The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549

Phase two: events leading up to the siege of Exeter

hostility against the gentry spreads

The rumour that the burning of the barn in Crediton was a deliberate act of arson spread rapidly through the Devon villages; the ire of the common people was now directed against the Protestant gentry. Hooker relates this incident involving Walter Raleigh, father of the illustrious Elizabethan seafarer, who happened to be passing Clyst St Mary where the Devon rebels had rallied and were beginning to fortify their position.

It was a holy day and Walter was on his way to Exeter from his home nearby when he passed an old woman going towards the parish church with a pair of beads in her hand. He asked her what she did with the beads and then began to chastise her for showing disrespect for the religious reforms that were now enshrined in law, warning her that she would be punished if she disobeyed these laws.

The old woman not liking this, nor well digesting the matter, as soon as she came to the parish church where all the parishioners were met to assist at the service; and being impatient, and in an agony, at the speeches that passed between her and the gentleman, began to make a great stir in the open church, using very harsh and unseemly speeches concerning religion; saying that she was threatened by the gentleman that unless she would leave her beads, and give over using holy bread and holy water, her house, and all their houses would be burnt, and themselves despoiled of every thing. These and many other false speeches, which never in the least passed between the gentleman and herself, she there uttered. However, she had no sooner spoken than she was believed; and in all haste, like a sort of wasps, they flung out of the church, and went to the town, which was not far from thence, round which they began to dig trenches, and to fortify themselves; at the same time sending to all parts of the country and account of these their doings; whereupon great numbers of others joined them. [Hooker, p42]

They erected barricades on the bridge crossing the River Clyst on the road to Exeter, using felled trees and munitions taken from the nearby naval base at Topsham to strengthen the blockade. Meanwhile, some of the rebels chased after Raleigh and intercepted him. They would quite likely have murdered him on the spot had he not been rescued by some mariners from Exmouth. He was later recaptured and held prisoner in the tower of St Sidwell's church outside the city walls of Exeter for the duration of the rebellion.

Lord Russell sent to quell the unrest

News having reached Protector Somerset and the Council of the deteriorating security situation in Devon, on June 20th John Russell the Lord Privy Seal was appointed by the Council to represent them in the region. He was directed to:

...reside for a time in the west parts of his Majesty's realm as well for the good governance of his highness' counties of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, and Dorset, in good order and quiet, as also for the better defence of his highness' loving subjects in the same shyres in case of any invasion or other attemptats by foregn ennemies...[Pocock, p8-9]

Somerset was reluctant to redeploy the mercenary forces he was readying for war against Scotland and was concerned that the French might use the turmoil in the Westcountry to mount an invasion. Denied a supporting army, Russell was told to adopt a conciliatory tone towards the rebels, so as to bring the restive people to such conformitie as appertayneth by travayl and gentle persuasions [ibid.]. If this approach did not prevail, only then should he:

Lord Protector, Edward Seymour
John Russell, Lord Privy Seal force of his majesty's commyssion to him addressed for this purpose, assemble such nombers of men, within the limits of his commission, as may be able both to repress the obstinate and willful doings, and bring them to the knowledging of ther bounden dueties, and be also an example to others to attempt the like. [ibid.]

Russell was a natural choice for this role, having lead the short-lived Council of the West in 1540. On his current mission he was accompanied by Miles Coverdale, a former Augustinian friar who was now a militant Protestant preacher. With insufficient fighting men to take on the rebels camped outside Exeter, Russell's party remained at Honiton awaiting the promised reinforcements.

further attempts at mediation founder

Having been apprised of the latest developments, on June 23rd Sir Peter Carew mustered the justices and others who set off for Clyst St Mary with the intention of persuading the rebels to disperse peacefully. On arrival Sir Peter dismounted and walked on foot towards the fortified bridge. Because of his anti-Catholic stance and his role in the recent burning of the barns in Crediton, he was despised by those manning the barricades and his life was in imminent danger.

..the gunner, one John Hamon, an alien, and a smith then living at Woodbury, not far from Clyst, charged his piece, and levelled the same at Sir Peter; and would have fired had not one Hugh Osborne, then servant to Sergeant Prideaux, prevented him. [Hooker, p44]
Sir Peter Carew

Sir Peter immediately withdrew and they sent in a messenger to inform the rebels that they only intended to engage in friendly discourse with them and listen to their grievances. In reply, they agreed to hold talks, but only with Sir Hugh Pollard, Sir Thomas Denys of Bicton, and Thomas Yarde of Bradley: the others including the Carews were to remain on the opposite side of the bridge.

