The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549

Phase five: the rebels' last stand at Sampford Courtenay and the aftermath of the rebellion

Lord Russell remains in Exeter, believing rebellion is over

Russell wasted no time in setting in train stern measures aimed at restoring order in the troubled region. Gallows were erected in Exeter and other places, the intention being to execute a few prominent rebels as a warning to their erstwhile followers, as Protector Somerset had directed. The Council's proclamation permitting the appropriation of the rebels' properties was applied to the principal ringleaders, even though they had not yet been killed or captured. Sir Peter Carew was given all John Winslade's estates in Devon and Cornwall; to Sir Gawen Carew went all of Humphrey Arundell's lands, while William Gibbs, a Carew adherent, picked up all John Bury's property. Many others were given prisoners to ransom for their freedom.

The most high-profile rebel to be hanged in Exeter at this time was Robert Welsh, vicar of St Thomas. He was charged with preaching against the reformed religion and continuing to use the Romish rites and ornaments in his services. He was also implicated in the hanging of Russell's messenger Kyngeswell, and the court-martial sentenced him to death. His execution was entrusted to Bernard Duffield, the leading protestant on the city council; to emphasise the error of Welsh's ways he raised the gallows on the steeple of St Thomas's Church, and strung him up attired in his popish trappings thereby subjecting him to an excruciating lingering death. As a warning to would-be dissenters, his remains were left on the gibbet until 1553 when Catholicism was restored during the reign of Queen Mary I.

[He was] hung in chains, having on his priest's vestments, with a holy bucket, a sprinkling brush, a small bell, a pair of beads, and other Romish articles hung about him; where he remained for a long time. He made little or no confession, but took his death very patiently; and had certainly proved a very useful member of the commonwealth, had not his follies and vices over-balanced his virtues. [Hooker, p102]

Since it was Welsh who dissuaded the rebels from attempting to torch the city during the siege it seems unjust that he should suffer such a cruel and ignominious fate, but these were troubled times and mercy was in short supply.

Meanwhile, in the ten days that Russell had been imposing retributive measures in Exeter, Arundell had been reorganizing what remained of the rebel forces - probably no more than 2000 men - at Sampford Courtenay where they laid a trap for the royal army. The Devon fighters set up camp on a hill to the east of the village commanded by Underhill, Coffin, and John Bury. The camp straddled what is now the main road from North Tawton to Winkleigh. Arundell and his better armed Cornishmen positioned themselves in the village, hoping to surprise the King's forces from the rear.

The Battle of Sampford Courtenay

Battle of Sampford Courtenay, August 17th, 1549

On receiving the unwelcome news of Arundell's regrouping at Sampford Courtney, Lord Russell's army set out from Exeter on August 15th for the rebel encampment, progressing no further than the six miles to Crediton. The royalist forces having been augmented by Herbert's Welshmen now amounted to about 8000 men. They were soon to be joined by a detachment under the command of Sir Anthony Kingston. These gains offset the loss of the two ensigns of landsknechts that Somerset had recalled (after the battle of Clyst Heath) to assist in the suppression of Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk. The next day the vanguard consisting of most of the horse and the arquebusiers reached North Tawton, some 3 miles short of their destination, where they camped overnight. The infantry were strung out some way behind, Russell having delayed his own start.

On the morning of August 17th the scouts encountered a patrol led by the shoemaker Maunders, a signatory to the rebel Articles, who was captured by the River Taw crossing on the western edge of North Tawton. Soon after this, Grey and Herbert who commanded the van were ordered to advance to the camp and prepare their men for an attack on the rebels' well-entrenched position.

They played their ordnance on it until the pioneers made way for an assault on both sides, on one by the mercenary foot and on the other by the Italian arquebusiers. This was pressed home until the rebels withdrew into the village, which they had strengthened.
While Russell was behind with the main body of the army, Arundell suddenly cut in with his detachment upon the rear of the troops attacking the camp: 'the sudden shew of whom wrought such fear in the hearts of our men as we wished our power were a great deal more, not without good cause'. Lord Grey was forced to leave the attack on the camp to Herbert, while he faced about to front Arundell, against whom 'was nothing for an hour but shooting of ordnance to and fro'. Herbert pressed home his attack till he had put the rebels to flight; five or sixnote1 of them were slain in the chase, among them Underhill who had the charge of the camp. On Russell's arrival, the hour waxing late, he ordered an attack on the village on three sides, Herbert and Kingston on one, Grey in the middle, himself on the other: evidently in order of battle. Seeing themselves about to be overwhelmed, the rebels broke and fled without further fighting. In the chase that followed seven were killed, a much larger number taken prisoner, 'great execution had followed had not the night come on so fast'. Many got away including Arundell. All that night, fearing a renewed attack, Russell's company sat on horseback. [Rowse, p281]

