Russell waits anxiously for reinforcements
Lord Russell had an escort of not more than 300 men at Honiton in early July, insufficient for an attempt to relieve Exeter. He had recruited some gentry from Dorset and Somerset and their retainers, but he had no money to pay them and many had drifted away. Also, the loyalty of those that remained was questionable. Believing that Exeter had no more that eight day's food remaining, Russell was fearful that the city would fall at any time; even if it didn't, the number of rebels was growing by the day, and he thought that Arundell might have sufficient men to advance on Honiton while continuing to hold Exeter. To add to Russell's woes, there was talk of stirrings in the counties to the east, potentially exposing him to attack from the rear.
Russell, fearing attack from the rear, begins to retreat
With fresh rumours of a disturbance at Salisbury in Wiltshire, and fearing for their safety in Honiton, the gentlemen of Dorset urged a return to that county where they would find sanctuary in Sherborne castle. Easily persuaded, Russell and his cohort began the retreat towards Dorset the following day. Sir Peter Carew was at his family home of Mohuns Ottery nearby. On hearing of Russell's withdrawal he rode hastily to intercept the party with the intention of convincing Russell of his folly in ceding ground to the rebels.
Financial help materialises
Fortuitously Russell's financial difficulties were soon to be eased. He was able to raise loans underwritten by Protector Somerset from three wealthy Exeter merchants who had been unavoidably detained in Honiton due to the rebellion:
Having had his way with the Lord Privy Seal, Sir Peter wanted to ensure there would be no further weakening of Russell's resolve. To this end he had Russell write to the Council to formally appoint himself and his uncle Sir Gawain Carew as members of Russell's Council of War.
The Protector offers Russell mercenaries
The tone of desperation in Russell's letters to the Council was not lost on the Protector; he decided to redeploy some of the foreign mercenaries commissioned for the campaign against Scotland to strengthen the Royalist force in the west.
Russell had asked the Council to provide infantry rather than cavalry thinking they would be more effective in battle in the lanes and hedgerows of Devonshire. On July 10th the Council wrote to Russell pointing out that it would take several weeks before such a force could be mustered and marched to Devon. Instead he promised to dispatch 150 Italian arquebusiers immediately, to be followed by three or four hundred horsemen under Lord Grey, plus a further 400 foreign horse and 1000 Almainnote1 foot; they had also ordered Sir William Herbert to raise a levy in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire for additional support if required. Two days later they had to confess that the arquebusiers and Grey's horse would be delayed by the disturbances which had broken out in Bucks and Oxfordshire. Here is the relevant part of the original letter containing the offer of reinforcements:
The use of foreign mercenaries in an English civil conflict was highly controversial and was bound to be deeply unpopular, especially as they were feared for their extreme brutality. But in the circumstances the Council had little choice. Russell had tried to raise a levy from the commons of Somerset, but they were disinclined. When told of this, the Council wrote back saying that a few of them should be hanged for their treachery as a warning to the others. In addition, Russell was sent a proclamation threatening to forfeit the lands and copyholdsnote2 of any who refused to serve.
The battle of Fenny Bridges
Arquebusiers arrive and take part in skirmish with rebels
By July 21st, following the arrival of the 150 arquebusiers under the command of Paolo Spinola, a Genoese nobleman, it seems likely that Russell's forces had increased to about 1800 men. These included 350 foreign horse of which the majority were Burgundian heavy horse under the command of Jacques Jermigny, the remainder being Albanian light horse captained by Pietro Sanga. There were also 300 English cavalry, the Italian mercenaries, and approximately 1000 native infantry. The rebels had a considerable advantage in numbers, with perhaps twice as many fully equipped men. About one third would have been skilled Cornish bowmen, the remainder billmen. In addition there were many inexperienced lightly armed followers, making about 10000 insurgent fighters in total.
