The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549

Phase one: from resistance to the Reformation in West Cornwall in late 1547 to the advance on Exeter in June 1549


Henry VIII and Catholicism

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 Pope.

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.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
Protestantism in ascendancy after death of Henry VIII

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 reign.

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 end. [ibid.]
The young King Edward VI

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]

The first stirrings in the far West

Insurrection in Helston

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 Councilnote1. 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
Retribution is harsh for some

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.

West View of Launceston Castle by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 1734

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.

The Cornish rebellion gathers strength and spreads to Devon

The Book of Common Prayer is imposed

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 in Mid-Devon.

The Cornish rebels assemble near Bodmin

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 hospitality.

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 Michael's Mount.

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, p155]

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.

The Sampford Courtenay uprising begins

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. [Cornwall, p36]

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

St Andrew's Church, Sampford Courtenay

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' cause.

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 note5who '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].

Plaque in Sampford Courtenay commemorating the Prayer Book Rebellion

Church House, Sampford Courtenay

The outside steps of Church House, Sampford Courtenay, on which William Hellyons was struck with a bill-hook.

Rebels seize control of Crediton

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 ways.
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, p39-40]

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 the insurrection.

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]

Route of rebel advance and battle sites

The map shows the paths taken by the Cornish rebels(red) and Devonshire rebels(black) during June 1549 and the principal battle sites.

major battle - site of a major battle
minor skirmish - 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 Article 8:
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 2 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). [return]
Following Hooker, Jenkins names Hellions' assailant as Githbridge; I have used the widely accepted name of Lithibridge instead. [return]
This village is now called Clyst St Mary. [return]


Primary source.
The ancient history and description of the city of Exeter by John Hooker, Andrews and Trewman, Exeter, 1765. This book is a compilation of earlier writings of Hooker and others.
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.
Secondary sources.
Tudor Cornwall by A L Rowse, 2nd Edition, Macmillan, 1969.
The Western Rising 1549: The Prayer Book Rebellion by Philip Caraman, Westcountry Books, 1994.
Tudor Rebellions by Anthony Fletcher, 2nd Edition, Longmans, 1973.
Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549 by Julian Cornwall, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.
The Survey of Cornwall by Richard Carew, New Edition, London, 1769.
The History and Description of the City of Exeter by Alexander Jenkins, Exeter, 1806.


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.