These proposals being agreed to, the three gentlemen went into the town about 10 o'clock in the forenoon, and there tarried the greatest part of the day; and although they had talked a great deal to these people, it availed nothing, so obstinately bent were they to follow the wicked councils of many seditious persons they had among them. [ibid.]

Carew and the others became increasingly restless as the day wore on; with no indication as to how the discussions were progressing they were minded to send a small party across the bridge to investigate. The friends and servants of the three negotiators were strongly opposed to this, as this breach of promise would put Pollard and his companions in mortal danger, and this opinion prevailed. Eventually one or two of Carew's party moved down river and tested the depth of the water with their staves, but they were spotted by a lookout and the alarm was raised. Denys and the other two gentlemen felt imperilled in the ensuing commotion.

Nevertheless, the conference here ended, and they were suffered to return to the gentlemen. Sir Peter Carew, as soon as he had seen them, asked how they had succeeded; who answered, well enough. And giving no other answer they all rode back to Exeter, deferring the discoursing on the matter until they came thither. Having all supped together the same night; after supper was ended and the servants gone out of the room, Sir Peter demanded of them what they had done, and what agreement they had made with the people at Clyst. They answered, that the commons had promised to keep themselves in peaceable order for the future, and attempt nothing further, provided the King and his Council would not alter the religion of the country, but suffer it to remain in the same state as King Henry VIII had left it, until the King himself came to full age. Sir Peter Carew and the rest of the company, not liking this answer, which was very different from what they expected, were for some time in a great dump thereat; but having recovered themselves, Sir Peter Carew, and Sir Peerce Courtneie, then Sheriff of Devon, openly reproved them in very harsh terms, greatly blaming them for their lukewarmness in so weighty a cause; when they ought rather to have exerted the utmost endeavours towards the quelling of these outrages, than any way seem to have countenanced the rioters in their follies. [Hooker, p45-46]

Most of the gentlemen set out the following morning to return to their homes, but several were apprehended and imprisoned; a few avoided capture by going into hiding. Sir Peter Carew departed very early from the Mermaid Inn, where they had stayed overnight. Finding one route unblocked he was able to make his way unimpeded to meet up with Lord Russell who had by now reached Hinton St George in Somerset. A few of the gentlemen had remained in Exeter and they alerted the mayor John Blackaller that the rebels had not been pacified, and the city was in danger. The mayor immediately cancelled the annual midsummer's eve celebrations and set about preparing for the defence of the city.

On hearing Carew's account of the worsening situation, Russell urged him to report back to the Council immediately. To his surprise and dismay he was severely reprimanded by Somerset and the Lord Chancellor Richard Rich for being insufficiently conciliatory in his dealings with the rebels.

The Protector charged him with being responsible for the commotion by burning the barns at Crediton; and the Lord Chancellor said he had exceeded his warrant and could by law be hanged for his doings. Sir Peter defended himself hotly and so insisted of the dangerous state of affairs that in the end he was promised reinforcements of men and money to return to the west country. [Rowse, p268]

On his return Sir Peter found that Russell and his party had moved across the Devon border and set up camp in Honiton, some 20 miles from Exeter, where they remained awaiting the promised reinforcements.

the rebels' final demands

The people of Devon had now been joined at Clyst St Mary by the larger and better armed contingent from Cornwall under Sir Humphrey Arundell. Before advancing with the intention of laying siege to Exeter should the city refuse to join the rebellion, a final list of demands was drawn up consisting of a number of Articles. Several versions exist with differing text and number of items; the longest list contains the 16 items tabulated below. The left-hand column has the Articles with the original spelling; an equivalent with contemporary spelling appears alongside.

The Articles of us the Commoners of Devonshire and Cornwall in divers Campes by East and West of Excettor. [note1]

1. Fyrst we wyll have the general counsall and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed, and who so ever shal agayne saye them, we hold them as Heretikes.

l. We will have all the general councils and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed, and whosoever shall gainsay them, we hold as heretics.

2. Item we wiil have the Lawes of our Soverayne Lord Kyng Henry the viii concernynge the syxe articles, to be in use again, as in hys time they were.

2. We will have the laws of our sovereign lord King Henry VIII concerning the six articles to be used again as in his time they were. [note2]

3. Item we will have the masse in Latten, as was before, and celebrated by the Pryest wythoute any man or woman communycatyng wyth hym.

3. We will have the Mass in Latin as it was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with him.

4. Item we will have the Sacrement hange over the hyeyhe aulter, and there to be worshypped as it was wount to be, and they whiche will not therto consent, we wyl have them dye lyke heretykes against the holy Catholyque fayth.