Before the first major battle at Fenny Bridges there was a skirmish between reconnaissance parties from the two sides in the narrow Devon lanes somewhere near Honitonnote3. Cornwall has the rebels faring worse in this brief but intense exchange, though we don't know if any lives were lost on either side.
Opposing forces meet in first set-piece battle
As July drew to a close, Arundell was keen to take the battle to Russell before the Lord Privy Seal's army was reinforced further by the arrival of Lord Grey's cavalry. Leaving a containing force around Exeter, Arundell advanced to Fenny Bridges that crossed the River Otter about two miles from Honiton. Russell was undecided whether or when to challenge the rebels; his Council of War deliberated for most of the day on what action to take. Eventually the Carews had their way and it was decided to attack the enemy the following day.
Russell's soldiers surprised at spoil by Cornish archers
Lord Russell's men victorious
The number of fatalities on the Royalist side is not stated by Hooker but is assumed (in secondary sources) to be no more than 100. In this encounter, as in the other major battles, the rebels were numerically inferior. The detachment holding the bridge were probably all Devonshire men who posed less of a threat to Russell's forces than the Cornishmen who arrived later and were possibly armed with longbows. Nevertheless, on the day the arquebus proved its superiority to the arrow.
Emboldened by the victory over the rebels at Fenny Bridges, Lord Russell gave chase to the fleeing stragglers for three miles and was set to advance to Exeter to lift the siege when his household fool Joll suddenly appeared on horseback warning of impending danger from the rear. Joll had remained in Honiton, and with rumours rife in the febrile atmosphere, the ringing of church bells had been misinterpreted by him as the rebels' alarm signal for an impending assault on the loyalist forces. Russell, believing the threat to be real, cautiously withdrew his men to their base in Honiton.
Russell sent messages to the mayor of Exeter urging him to be patient, promising to relieve the siege of the city within days. Some severe summer storms probably delayed his departure from Honiton for a few more days.
Further encounters at Woodbury Common and Clyst St Mary
More reinforcements arrive
Shortly after the Royalist success at Fenny Bridges Lord Russell's army was strengthened by the arrival of Lord Grey de Wilton with 250 horse and a further 80 of Spinola's arquebusiers. The composition and size of Russell's forces at this time is somewhat uncertain; Hooker was holed up in Exeter and his figure of "about 1000 fighting men" is almost certainly too low. Julian Cornwall in his Revolt of the Peasantry 1549 estimates that the strength of the Lord Privy Seal's army was by then upwards of 3000 men of which just under half were foreigner mercenariesnote4.
The army was organized in three divisions or 'battles': the vanguard would have included Lord Grey's horse and Spinola's arquebusiers, while the other two divisions would most likely have comprised the German Landsknechte, and the locally recruited foot possibly under the command of Sir Peter Carew. Cornwall suggests that after the vanguard division had reached the mill, Spinola recommended to Lord Russell that they continue their advance towards Clyst St Mary, not waiting for the infantry to arrive, thereby hoping to surprise the enemy. If this is so, then the battle that took place that day on the common, as described briefly by Hooker, was between Russell's forward division on the move, and the rebels advancing towards them.
Royalist forces triumph once again at Woodbury Common
Following this latest victory Lord Russell's chaplain Miles Coverdale, a militant Protestant preacher who was subsequently ordained as Bishop of Exeter in place of Veysey, gave a sermon of general thanksgiving. The distant sound of troops on the move interrupted his words, galvanizing the cavalry to remount and prepare to counter a fresh attack. It soon became evident the it was simply the main rebel force regrouping at Clyst St Mary.
The battle of Clyst St Mary begins
Early the following morning Russell's army assembled and set off on the three mile march to Clyst St Mary. The rebels had worked hard overnight, building fresh ramparts to extend the defensive line to the east of the village. This line followed the deep lane that ran between high banks down to Grindle Brook.