The rebellion is over

After a brief but hopeless attempt to rally the retreating rebels at Okehampton, Arundell sped across the Cornish border to Launceston where Sir Richard Grenville and other gentry were still languishing in gaol. Arundell in desperation tried to stir the citizens to assassinate these worthies; sensing the futility of further acts of insurrection, they opted to release Grenville and the others instead who in turn set about arresting the leading rebels including Arundell, William Winslade, and Holmes, thereby extinguishing this rebellion in Cornwall once and for all.

Retribution is harsh

Fleeing Devonshire rebels hunted down

The rump of the defeated Devonshire rebels under John Bury and Coffin made their way to Tiverton in an attempt to escape along the Exe Valley towards Somerset. A strong detachment under Sir William Herbert was sent in pursuit. The main body were finally overcome near King's Weston in Somerset on August 27th by a detachment led by Sir Hugh Paulet and Sir Peter Carew. One hundred and four prisoners were taken including Coffin. To give a stern warning to the local population, one or two of the prisoners (Coffin being among them) were hanged in the principal market towns of the county including Bath, Frome, Shepton Mallet, Ilminster, and Wells. The rest were released in batches.

Kingston pacifies the Cornish rebels mercilessly

Lord Russell appointed Sir Anthony Kingston as provost marshal with responsibility for rounding up and punishing the leading lights of the rebellion in Cornwall, including many parish priests. He appears to have discharged his duties with great relish, in the process acquiring a reputation for black humour bordering on the sick. Paraphrasing the original account in Grafton's Chronicle note4, Hooker gives two illustrations of his macabre brutality.

The first of these concerns the mayor of Bodmin, Nicholas Boyer (or Bowyer), a reluctant rebel who may have been coerced into supporting the cause. He replaced Henry Bray who had disappeared, possibly killed during battle. Kingston was told that Boyer had been 'a busy fellow among the rebels' and sought him out.

Hereupon Sir Anthony sent to acquaint him, that he and some other gentlemen would dine with him upon such a day. The Mayor, seeming to be proud thereof, made great preparation against the time. According to appointment, Sir Anthony and his company went to the Mayor's house, to which he said they were most heartily welcome: but before they sat down to dinner, Sir Anthony taking him aside, desired he would forthwith cause a gallows to be erected, as there would be an execution soon after dinner; which he immediately did. Dinner ended, Sir Anthony asked whether the gallows was set up as ordered? and the Mayor saying that it was, he took him by the hand, and desired he would show him to the place where it stood. Being come thither he asked the Mayor whether is was strong enough? "Yes, Sir", answered he, "that it is". "Well, then", said Sir Anthony, "get you up yourself, for it is provided for you". The Mayor, full of amazement and horror, replied, "I trust you mean no such thing to me". Sir Anthony answer'd, "There is no remedy; you have been a busy rebel, and therefore this is appointed for your reward". And thereupon ordered him to be immediately executed; which was accordingly done. [Hooker, p104-105]

The second case relates to the untimely death of a hapless miller's servant who was duped by his master into pretending to be the owner of the mill in his absence.

Such also was the fate of the servant of a miller who dwelt near Bodmin; which miller had likewise been a principal actor in the said rebellion, and for whom Sir Anthony sought. But the miller, having intelligence thereof, called a good tall fellow that was his servant, and said to him, "I have business to go from home; if any, therefore, come to ask for me, say thou art the owner of the mill, and the man for whom they shall so ask, and that thou hast kept this mill for the space of three years; but in no wise name me". This he promised he would do. Shortly after came Sir Anthony to the miller's house; and calling for the miller, the servant came forth, and said he was the miller. "How long", quoth Sir Anthony, "hast thou kept the mill?" He answered "Three years". "Well then", said he, "come on, thou must go with me", and so caused his men to lay hands on him, and bring him to the next tree, saying, "Thou hast been a busy knave, and therefore here shalt thou hang". Then cry'd the fellow out, and said he was not the miller, but the miller's man. "Thou art a false knave, then", said Sir Anthony, "to be in two tales; therefore hang him up". After he was dead, a person present told Sir Anthony that he was certainly the miller's man. "What then!", said he, "Could he ever have done his master better service that to hang for him?!". [Hooker, p105]
The Council accuses Russell of overstepping his mandate
To judge from the records preserved, Kingston was not one whit behind, but rather improved upon, Russell's brutality. [Rose-Troup, p 307]

Russell, though not noted for his leniency, was surpassed in brutality by his subordinate Kingston who, alongside Grey and Herbert, was perpetuating a reign of terror in Cornwall, with hangings, and unbridled looting and confiscation. Somerset reprimanded Russell, saying that the proclamation threatening seizure of copyhold was intended as a warning at a time when he, Russell, was holed up in Honiton at his weakest. There was a danger that if it was carried out too zealously, then it would stoke up so much resentment that another rebellion would be fomented in due course. In any event, no man should have anything taken from him unless he has been attaintednote2 for a crime.

