King Henry VIII's reign was a time of great religious upheaval for his country. The
Protestant Reformation saw the severing of ties to Rome and the Catholic Church, the
establishment of the Church of England with the monarch at its head, and the dissolution of
the monasteries. These reforms were backed by Henry out of political expediency unlike the
more religiously inspired Lutheran Protestant movement in Germany; the most pressing issue
for the King was to find a legitimate means of divorcing his first wife Katherine of Aragon
who had been unable to bear him a son and heir, having had this divorce denied to him by the
Despite presiding over these momentous changes, Henry VIII was a religious conservative
and remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, believing in the miraculous power of the
sacraments. In 1539, becoming increasingly concerned that the Catholic doctrine was under
threat from the influence of the Lutheran Protestants who would remove all symbols of
Catholic imagery from churches, and against the wishes of his Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas
Cranmer, Henry supported the passing of the parliamentary Act known as the Six Articles of
Religion which aimed to enshrine some of the important elements of Catholicism in law.
The first of these Articles affirmed the body and blood of Christ to be present in the
consecrated Bread and Wine of the Holy Communion through transubstantiation.
Among the other Articles were the forbidding of marriage by the clergy and enforced celibacy
of monks and nuns. In his will Henry stipulated that these Articles should remain in force
until his young son and future King Edward VI came of age. Defiance was punishable by death
for each Article at first, but the ultimate punishment was subsequently retained for denial
of transubstantiation only. Nevertheless, Cranmer wasted no time in hurrying his wife back to
her native Germany.
Henry had been reluctant to introduce the sweeping changes that the more ardent
Protestants would have liked, except where he could appropriate the wealth of the church by
dissolving the monasteries. This process was taken a step further in the dying days of
Henry's last parliament passed an act empowering him to take into his hands all
chantries, hospitals, colleges, free chapels, fraternities, gilds and their
possessions. Commissioners were to be appointed to inquire into their revenue. It was left
to the King to determine which should stand, which should be dissolved or refounded.
Inventories were to be made of all their goods, and certificates returned to the Court of
Augmentations. [Rowse, p252]
Perhaps Henry had lingering misgivings, for this process did not begin in earnest until
after his death.
The machinery was in operation for the dissolution of the chantries and guilds; the
commissions were appointed; all that was necessary was the final impulse. This was provided
by the financial stringency bequeathed by Henry to his son's government, the members of
which, so far from nourishing any scruple on the subject of the chantries, were actively in
favour of suppressing them as a further advance in the Reformation. Thus we find the two
motives, economic and religious (or ideological), acting powerfully together to a common
Cranmer left no-one in any doubt as to his intentions, proclaiming in his homily at the
boy King Edward VI's coronation that he would 'see idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the
bishops of Rome banished from your subjects and images destroyed.'
The new parliament under the Lord Protector, Thomas Seymour, Duke of Somerset and maternal
uncle of the new king wasted no time in bringing Cranmer's agenda forward by repealing the
Six Articles and introducing a new Chantries Act that went further than Henry's provisions.
In the new Act, the King was to 'have and enjoy goods, chattels, jewels, plate, ornaments
and other moveables' belonging to chantry chapels and colleges and all the stipends of
the priests serving them. In 1548 commissioners were sent across the land to carry out this
work that was for the most part deeply unpopular with the common people.
The scene familiar from the suppression of the monasteries was being reenacted, this time
with greater impact on local communities:
commissioners were reported as riding along the highways decked in the spoils of
desecrated chapels, with copes for doublets, tunics for saddlecloths, and silver
reliquaries hammered into sheaths for their daggers, and they [the parishioners] did not
wish to have their church treasures, most bought with their own contributions, thus
contemptuously treated. [Rose-Troup, p73]
In the winter of 1547-48 the widely despised William Body, Archdeacon of Cornwall, set out
on a visitation of the county acting as commissioner for the Council [note1]. He summoned a number of parish priests and
churchwardens to meet him at Penryn, where he was
prebendary and also owned a house. He read out to them the Council's injunctions under
the Chantries Act.
