The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549

Phase three: the siege of Exeter

The siege of Exeter

Arundell decides Exeter must be taken

This was a critical moment for the rebel leader Humphrey Arundell. His first attempt at persuading Exeter's mayor John Blackaller to join the rebellion had fallen on deaf ears. Now he had to decide whether or not to leave a contingent of his forces to hold Exeter while the remainder marched to London to deliver their demands to the king. Given the size of his army and the rudimentary weaponry at their disposal, he must have decided that this would leave both detachments overexposed: he chose instead to deploy the entire rebel army in laying siege to the city, a fateful decision as it transpired.

The siege proved to be the turning point of the campaign and the ruination of his plans, for it meant surrendering the initiative and granting the government a desperately needed breathing space during which to mobilise and take the measures to confine the operations to the south-western peninsula. [Cornwall, p101]
rebels count on an early surrender

The mayor was given an ultimatum by the leaders of the seditious horde assembled outside the city walls. Unless he and the city's council would pledge unconditional support for the rebels' demand for the reinstatement of the former religious practices, the city would remain under siege until they capitulated.

Blackaller's resolve did not weaken and this new entreaty was summarily dismissed. Just as when confronted by Perkin Warbeck's rebel army 52 years earlier, the people of Exeter in backing their mayor's defiant stance once again demonstrated their loyalty to the crownnote1.

Aware that the majority of Exeter's citizens sided with them in matters of religion, the rebels hoped that many would soon defect to their cause, leading to the fall of the city before long. This would give them access to a plentiful supply of arms and victuals, as well as potential recruits that they desperately needed if they were to stand any chance against the inevitable challenge from the forces of the crown under Lord Russell who was then at Honiton awaiting reinforcements.

The mayor and his brethren returned the same answer as before; adding withal, that they were bad and wicked men, and that they reputed them as enemies, and rebels against God, their king, and their country; and therefore resolved to hold no further correspondence with them.
Hereupon the rebels laid siege to the city, as before mentioned, so as to take by force that which by words they could not obtain; and notwithstanding the answer they received to their second message, entertained great hopes that they should meet with little resistance, especially as the greatest part of the citizens were of the same opinion, in matters of religion, with themselves; and also having with them many friends, who would readily join them, if they might have liberty to follow their own inclinations. [Hooker, p67-68]
immediate preparations by the besieged and the besiegers
Hooker's map of Exeter in 1563
Hooker's 1563 map of the walled city of Exeter viewed from the west. The bridge over the River Exe carrying the road to the West Gate is seen in the foreground.

The rebel force - some 2000 strong by Hooker's estimate - immediately surrounded the boundary walls and overran the suburbs; so confident were they of the imminent surrender of the city that many urged their wives to bring horses with panniers each day in readiness to enter the city, and measure velvets and silks by the bow, and to load their horses with plate, money, and other great riches; which they reckon'd only a part of its spoils. [Hooker, p68]. The rebel army was too small to encircle the city; instead they set up a series of camps: one outside each of the gates, and some elsewhere, totalling eight in all.

Meanwhile the mayor and his officials began to organize the defence of the city.
For this purpose the city was searched for arms, captains appointed in every ward, soldiers taken into pay, warders for the day, & watchmen for the night assigned to their several stations; great pieces of ordnance planted at every gate, and in all convenient places upon the walls; huge mounts raised in sundry parts of the city, both to save soldiers and watchmen from the shot of the enemy, and to mount heavy cannon thereon; and every precaution taken, which the exigency of affairs seemed to render necessary or expedient. [Hooker, p68-69]

The rebels knocked down several bridges, and felled trees which they used to block roads leading to the city. Guards were placed at the various entrances; no-one could pass to or from the city without permission, leaving the citizens to survive on their existing food stocks. The pipes and conduits providing the city's water supply were dismantled and melted down to make lead shot.