...And by [the King's] lawes we doo not thinke that annye man sholde losse lands ore goods by fore he be atteynted of the crime which meryteythe that punyshment. ... (part of a Letter dated September 10th, 1549 from The Council to Lord Russell complaining that he had exceeded his instructions. [Pococke, p69])

The final reckoning

Having completed the pacification of Cornwall, Russell returned to Exeter with a number of prisoners including Arundell, the Winslade brothers, Pomeroy, Holmes, and Bury. They were incarcerated in the city gaol prior to being transferred to London.

Those deemed to have been minor players were held in the Fleet prison before being discharged on November 1st. The four principals, Arundell, the elder Winslade, Bury and Holmes were kept in the Tower where they underwent cross-examination by members of the Council before being tried at Westminster Hall on November 26th. All four were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on January 27th, 1550 which was duly enacted.

The Council meanwhile wrote to Russell on September 12th ordering him to take down all bar the smallest of the bells from every church in Devon and Cornwall on the grounds that church bells had been used to summon the rebels, and the eventual resale of these bells would defray the cost of putting down the rebellion. The bells were to be removed quietly so as to avoid stirring a commotion.

Where the rebells of the cuntrye of Devonshyre and Cornwall have used the belles in every parishe as an instrument to sturr the multytude and call them together, thinkyng good to to have this occasyon of attempting the lyke herafter to be taken frome them. And remembering with all that by taking downe of them the kyng's Majesty maie have some comoditie towards his great charges that waye, we have thought good to pray your good lordshipp to geve order for taken downe the sayd bells in all the churches within those two counties, levyng in every churche one bell, the lest of the ryng that nowe is in the same, which maie serve to call the paryshoners togethers to the sermons and devyne servis; in the doyng hereof we require your lordshipp to cause such moderacon to be used as the same may be done with much quietnes and as lytill force of the comon people as may be. [Pocock, p73]

In practice the commissioners removed the clappers or the iron framework instead of the bells which were left in the hands of some 'honest men' of the parish. The king granted the clappers by letters patent to two Devonians, Sir Arthur Champernowne and John Chichester, as a reward for their help in suppressing the rebellion. They profited handsomely from this windfall: before long their agents began touring the countryside selling them back (in most instances) to the parish from which they had been removed. note3

Morebath bought its clappers back on 27 June 1551, at a cost of 26/8d loaned by three parishoners - John Norman, Edward Rumbelow and Thomas Borrage: Borrage was still waiting for the parish to repay his money in 1554. [Duffy, p145]

Although the events of 1549 which became known as the commotion time affected much of England, they were deeply traumatic for the people of both Devon and Cornwall. But the long-term repercussions of the rebellion and its aftermath were most profound for the Cornish. As Julian Cornwall put it:

Most of what took place in those dark days must remain a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain: Catholicism was stamped out, never to reappear in Cornwall. The last English rebellion would take place there in 1685, but by then it was to be a Protestant people supporting a Protestant pretender to the throne of a reactionary Catholic king. Indeed they lost everything they fought for, since by the end of the century the Cornish language itself was to be little more than a memory. [Cornwall, p206]


Rowse [6, p281(footnote 1)] mentions that other secondary sources including Rose-Troup[3] give the number killed in the chase as five or six hundred, but that a copy of Russell's original report to the Council states that only v or vi were killed. Likewise, in the rout from the village the number killed is exaggerated 100-fold in these sources.
The unattributed quotations in Rowse's description of the battle appear to be from Russell's report. [return]
attainted: subject to an attainder, that is, in ancient common law the loss of civil rights of an offender convicted of a capital or other serious offence. [return]
See Rose-Troup[3, p374-376]. [return]
See Grafton's Chronicle, volume 2, p519-520. Grafton's account of these hangings is quoted by Pocock[2, p.xxvii-xxviii]. [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.
Secondary sources.
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.
Tudor Cornwall by A L Rowse, 2nd Edition, Macmillan, 1969.
The Voices of Morebath - Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 2001.