It seems that Body gave the impression that the inventories of Church goods that the
commissioners were taking implied that they were to be confiscated by the crown, whereas in
reality at this time the intent was to prevent them being embezzled or sold off privately.
This was of particular sensitivity in Penryn which was near to the College of St Mary and St
Thomas at Glasney, the largest religious foundation in the county. Once Body had finished
speaking there were angry cries from the assembled crowd followed by threatening
demonstrations. Fearing that the disturbances might spread, Body asked the Council for
guidance; they called for a lenient response, not wanting to fan the flames.
It soon transpired that the protesters' concerns were justified: in February an order
demanding the removal of all images from the churches was proclaimed. Body returned to
Cornwall in the Spring and gave notice that all such images be removed from the churches and
chapels under his jurisdiction. On April 5th he arrived in Helston and was greeted by a large
crowd of protesters lead by Martin Geoffrey, the parish priest of St Keverne remembered as
the home of the blacksmith Michael Joseph, a leader of the revolt of 1497 against King Henry VII's punitive taxes.
Body was already in the church as the crowd was gathering. Taking shelter in a house said
to have been at the bottom the hill in Church Street, his refuge was immediately surrounded
by the angry mob: he was dragged out, struck down and stabbed. William Kylter, a yeoman
from Constantine, and Pascoe Trevian, a mariner, then came forward and despatched him. The
people then moved to the market place where they were addressed by John Resseigh from
Helston. Speaking on behalf of the people he declared that they 'would have all such
laws as were made by the late King Henry VIII and none other until the King's majority
accomplished the age of twenty-four years. And that whoso would defend Body or follow such
new fashions as he did, they would punish him likewise.
'. [Caraman, p15] [note2
On April 7th a crowd containing as many as three thousand had assembled threatening
reprisals should any of the ringleaders be arraigned to appear at the Helston Sessions due to
be held the following Tuesday. Sir William Godolphin and his fellow justices were
powerless.The Cornish gentry had no hold on the far west of the county and requested Sir
Richard Edgecombe, a leading light of the Devon gentry, to come to their aid. By this time
the rebels had dispersed, apparently satisfied by the taking of Body's scalp.
A general pardon was issued for all involved in the disturbances save twenty-eight of the
ringleaders. Six of them including Geoffrey the priest were taken to London, while the rest
were brought to Launceston for trial. Kylter and Trevian, Body's killers, were sentenced to
be hanged, drawn, and quartered, while some others would be hanged. One execution took
place on Plymouth Hoe; the town's accounts of that year itemized the cost of the timber for
the gallows, and 'poles to put the head and quarters of the said traitor upon'.
Those sent to London were treated more leniently: they were all pardoned save Martin
Geoffrey who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield on June 7th. As was the grisly
custom for traitors, his head was impaled on a spike and left in public view on London
Bridge. Resseigh's fate is unknown.
This depiction of Launceston Castle was engraved by the brothers Samuel and Nathaniel
Buck in 1734, by which time most of the castle had fallen to ruin save the part containing the County Gaol.
In earlier times the assizes were held in the castle's great hall which is where many of
those implicated in William Body's murder were tried.
In January of 1549 the Act of Uniformity, a decisive next step in the Reformation,
received assent. This required all Church services in the land to use Cranmer's new Book of
Common Prayer written in English in place of the Latin Mass. This lead to much dissent in
Cornwall where, in addition to the lamenting of the loss of the familiar Catholic rituals, in
many parishes English was seldom spoken.
The Act stipulated that the new prayer book must be used from Whit-Sunday 1549 in all
places of worship. This was the flash point for the Rebellion to gain momentum. A
well-organised and sizeable gathering of defiant Cornishmen was congregating in the town of
Bodmin; soon after there was a more spontaneous uprising in the village of Sampford Courtenay
On June 6th in Bodmin Mayor Bray convened a town meeting at which resolutions were put
containing the gist of the rebels eventual demands [note3]. Many parish priests attended as did two representatives of
the landed gentry, Humphrey Arundell of Helland and John Winslade of Tregarrick.