Having by this means stopped the ordinary course of the markets, and prevented all kinds of provisions being carried into the city, and penned up the townsmen (so they bragged) as in a coop or a mew, they planted their cannon against every gate, and in all such places as they thought would do most execution against the city and those who were within it; at the same time burning the gates... [Hooker, p69]

The defenders used the burning of the gates to their own advantage by extending the fires inside the walls as far as the hastily erected mounts with cannons on top that were proving more effective as a means of repelling the rebels than the gates themselves.

hostilities between the opposing parties
15th C. house on Stepcote Hill, Exeter
A surviving example of Exeter's Tudor past is this 15th century merchant's house at the bottom of Stepcote Hill which was the main route into the city from the West Gate at this time.

The rebels had in their midst some Cornish tinners with experience of setting explosive charges who were put to work in a vain attempt to breach the enclosing walls and gates. Hooker relates an incident in which an attempt to blow up the West Gate by igniting gunpowder, pitch, and other combustible matter placed underneath it was thwarted by the actions of a tinner, one John Newcombe from Teignmouth. Newcombe was within the city on the night that these explosives were to have been set off. He had some obligation to an alderman and one-time mayor called William Hurst and he confided in him as to what the rebels were planning and how it could be prevented. That Stepcote Hill is very steep and leads down to the West Gate is pertinent.

Understanding the designs of the enemy, he told the said Mr Hurst he would endeavour to frustrate their scheme; which he effected in this manner: hearing a noise under ground, he takes a pan of water, and by removing it from place to place, came at length to the very spot where the miners were working; which he knew for certain by the shaking of the water in the pan. Immediately on this discovery he set about counter-mining them; which he did to so good purpose, that in a little time he could and actually did look into their workings. He then caused every inhabitant who lived in any of the streets that had a fall or descent into the said West Gate, to place at his fore-door a great tub or tubs filled with water, and all the wells and tirpits in these streets to be drawn off, and emptied at one and the same instant that the tubs of water were overset; which running in great abundance towards the said gate, was presently conveyed to the place counter-mined, and there entered the places first mined. The great goodness of God was also further to be observed and admired upon this occasion; for just at the time that the wells were draining off, there fell so great a shower of rain, that, (for the time it lasted) the like had not been remembered for many years. [Hooker, p70-71]

Following this setback they tried various stratagems intended to alarm the citizens such as threatening to assault the city by scaling the walls using ladders, or attempting to burn the gates using carts loaded with dry hay which they ignited. The defenders countered this last ploy resolutely.

both at the South and West Gates their coming being one time perceived, the heavy cannonnote2 there planted were charged with great bags of flint stones and hail-shot; and as they approached, the gates were secretly opened, and the said cannon discharged with so good success, that some of them were killed, and divers much wounded; by which means those who escaped had but little stomachs left to come again upon the like enterprises. Nevertheless the citizens, in order to prevent any other attempts of this kind, caused the gates to be left open. [Hooker, p71]

Snipers were positioned in some of the suburban houses, especially behind the West Gate, as Stepcote Hill rose so steeply that its houses were visible behind the wall. To stamp this out the citizens made sorties into these locations to destroy the snipers' houses by fire or other means.

At other times, parties of the said rebels would hide themselves in such of the houses in the suburbs as were nearest the walls; and from thence so closely watched the garrets, that it was with the utmost danger any citizen would venture to look out, as some people had been killed by them. This occasioned therefore a great part of the suburbs to be set on fire, and those houses from which the rebels fired into the garrets to be batter'd down, in order to drive them from their hiding-places. [Hooker, p71-72]
engraving from a 1765 drawing of Exeter's West Gate

A skilful Breton gunner had been firing into the city with deadly accuracy from his emplacement on St David's Hill overlooking the North Gate, killing at least one resident. Emboldened by this success, he put to the rebel commanders his plan to burn the city to the ground using a barrage of incendiary shot; this was well received and preparations were made for its execution. That it never came to pass was solely due to this heartfelt appeal against such a callous action by Robert Welsh, vicar of St Thomas, Exe Island:

For (saith he) do what you can by policy, force, or dint of sword to take the city, I will join with you, and do my best; but to burn a city, which be hurtful to all men, and good to no man, I will never consent thereto, but will stand here with all my power against you. [Hooker, p102]

Welsh, from Penryn in Cornwall, was highly regarded for his physical prowess as well as his intellect. He paid the ultimate price in the final reckoning for his part in the hanging of a Protestant spy called Kyngeswell who was caught delivering letters from his master to Lord Russell in Honiton. This man had been closely watched for some time, and as he was known for his strongly held reformist views he was the object of much loathing among the Catholic insurgents. He was tried by Welsh, who acted as a magistrate for the rebels, and was condemned to death. He was hanged from a tree on Exe Island close to the West Gate.

communications between rebels and the besieged

Given that so many of the besieged were with the rebels in spirit, it is unsurprising that they should have tried to make contact with those without, and treachery was often suspected. Special measures were taken by the city's leaders to keep a lid on this as far as was possible.

There was a certain amount of communication between the rebels and their friends within the city, secret conferences over the walls, letters smuggled in and out, open parleys in time of truce. ...A special company of about a hundred citizens made a covenant together, besides their ordinary duty, to be always about the city day and night to see that no treachery could be practised: this Hooker regarded as one of the chief means to its preservation. An attempt to gain the castle by corrupting the soldiers was detected just in time. [Rowse, p271]
the spectre of famine

Fortunately for the citizens there were many fresh water springs within the city walls and loss of the regular external supply didn't cause much inconvenience, but as the siege dragged on food shortages caused some hardship and weakened the morale of the townspeople.

In the absence of forewarning no emergency stocks of food had been laid in: the disturbed state of the countryside has rendered any attempts at last minute provisioning impossible. What there was could not be expected to last very long. Lord Russell's information was variously that supplies in hand were sufficient for two days or eight. There was a good store of dried fish, rice, prunes, raisins, and wine in the merchants' warehouses at reasonable prices, but bread and flour were extremely scarce. Bakers and housewives were driven to retrieve puffins, or stale pastry and bran which in normal circumstances were made into feed for horses, swine and poultry; now the mixture was moulded in cloths to hold it together, and baked. [Cornwall, p106]

Of all the privations that the citizens of Exeter had suffered under siege, hunger was becoming the hardest to endure. This was articulated vividly by Hooker.

Besides these and sundry other perils and distresses which the city endured, they were now visited with a calamity more to be dreaded than all the rest, viz. famine, to which none of the others were in the least degree comparable; for no force is feared, no laws observed, no magistrates obeyed, nor the ties of common society regarded, where this plague rages. [Hooker, p83]

With food supplies dwindling the mayor and his brethren were concerned that the common people would be inclined to yield to the rebels, especially as most sympathised will their agenda. With this in mind, Blackaller shrewdly introduced food rationing to mitigate the suffering of the poor.

The probability is that the city would have yielded before this if it had not been for the able rule of the mayor and his brethren. In this emergency they came up to the trust reposed in them and adopted wise measures for dealing with the poor people, where the danger was greatest: first a general rate was imposed for their relief, which was doled out to them each week; such victuals as there were were issued to them free or at a low price; if any cattle came near the walls or anything was captured by a skirmish, it was divided amongst the poor; even the prisoners in gaol had their portions, though they were reduced to horse-flesh. [Rowse, p275-276]
strife within the city during the siege

As the siege dragged on into a second month, a high-profile dispute erupted between two prominent citizens. John Courtenay, son of Sir William Courtenay of Powderham, who urged that sorties from the city into the rebel-held areas should cease as they were too dangerous for the participants. On the other hand, Bernard Duffield, Lord Russell's steward in Exeter, was adamant that such skirmishes yielded much needed victuals and weaponry and should continue. The mayor sided with Courtenay, and Duffield was detained. On hearing of this, his daughter Frances demanded of the mayor that her father be released immediately.