4. We will have the sacrament hung over the high altar, and thus be worshipped as it was wont to be, and they which do not thereunto consent, we will have them die like heretics against the holy Catholic faith.

5. Item we wyll have the Sacramet of the aulter but at Easter delyvered to the lay people, and then but in one kynde.

5. We will have the sacrament of the altar but at Easter delivered to the people, and then but in one kind.

6. ltem we wil that our Curattes shal minister the Sacramet of Baptisme at all tymes aswel in the weke daye as on the holy daye.

6. We will that our curates shall minister the sacrament of baptism at all times, as well on the week days as on the holy days.

7. Item we wyl have holy bread and holy water made every sondaye, Palmes and asshes at the tymes accustomed, Images to be set up again in every church, and all other auncient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

7. We will have holy bread and holy water made every Sunday, palms and ashes at the times accustomed, images to be set up again in every church, and all other ancient ceremonies held heretofore by our Mother the Holy Church.

8. Item we wil 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 Latten not in English, as it was before. And so we the Cornyshe men (whereof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.

8. We will not receive the new service because it is but like a Christmas game. We will have our old service of matins, Mass, evensong and procession as it was before; and we Cornishmen, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse the new English.

9. Item we wyll have everye preacher in his sermon, and every Pryest at hys masse, praye specially by name for the soules in purgatory, as oure forefathers dyd.

9. We will have every preacher in his sermon, and every priest at the Mass pray, especially by name, for the souls in purgatory as our forefathers did.

10. Item we wyll have the whole Byble and al bokes of scripture in Englysh to be called in agayn, fol we be enformed that otherwise the Clergye, shal not of log time confound the heretykes.

10. We will have the Bible and all books of scripture in English called in again, for we be informed that otherwise the clergy shall not of long time confound the heretics

11. Item we wyll have Doctor Moreman and Doctor Crispin which holde our opinions to be savely sent unto us and to them we requyre the Kinges maiesty, to geve some certain lyvinges, to preach amonges us our Catholycke fayth.

11. We will have Doctor Moreman and Doctor Crispin, which hold our opinions, to be safely sent unto us, and to them we require the King's Majesty to give some certain livings to preach among us our Catholic faith. [note3]

12. Item we thinke it very mete because the lord Cardinal Pole is of the kynges bloode, should not only have hys free pardon, but also sent for to Rome and promoted to be first or secod of the kinges cousayl.

12. We think it meet, because the Lord Cardinal Pole is of the King's blood, that he should not only have his pardon, but also be sent for from Rome, and promoted to be of the King's Council.

13. Item we wyll that no Gentylman shall have anye mo servantes then one to wayte upo hym excepte he maye dispende one hundreth marke land and for every hundreth marke we thynke it reasonable, he should have a man and no mo.

13. We will that no gentleman shall have any more servants than one to wait upon him, except he may dispend of a hundred marks in land, and for every hundred marks we think it reasonable that he should have a man.

14. Item we wyll that the halfe parte of the abbey landes and Chauntrye landes, in everye mans possessyons, how so ever he cam by them, be geven again to two places, where two of the chief Abbeis was with in every Countye, where suche half part shalbe taken out, and there to be establyshed a place for devout persons, whych shall pray for the Kyng and the common wealth, and to the same we wyll have al the almes of the Churche box geven for these seven yeres, and for thys article we desire that we may name half of the Commissioners.

14. We will that the half part of the abbey lands and chantry lands in every man's possession, however he came by them, be given again to the places where two of the chief abbeys were within every county where such half part shall be taken out; and there to be established a place for devout persons, which shall pray for the King and the Commonwealth, and to the same we will have all the alms of the church box given for seven years, and for this article we desire to name half the Commissioners. [note4]

15. Item for the particular grieffes of our Countrye, we wyll have them so ordered, as Hunfreye Arundell, and Henry Braye the Kynges Maior of Bodma, shall enforme the Kynges Maiestye, yf they maye have salve-coduct under the Kynges great Seale, to passe and repasse, with an Heroalde of Armes.

15. For the particular griefs of our country, we will have them ordered as Humphry Arundell and Henry Bray, the King's Mayor of Bodmin, shall inform the King's Majesty, if they may have a safe conduct in the King's great seal to pass and repass with an herald of arms. [note5]

16. Item for the performance of these articles we will have iiii Lordes viii Knightes xii Esquyers xx Yome, pledges with us untill the Kynges Maiestie have grounted al these by Parliament.