Having the backing of the nobility added a certain legitimacy to the rebellion: 'the
squires who ruled the countryside in peacetime also led its fighting men in war, and it was
taken for granted that military expertise was the prerogative of this class' [Cornwall,
p58]. However, the gentry of Cornwall were few in number and for the most part relatively
poor, lacking substantial armouries. Though some may have sympathised with the rebels, many
sought sanctuary with their families in St Michael's Mount in the far west, fearing that the
common people might see them as legitimate targets.
Arundell and Winslade differed in temperament. Arundell was age 36 at the time and had
previous military experience; he had fought with distinction while leading a band of foot
soldiers at the siege of Boulogne in 1544. There was a dark side to his character: he had
been the subject of various lawsuits involving trespass on the lands of others and unpaid
expenses, and it was claimed by his younger brothers that he had withheld monies due to them
in their mother's will. Winslade in contrast was well liked, known for his generosity and
Arundell was persuaded to act as general of the rebel army - albeit with great reluctance
as he alleged later under cross-examination. Winslade remained for some weeks in Bodmin but
avoided the fighting and was eventually pardoned. Arundell directed the men who were
arriving in Bodmin on foot in their hundreds to Castle Kynoch, an ancient earthwork outside
the town, where they set up camp. Before the army began the march to the Devon border
Humphrey dispatched a detachment on horse and foot to secure the rear from loyalists who
might have chosen to counter-attack under the command of the gentry holed up in St
They crossed to the mount at low tide, occupying the flat ground at the foot. Then,
according to Richard Carew who clearly regarded the rebels with contempt, they completed
the assault: '[taking] the even ground on the top, by carrying up great trusses of hay
before them to blench the defendants' sight and dead their shot. After which, they could
make but slender resistance: for no sooner should any one within, peep out his head, over
those inflanked walls, but he became an open
mark to a shower of arrows. This disadvantage, together with the women's dismay, and
decrease of victuals forced a surrender to those rakehells' mercy, who, nothing guilty of
that effeminate virtue, spoiled their
goods, imprisoned their bodies, and were rather by God's gracious providence than any want
of will, purpose or attempt, restrained from murdering the principal persons.' [Carew,
Their captives were marched back to Bodmin before being incarcerated in Launceston gaol
along with Sir Richard Grenville who was lured from his stronghold of Trematon Castle. The
rounding up of the gentry encouraged many more wavering peasants, tinners, and fishermen to
join the rebel army. Now of fighting strength, the time was ripe them to move to the east.
As they crossed the River Tamar into Devon a small force was sent to besiege Plymouth, and
the town soon surrendered.
It was Whit-Sunday 1549, and as required by the new statute the parish priest of St
Andrew's Church in Sampford Courtenay, the aging William Harper, conducted the service in
English using the Book of Common Prayer.
This was not the solemn Whitsun Mass for which the people had been accustomed to prepare by
a day of fasting. There was no procession inside the church in which the congregation
participated, as the priest, to the accompaniment of plainchant, blessed the side alters
and the people; there were no lights on the altar or on the rood screen or anywhere in the
church, and no elevation of the Host which was the focal point of the community's worship.
There was discontent, but the day passed peacefully. By Monday the tension was increasing
palpably. The villagers had had enough and would no longer tolerate the changes to their
traditional service. After discussing the situation with others, William Underhill, a tailor,
and William Segar, a labourer, entered the vestry and accosted Harper who was preparing for
morning prayers. They asked him if he would he be using the new Prayer Book once again. He
replied that he was obliged to do so in compliance with the law. His answer was unacceptable
to the two men: 'That you will not!. We will have all such laws and ordinances touching
Christian religion as were appointed by King Henry (God rest his soul!), until the King's
majesty that now is reaches the age of twenty-four years, for so his father appointed
it.' [Rose-Troup, p133] [note4]
By now the majority of villagers had congregated outside the church and the mood was
restive. The hapless priest felt unable to resist the will of the angry crowd and submitted
to their demands.
