflected the fierce determination of local people to protect both traditional religious practices and Cornwall’s unique cultural identity.
Having killed William Body, a royal commissioner who had attempted to implement the government’s religious changes in the district around Helston, the insurgents are said to have declared that: “Whosoever would defend Body, or follow such new fashions as he did, they would punish him likewise.”
What was the course of events in 1549?
Though Cornwall may not (as believed by Rose-Troup) have been where the disturbances of 1549 began, the speed with which its people responded to that event demonstrates the strength of feeling there. The protests that built to become the Western Rising began in Sampford Courtenay on 10 June, spreading to Cornwall in early July. Subsequently, in the space of just three weeks, Humphrey Arundell – a gentleman from near Bodmin – managed to raise a 6,000-strong army in Cornwall and march with it to Exeter.
There they joined the Devonian forces in a siege of the city that continued for five long weeks before government forces were able to regroup and drive the rebels back to Sampford Courtenay. In other words, there was a rapid mobilisation of and advance by large numbers of Cornishmen. This would have made the combined forces of the rebellion far more dynamic, assertive and threatening than has previously been recognised.
And from the government’s point of view, the rebels’ movements in July 1549 must have looked far more purposeful and menacing than traditional tellings of the rising would suggest. Conversely, the royal forces under Lord Russell’s command that were initially tasked with subduing the rebels were much weaker than has previously been appreciated. It is now clear that, right up until the end of July, Russell had remained extremely short of men – and, therefore, extremely vulnerable to attack.
On or around 29 July, just such an assault had seemed to be in the offing when the rebels advanced in force upon Russell’s camp at Honiton, forcing him to sally out to meet them. The resulting battle fought at Fenny Bridges proved to be a crucial turning point. Russell managed first to defeat the rebel forces that had already assembled at the bridge over the Otter west of Honiton, and also to disperse a “new supply” of 800 insurgents who had hurried up to reinforce them. Specifically described as “Cornish men”, these latecomers probably represented the advance guard of the main Cornish host.
It had been a desperately close thing. If Arundell had managed to bring up more of his Cornishmen to east Devon just a day or two earlier, he might well have been able to force the king’s general into headlong flight. If that had happened, the inhabitants of the restive counties at Russell’s back might well have joined hands with the insurgents, opening the way for the rebellion to catch fire right across the south of England and Wales – and, potentially, for the regime of the Duke of Somerset (the man who led Edward’s government) to be toppled altogether.
As it was, Russell himself was reinforced almost at once by the first of the mercenary soldiers for whom he had been pleading for so long, and was thus able to move onto the offensive at last. What followed was bloody defeat for the rebels on 17 August at Sampford Courtenay. Yet those protesters’ aims came close to being achieved during the factional struggle that then raged in the capital.
“We the Cornishmen utterly refuse this new English”
The Prayer Book Rebellion was an expression of cultural as well as religious defiance
An intriguing point about the Western Rising is that it appears to have been partially fuelled by a desire to protect the distinctive Cornish culture. At the start of the 16th century, Cornish – a Brythonic language closely related to Welsh – was still widely spoken in western Cornwall.
But the onset of the Reformation accelerated its retreat, and the reformers’ determination to ensure that English, rather than Latin, became the chief language of religious instruction meant that the Cornish found themselves increasingly obliged to learn it.
In 1548, Edward VI’s government directed that a new “order of communion” in English should be incorporated within the traditional Latin mass. The fact that a popular insurrection broke out in west Cornwall within days of the new order of communion being introduced seems unlikely to be coincidence.
And when, a year later, the regime replaced the Latin liturgy with the Book of Common Prayer, it provoked a powerful sense of Cornish “cultural defensiveness”.
Among the demands sent to the government by the western rebels in 1549 was one declaring that: “We will not receive the new service… we the Cornishmen (whereof certain of us understand no English) utterly refuse this new English.”
Tragically, the protesters’ defeat helped sound the death knell for the Cornish tongue. By making an issue of the language, they had inadvertently ensured that it would be tainted, in the eyes of the ruling classes, with the stain of sedition.
As a result, the Cornish were denied the liturgy in their own tongue that was later granted to the Welsh, and – English having become the language of daily worship throughout Cornwall – the Cornish language went into steep decline. Within 150 years, it had all but disappeared.
- Read more | Top 10 historical Cornish words
What was the legacy of the Prayer Book Rebellion?
The West Country was by no means the only part of the kingdom to experience serious outbreaks of disorder in 1549. Another huge popular rising, known today as Kett’s Rebellion, was taking place in East Anglia at the same time, and lesser “stirs” occurred in a score of other counties. As a result, many powerful figures turned against the Duke of Somerset, believing that his policies had brought England to the brink of anarchy.
In October, Somerset was brought down by an aristocratic coup in London – a coup in which Sir Thomas Arundell, a wealthy Cornish gentleman and cousin of the rebel Humphrey Arundell, played a leading role. For several months, it was then widely believed that a clique of religious conservatives resistant to the Reformation were on the point of taking power. They would make Edward’s adult half-sister, Mary – a devoted Catholic – the young king’s “governor”, halting the drive towards Protestantism.
For Humphrey Arundell and the other captured rebel leaders, by now imprisoned in the Tower, it was a moment pregnant with hope. Alas for them, the moment passed all too soon. Sir Thomas Arundell and his conservative allies were outfoxed by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who seized power and set up a regime even more strongly Protestant than the one that had been led by Somerset.
In January 1550, Humphrey and the other rebel captains in the Tower were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, thus bringing the bloody story of the Prayer Book Rebellion to an end. Yet this remarkable episode was never forgotten by those who had lived through it. Lord Grey, one of the royal commanders, subsequently remarked of the rebels that “such was the valour and stoutness of these men… that he never, in all the wars he had been in, did know the like”.
Another loyalist similarly marvelled at the courage shown by the protesters in the face of Russell’s mercenaries, later recalling that “the archers of the rebels did so behave themselves with their volleys of arrows against divers… bands [of]… Arquebusiers, Italians and Spaniards, that they drove them from… banks, ditches, hedges and other advantages of ground, to the great mischief of many of those strangers.”
Few of those who had taken part in the rising ever dared to speak of it openly after wards, for fear of harsh punishment. But at least one piece of evidence shows that the rebels’ courage and determination was remembered with pride by their children and grandchildren. In the early 17th century, the Devonian antiquarian Thomas Westcote wrote of the events of the rising that, if he should record what was still commonly said by the local people about “the strength, and force and resolution of these commons (the archers especially), you might, peradventure, take it with some doubt lest it increased somewhat by time or penning”.
The protesters may have gone down to bloody defeat, but their martial exploits lived long in the memories of their descendants.
Mark Stoyle is professor of history at Southampton University. His new book is A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549 (Yale University Press, 2022)
This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
Mark Stoyle is professor of history at Southampton University. His books include A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549
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