Lord Russell's forces retreat ignominiously after false alarm
This was probably the decisive moment of the campaign: for want of a few hundred cavalry, the rebels were unable to pursue the Royalist army retreating in disarray. Once they had realised there was no threat from the rear they reformed and embarked upon a fresh assault of the village. The rebels had regrouped behind the original front line, occupying the village houses as strongpoints, but the mercenaries exposed these positions as vulnerable by igniting the thatched roofs.
The battle is rejoined in earnest and rebels defeated once again
The bridge over the River Clyst is taken
With Russell's army in control of the town, the surviving rebels made good their escape across the bridge which was blocked with felled trees and defended by a cannon manned by a solitary gunner. Lord Grey was keen to get his cavalry to the open fields of Clyst Heath by fording the river, but the tidal surge in the river made this unsafe. A local man, John Yarde, came to their aid, recalling that there was a shallower crossing further upstream that could be utilised for the horse. Nevertheless, it was necessary to clear the bridge to allow the infantry to cross.
Slaughter of prisoners at Clyst Heath
Gazing across to Woodbury Hill from Clyst Heath, Grey thought he could make out a sizeable formation of armed men marching towards Clyst St Mary. He feared that the many prisoners taken in battle at the mill and in the fighting in the village might escape and rejoin their comrades should there be a further engagement with the rebels. He gave orders for all the prisoners to be killed forthwith. This was the signal for a most grisly spectacle as the captors slit the throats of the several hundred hapless captives.
Rebels return to the fray next morning
Lord Russell's forces had camped overnight on the high ground of Clyst Heath. Meanwhile, Arundell having heard news of the bloody events of the day before, summoned all the remaining rebels including those dug in round the walls of Exeter for one last thrust against the Royalists. The aim was to strike first thing in the morning from lower down the heath, hoping to catch their opponents unprepared. At daybreak the rebels discharged their ordnance at the bivouacked army who in response quickly separated into the usual three divisions for a counterattack. Russell's division, being to the left in an enclosed position, was unable to get at the enemy.
Lord Russell relieves Exeter at long last
With the crushing of the remnants of the insurgents, it appeared to Lord Russell that the rebellion was now over. He marched his army in orderly fashion the short distance to Topsham where they remained overnight. The body of Sir William Francis, the highest ranking Royalist casualty of the campaign, was carried in a horse litter for subsequent burial with full military honours in Exeter cathedral.
On hearing of their latest defeat and the imminent arrival of Russell's army, the last of the rebels manning the walls outside the city melted away, fearing for their own safety. The gentlemen who had been imprisoned in churches and other places outside the city, having been freed, went to the gates and informed the watch that the siege was now lifted. They in turn passed this news to the mayor.
For want of provisions within the city for his army, the Lord Privy Seal was urged to set up camp outside the walls where he raised the red dragon of the King's Standard. The mayor and his aldermen came out to greet Russell who thanked them for their loyalty and steadfastness, saying that the king would reward them amply, which in due course he did. Amongst other privileges granted to the city by the crown, they were allowed to reclaim the Manor of Exe Island which had been seized from them by the Earls of Devon. Sir William Herbert arrived with his Welsh levies shortly afterwards. They were too late to participate in battle, but showed considerable enthusiasm for plundering the neighbouring countryside to gather badly needed victuals for the starving citizens and Russell's hungry combatants, so that within two days the city was fully restocked.
Russell remained at Exeter for twelve days, ordering the meting out of summary justice to those deemed to have been rebel ringleaders while pardoning those who played a minor role provided they pledged their loyalty to the crown and the new religion.
Sites of major battles leading up to the relief of Exeter
The map shows the sites of the decisive battles between the rebels and the forces of the crown led by Lord Russell prior to the relief of Exeter during the Prayer Book Rebellion.
|Russell's retinue and local horse||300|
|Grey's English horse||250|
|2 ensigns of landsknechts(say)||850|
|Somerset and Dorset levies(say)||1,000|