In the end, all the parishioners taking part together, were of the same mind, charging the
priest to use and say the same service as in times past he was wont to do. At length he
yielded to their wills, and forthwith put on his old popish attire, and said mass, and all
the service as in times past accustomed. This news, as a cloud carried away by a violent
wind, like a thunderclap in an instant was noised through the whole country; which the common people so
liked, that they clapped their hands for joy, and agreed to have the same service performed
in their several parish churches. [Hooker, p36]
Word soon spread of the defiance of the common people at Sampford Courtney. Hoping to
defuse the situation before it spread to the adjoining parishes, the authorities sent a party
of local justices to negotiate with the leaders. The delegation was lead by Sir Hugh Pollard
of King's Nympton and Anthony Harvey of Columbjohn with the support of an armed escort.
Underhill and Segar refused to parley with them until they agreed to leave their armed
cohorts at a safe distance. There were sufficient in the party to have taken on the rebels as
there were very few gathered at that time, but Pollard decided that quiet diplomacy was
called for and acceded to their request. The ensuing discussions were fruitless and the the
visiting justices departed empty handed. Pollard was branded a coward for failing to nip the
rebellion in the bud while some believed he was motivated by sympathy for the rebels'
A day or two later a well-respected (if somewhat officious) franklin named William Hellyons
from a neighbouring parish took it upon himself to make a stand against the dissidents.
Shortly after arriving in the village he was detained and taken to the upper chamber of
Church House which the rebels had commandeered as their headquarters. They allowed him to
have his say after which they subjected him to a torrent of abuse before he slunk out of
the room. As he made his way out of the house he received a mortal blow from a bystander
named Lithibridge [note5
'struck him, with his bill, on the neck, and the blow being followed by several others,
his body was soon dispatched, and was cut into several pieces
' [Jenkins, p115].
The outside steps of Church House, Sampford Courtenay, on which William Hellyons was struck
with a bill-hook.
It seems likely that the main force of the Cornish rebels didn't cross into Devon until
the end of June, though an advance party may have met up with the men of Sampford Courtenay
and others from the surrounding area who were assembled at Crediton, five miles to the
north-west of Exeter, by June 20th.
Meanwhile, Protector Somerset, concerned by Sir Hugh Pollard's feeble attempt to quell the
rebellion, decided to send an emissary with a reputation as a man of action and a
distinguished military record to deal with this threat to stability in the region: Sir Peter
Carew, who was raised in the county and had served as sheriff of Devon in 1547, was the
natural choice. He was staying on his wife's estates in Lincolnshire at the time. He
immediately set out on the long ride to Devonshire, accompanied by his uncle Sir Gawen Carew,
arriving in Exeter on June 21st.
His instructions were to strike a conciliatory tone in the first instance at least,
offering to pardon those who agreed to return to their homes and afterwards refrain from
further action. The King's representatives first held discussions with the current sheriff,
Sir Piers Courtenay, and the local justices to agree on a plan of action.
In the end it was concluded, that the said Sir Peter and Sir Gawen, with others, should
ride to Crediton, and there have conference with the commons; and to use the most gentle means possible to
appease them, hoping by good speeches to persuade the said commons of the error of their
But the people having secret intelligence of these resolutions, determined not to recede in
the least from what they had before agreed upon; and therefore with all imaginable speed,
armed themselves; digging trenches in the highways, and fortifying a mighty rampart which
they had made at the town's end, as also the barns adjoining thereto; in which they put men
and munitions, having pierced the walls that their shot might go through them. [Hooker,
The rebels refused all entreaties. Angered by this rebuttal, Sir Peter and his men charged
the rampart only to be met by a barrage of arrows, suffering some losses, after which they
retreated. During the resulting confusion, a servant of Sir Hugh Pollard set alight the
thatched roof of one of the barns causing the rebels to abandon their positions in panic.
