Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Prayer Book Rebellion

Like the Pilgrimage of Grace in northern England during Henry VIII's reign, the Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall during Edward VI's reign demonstrates that some of the people didn't want the religious change that was being imposed on them after Henry proclaimed himself Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England. The BBC History Magazine posts this story, including links to nine locations associated with the Prayer Book Rebellion:

Then, in 1549, the government introduced a new Book of Common Prayer. Printed in English, the book was alien to the common people, who were accustomed to hearing their church services in Latin. It proved even more incendiary in Cornwall, where many people still spoke Cornish, a Brythonic language very like Welsh. Here, the replacement of the Latin service with an English version awoke cultural sensitivities as well as religious ones.

In June 1549, the county exploded into rebellion and thousands of angry commoners, together with many parish priests and some gentlemen, gathered at the ancient hill fort of Castle Canyke near Bodmin. Within a few days, the rebels had captured all who remained loyal to the king, and nowhere in Cornwall held out in support of the crown.

The protest soon spread to the Devonshire village of Sampford Courtenay, where, the day after the new prayer book came into force, the villagers demanded that their priest wear his old garments and read from the old service book. The minister swiftly reverted to “his old popish attire and sayeth mass and all such services as in times past accustomed”, while a local yeoman who tried to oppose the protestors was killed. . . .

“The rebellion was the outcome of an accumulation of grievances, some of which dated back to before Edward came to the throne”, says Professor Mark Stoyle of the University of Southampton. “The revolt was primarily fuelled by religious conservatism, but a desire to protect Cornish cultural distinctiveness also played its part.”

Among the list of demands that the rebels sent to the government was one which stated that: “We will not receive the new service because it is but like a Christmas game, but we will have our old service of matins, mass, evensong and procession in Latin not in English, as it was before. And so we the Cornish men, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English.”

After laying siege to Exeter and failing to take the city, the rebels fought battles with the royal forces and were finally defeated. Then the usual process of punishing the rebels began--four of the nine sites included in the BBC History Magazine are associated with executions and a massacre. Two priests supporting the rebellion were hung in chains: "Henry Joyes, the vicar of Chipping Norton" in Oxfordshire and "Robert Welsh, a Cornishman by birth and the vicar of St Thomas church near Exeter". More than 900 rebel prisoners were murdered at the orders of John Russell, Earl of Bedford at Clyst St Mary and of course the rebel leaders were executed, including Sir Humphrey Arundell, in London.

In 2007, the Anglican Bishop of Truro, William Ind, apologized for the government's actions in the Prayer Book Rebellion:

In acknowledging the "brutality and stupidity" of the atrocities on behalf of the Church, Bishop Bill Ind tried to heal much of the hurt felt by many Cornish people, who believe the Church of England has long tried to ignore the events of 1549 Prayerbook (sic)Rebellion.

In a wide-ranging address at Pelynt Parish Church in South East Cornwall, the man dubbed "The People's Bishop" attempted to draw a line under a moment in history which left one in ten of the Cornish population dead.

Bishop Bill, who was in Pelynt to be presented with the prestigious Trelawny Plate, said: "I am often asked about my attitude to the Prayerbook Rebellion and in my opinion, there is no doubt that the English Government behaved brutally and stupidly and killed many Cornish people. I don't think apologising for something that happened over 500 years ago helps, but I am sorry about what happened and I think it was an enormous mistake."


  1. Michael Davies gives an excellent account of this very tragic episode in the first book (Cranmer's Godly Order) of his great trilogy, which I highly recommend. Before reading about it there i had been completely oblivious. It prompted me to make a mini pilgrimage to the Church in Sampford Courtney. Everyone should know about this. Chris