This being refused, she fell into a great rage, and not only uttered many unseemly and disrespectful speeches, but struck the mayor in the face. [Hooker, p81]

In the confusion that followed, the Common Bell was rung and a rumour spread that the mayor had been killed or badly beaten. Being summoned by the bell, volunteers wearing armour hurried to the Guildhall where they saw that the mayor was not harmed. On hearing of the affront to the mayor's dignity, some became agitated and vowed to haul the young lady before the mayor to show repentance. Intent on forestalling any further disturbances, the mayor said he forgave Frances and there was no need for them to fetch her.

On the Sunday before the lifting of the siege a group of Catholics dissenters within the city attempted to raise a mutiny to no avail.

The malcontents within the city, finding that all their secret practises availed them nothing; and persuading themselves, that as they were the greatest number, and most of the poor people began to be faint for lack of food, and quite tired out with being pent up within the walls of the city, so they would consequently take part with the greater number against the lesser; they therefore on a Sunday (being but two days before the deliverance of the city), about eight o'clock in the morning, assembled themselves in companies in every quarter of the city, having their armour on, and their weapons in their hands. Meantime those without the walls were in readiness to assist them, if needful. Then dispersing themselves in every street of the city, they cried out. "Come out these hereticks, and two-penny book-mennote3; where be they? By God's wounds and bloodnote4 we will not be pinned in to serve their turn. We will go out, and in our neighbours; they be honest, good, and godly men." [Hooker, p76]

The mutineers' timing was ill-judged as most of their intended audience was either in church or at home so there was little response apart from a minor disturbance at the South Gate. The mayor and magistrates had been tipped off about this would-be insurrection, and they were able to round up the ring-leaders and confine them to their houses.

the relief of Exeter

Following defeat at the hands of Lord Russell and his largely mercenary army in a series of bloody battles, on August 6th the surviving rebels dispersed and the city was relieved having endured five weeks under siege.

Compared to many others around the world over the ages, this siege was unexceptional for its duration, the hardships and suffering of the besieged population (with the exception of hunger which was becoming increasingly severe by the time the city was liberated), or for the loss of life or casualties on either side. Nevertheless, given that the majority of the 8000 inhabitants of Exeter would have been in sympathy with the rebels' cause, it is remarkable that the city did not succumb within the five weeks of the siege. This must surely be a tribute to the determined leadership of the mayor John Blackaller and his aldermen. What makes the siege especially interesting historically is that we have such a vivid eye-witness account of the unfolding events left to us by that gifted chronicler John Hooker.

The use of the siege as a means of strangling a city into submission still plays its part in contemporary conflicts, despite the availability of powerful of modern weapons. The fragment below comes from a report on the uprising in Libya in the New York Times of April 10th 2011. One big difference between Ajdabiya in 2011 and Exeter in 1549 is that in the former the loyalists are the besiegers, while the rebels are the besieged!

The presence of the loyalists' artillery batteries within range of Ajdabiya has led the rebels to implore NATO to relieve the city before it falls again, or suffers an extended siege.


According to Caraman, many of the citizens switched sides at the last minute.
Blackaller then ordered the five great gates of the city to be closed, but not before a large number of sympathisers had left to join the rebels. [Caraman, p60]
This may well have been a tactical error on their part: by remaining within the city they would be better placed to organize an uprising against the mayor and his councillors, and their presence would have meant the meagre food stocks might have run out, leading to surrender through hunger. [return]
Caraman says that the 'heavy cannon' deployed on the ramparts inside the gates were relics from the previous siege of the city in 1497: "these were guns with a muzzle of 12 inches, with barrels bound together with iron hoops, mounted on a stand of logs. [Caraman, p76]" [return]
Two pence was presumably the cost of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. [return]
"God's wounds and blood" is most likely a reference to the Banner of the Five Wounds, the rebel army's standard. [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.
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.
Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549 by Julian Cornwall, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.


The image of Exeter's ancient Westgate comes from the Devon County Council "Etched on Devon's Memory" collection. It is derived from an 1831 engraving by CJG Sprake.