When the Carews entered the town after this they found the town deserted apart from a few old
folk, so they returned to Exeter.
The burning of the barn hardened the rebel's resolve and gained them additional support for
News of the burning of this barn, and of the proceedings at Crediton, were almost instantly
spread over the country; and every trivial circumstance, tho' in itself, comparatively
speaking, no bigger than a gnat, was by divers false reports increased to the size of an
elephant; and the common people almost everywhere made believe, by artful wicked persons,
that this gentleman had agreed and determined utterly to destroy them and their families.
These rumours put the people into a great rage; so that they assembled themselves in great
troops in different parts of the country, entrenching and fortifying themselves, as if an
enemy was ready to invade and assail them. This was done, among other places, at a village
called St Mary Clyst [note6
belonging to Lord Russell, distant about two miles from Exeter, which they began to fortify
for their defence and safety. [Hooker, p41]
The map shows the path taken by the rebels during June 1549 and the principal battle
||- site of a major battle
||- site of a minor skirmish
All references to Council
refer to the Regency (or Privy) Council led by Lord
Protector Somerset. [return]
Caraman's version of Resseigh's statement is identical to that quoted by Rowse [2, p258].
Rose-Troup [3, p80] quotes the alternative given below which seems more representative of
the idiom of the day, and 'King's majesty that now is' makes more sense than
'King's majority'. Julian Cornwall [6, p53] gives a similar version. It is most
likely that Resseigh was speaking in Cornish, the native tongue of West Cornwall at the
time, so what was actually said can only be conjecture.
Let us have again all such laws and ordinances touching the Christian religion as were
appointed by our late sovereign lord, King Henry the Eighth, of blessed memory (God rest
his soul), and none other, until the King's majesty that now is reaches the age of
twenty-four years, and whosoever dare defend this Body or follow such new fashions as he
did, we will punish him likewise.
There are a number of different versions of the rebel demands. They were drawn up in their
final form outside Exeter. All but one were articles affirming the Catholic practices of
worship as previously adopted, showing the rebellion to be largely directed against the
imposition of Protestantism, rather than other social injustices. As an example, here is
We will not receyve the newe servye because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll
have oure olde service of Mattens, masse, Evensong, and procession in Lattin not in
English, as it was before. An so we the Cornyshe men (whereof certen of us understande no
Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe English.
Fletcher gives the complete list of the final Articles laying down the rebel demands [5,
Document 12, p135] which I have reproduced in Part
of this feature.
Make what you will of it, but Frances Rose-Troup attributes almost the same utterance to
John Resseigh after the murder of William Body in Helston two years earlier (see Note 2).
Following Hooker, Jenkins names Hellions' assailant as Githbridge
; I have used the
widely accepted name of Lithibridge
This village is now called Clyst St Mary. [return]
Hooker was a young man of 23 at the time of the Prayer Book Rebellion and was an
eye-witness to the siege of Exeter. His account of the rebellion begins on page 34 of this
volume, starting with the Sampford Courtenay rising. Hooker's colourful narrative is
heavily biased towards the Protestant cause. He was to become secretary to Sir Peter Carew,
acting as his legal advisor on his visit to Ireland, and later penning a biography of him.
Tudor Cornwall by A L Rowse, 2nd Edition, Macmillan, 1969.
The Western Rebellion of 1549: an account of the insurrections in Devonshire and
Cornwall against religious innovations in the reign of Edward VI by Frances
Rose-Troup, Smith Elder, 1913.
The Western Rising 1549: The Prayer Book Rebellion by Philip Caraman, Westcountry
Tudor Rebellions by Anthony Fletcher, 2nd Edition, Longmans, 1973.
Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549 by Julian Cornwall, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
The map icon signifying the battle locations is derived from the original by MapMaster
and is reproduced under the CC-BY-SA-3.0
Creative Commons License.
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16 Nov 2014