16. For the performance of these articles we will have four lords, eight knights, twelve esquires, and twenty yeomen pledged unto us until the King's Majesty have granted all these by Parliament. [note6]

The articles were signed by the five 'chiefe captaynes' and 'the foure Governours of the Campes'. The governors were Henry Bray, Major of Bodmin, Henry Lee, Mayor of Torrington, and Roger Barrett and John Thompson who were priests; the chief captain signatories were Humphrey Arundell, John Bury, John Sloeman, Thomas Underhill, and William Segar. Bury of Silverton in the Exe Valley was second in command to Arundell, making him leader of the Devon contingent. Underhill and Segar were ring-leaders of the Sampford Courtenay uprising.

The Articles amounted to more than a renunciation of all the changes in religious practice imposed since the last days of Henry VIII's reign: a pathetic manifesto of Catholic reaction according to Rowse[p271]. They stopped short of demanding the restoration of Papal authority, though Julian Cornwall suggests that the reinstatement of Cardinal Pole (the Catholic leader in exile and former Dean of Exeter cathedral) would be tantamount to this. The demands were not dismissed out of hand by the leadership in London and three separate responses were drafted.

Although the authorities could not bargain with traitors, the Articles were treated with great seriousness, and at least three official replies were drawn up. The Lord Protector addressed himself directly to the rebels in a reasoned statement couched in the language of sorrow rather than anger, urging them to abandon the course of disaster before it was too late. The divines Cranmer and Nicholas Udall - the latter commissioned by the Council to make an 'independent' critique - were concerned to refute the militant Catholic line and justify the Protestant position at large. [Cornwall, p 116]

Article 13, uniquely of a secular nature, was the most surprising. Limiting the number of servants that a gentleman may employ seemed contrary to the usual complaint of the peasantry that they didn't hire as many as they could afford to, leading to underemployment and its attendant poverty. Their intention may have been to reduce the number of men that the gentry could mobilize to forcibly impose their will on the populace.

the siege begins

The Banner of the Five Wounds

Mayor Blackaller and his aldermen steadfastly refused to join the rebels, more out of loyalty to king and country than for their attachment to Protestantism. So on July 2nd with some 2000 men (in Hooker's estimation) Arundell moved forward towards the city, marching under the Banner of the Five Wounds that had been adopted 13 years earlier in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The suburbs were soon under rebel control and they set up camps encircling the city walls from St David's Down on the north-west, by St Sidwell's to the north, and along the Southernhay as far as Westgate.

The identity of five young men who joined one of these camps are known to us thanks to the diligence of a 16th century priest and the scholarship of historian Eamon Duffy. The small community of Morebath on the edge of Exmoor was served from 1520 to 1574 by the same parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, whose records on behalf of the churchwardens went far beyond the usual dry book-keeping; they provided a vivid insight into the lives and doings of the inhabitants of a single Devon village as they experienced the upheavals of the Reformation.

In The Voices of Morebath [Duffy, p136] attention is drawn to a mistake in Binney's earlier transcription of Trychay's accounts[3] that led other historians to overlook the reference to payments being made for the expenses of five named individuals from the village who were to join the rebel camp at St David's Down in July of 1549: Binney had transcribed sent davys down as sent denys down. Trychay later attempted to cross out the incriminating references to 'camppe' in the parish records, but the words are still identifiable. Duffy[p135] lays out the evidence that of the five who joined the rebels only two ever returned.


The version of the Articles quoted here was transcribed from the Lambeth Palace Library copy by Rose-Troup[5, Appendix K] and again by Fletcher[7, Document 12] who mentions that the 16th Article was added from the copy in Corpus Christy College, Oxford. [return]
'six articles' refers to The Six Articles of Religion, known colloquially as the whip with six strings on account of the severity of the penalties for transgression. [return]
Doctor Moreman and Doctor Crispin, former canons of Exeter, were imprisoned in the Tower of London for their sermons denouncing the Reformation. [return]
The return of half the seized chantry and abbey lands would have the effect of saving at least so many fabrics from destruction, so many 'rare ruined choirs': in Cornwall, Bodmin and Launceston, in Devon, Plympton and Tavistock, in Somerset, Glastonbury [Rowse, p272]. [return]
Asking for safe passage for the Cornishmen Arundell and mayor Bray and no others reinforces the view that the final Articles were biased towards the demands of the rebels from that county. [return]
The final Article, which may have been conveyed to Somerset verbally, asks that the specified number of hostages may be held until the demands pass into law. [return]


Primary sources.
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.
Troubles Connected with the Prayer Book of 1549 - Original documents and letters edited by Nicholas Pocock, Camden Society, London, 1884.
The Accounts of the Wardens of the Parish of Morebath, Devon. 1520-1573 transcribed by J Erskine Binney, J Commin, Exeter, 1904. [return]
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 Voices of Morebath - Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 2001.