The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549

In the year 1536, Catholics of northern England famously participated in the ill-fated “Pilgrimage of Grace,” a peaceful demonstration against the Protestant reforms of Henry VIII. This is but one example of how the people of England cherished the Catholic Faith, and why that kingdom was always referred to affectionately as “Our Lady’s Dowry.” The Catholics of England were not willing to sit idly by while the faith of St. Augustine was destroyed by Protestant usurpers, even if that usurper happened to occupy the throne. Just as Henry’s innovations provoked the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, so the more radical innovation of Cranmer’s Prayer Book of 1549 provoked a massive rebellion in Cornwall and Devon. Born of outrage against the concept of an English liturgy, this event has gone down in history as the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.

Background: 1534-1547

The Act of Supremacy was introduced by Henry VIII in the year 1534. This was the act that declared the English monarch to be “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” and that the English crown should enjoy “all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.” That same year Parliament passed the Treasons Act, which made it an act of treason punishable by death to disavow the royal Supremacy. It was under this act that St. Thomas More was executed in 1535. We may thus take the Act of Supremacy of 1534 as the point of formal break with Rome and the beginning of the Anglican Church.

Nevertheless, in those early days not much was immediately changed at the parish level, if at all. The first Anglican statement of faith was not drawn up for two more years with Cranmer’s Ten Articles of 1536. The Ten Articles affirmed traditional Catholic teaching on some of the sacraments, remained ambiguous on Transubstantiation, and offered a moderated version of Luther’s sola fide. These Articles neither condemned the Mass nor good works. A further statement in 1537 called The Institution of a Christian Man (more commonly known as the “Bishop’s Book”) taught that the Eucharist “is verily, substantially, and really contained the very selfsame body and blood of our Saviour Jesu Christ.” While each parish was mandated to possess an English Bible by a 1538 law, the following year Henry, always fickle, reversed all of these “evangelical” ordinances and returned the Church to a state of perfect Catholic orthodoxy in every point save the papal supremacy. Transubstantiation, auricular confession, and the indissolubility of vows were all strongly reaffirmed in Henry’s Six Articles of 1539. Furthermore, anti-heresy laws punished Catholics for denying the royal supremacy while simultaneously punishing Protestants for denying transubstantiation. It was a dangerous time in England to profess anything with certitude.

This state of Catholic orthodoxy minus papal supremacy remained the status quo in England until Henry’s death in 1547. Thus, from the perspective of the English pewsitter of moderate intelligence, not much changed in the English liturgy during the first thirteen years of the Anglican era. Worship was still called the Mass, which was offered by a valid priesthood. It is true that mention of the pope’s supremacy and the existence of purgatory were omitted, but since Mass was still offered in Latin at the time, it is doubtful too many common folk would have noticed these omissions. While some of the more extravagant pilgrimages were curtailed, in every other aspect life went on as normal at the parish level. Furthermore, since the Protestant sentiment was always strongest in the areas immediately outside of London, it is safe to assume that in the distant regions like Cornwall, Northumberland ,and Somerset, the Protestantizing efforts of Henry and Cranmer may have been neglected altogether. It is very likely that the traditional Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated entirely unchanged as late as 1547 in some of these outlying areas.

The Prayer Book of 1549

Henry died in 1547, however, and the Anglican revolution was about to catch up with these outliers. Henry was succeeded by his young son Edward VI who was dominated by Edward Seymour, Lord Protector Somerset. Somerset was intent on pushing a more evangelical Anglicanism than what Henry had favored, and he used his position to further Protestantize the kingdom. The lynchpin of this strategy was the Book of Common Prayer, issued by Cranmer in 1549.

The Book of Common Prayer was meant to unify Anglican services throughout the kingdom. The prayer book contained English language liturgical rites devised by Cranmer, banned religious processions, and ordered communion under both kinds. But its biggest novelty was simply that it mandated Mass be said in English, and authorized inspections by royal officials to ensure its provisions were carried out. Thus, though it was now fifteen years into the Anglican schism, the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer on Whitsunday, 1549 marked the first time most Englishmen had ever heard the Mass said in English.

And what they heard upset them, for it became clear that what they had was no longer the Mass. Still, fifteen years of royal propaganda had done its work throughout much of the kingdom, and though there was some grumbling about certain aspects of the new rite, most of England was disposed to grudgingly accept it. The only exceptions were the districts of Devon and Cornwall.

The Reformation Comes to Cornwall

The people of Cornwall and Devon remained particularly attached to the Catholic faith. For one thing, linguistic differences had always set their culture apart from the rest of the kingdom. At the time of the prayer book, most of the Cornish only spoke English as a second language, if at all. The Cornish formed a distinct society within the greater English kingdom. Furthermore, because of their geographical remoteness from London, the seat of English power, the Henrician revolt had simply never penetrated into the heartland of Devon and Cornwall, save for the closing of some monastic colleges. The region had remained a Catholic island in the midst of the Anglican ocean.

Lord Somerset was particularly anxious to see that his reforms were enforced in areas of strong Catholic loyalty, such as Devon and Cornwall. Royal officials were dispatched to the western counties to see that the prayer book was implemented and Mass said in English. They were also authorized to remove all symbols of Catholicism and enforce Cranmer’s prohibition of images. The task of destroying religious shrines was deputed to one William Body. Body had been a local archdeacon who was favorably disposed towards Protestantism. Empowered by Cranmer, William Body began removing Catholic images from shrines in western Cornwall. This actually begun in 1548, prior to the formal issuance of the Book of Common Prayer, but after Somerset’s campaign of Protestantization was well underway.

The Cornish people were outraged at the desecration of their shrines. As Body was laboring in the vicinity of St. Keverne and Helston, the Cornish began to murmur. When the people of St. Keverne heard Body was in the next town over destroying images, they formed a mob and – led by their parish priest—marched to Helston to confront him. William Body attempted to hide in a house, but he was dragged out and murdered by the mob on April 5, 1548. The murder of William Body marks the beginning of the Prayer Book Rebellion.

The Prayer Book Rebellion

Retaliation was swift. The justice of the peace arrived with a small militia and arrested the murderers of Body. Eight of them were hanged; the parish priest who had led the mob, Martin Geffrey, was taken to London where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered and his head displayed on the London Bridge.

The tension was thick in Cornwall, and royal agents were understandably stand-offish about working there. But on Whitsunday, 1549 came the order to implement the Book of Common Prayer, as well as to strike back against Cornish resistance. The people of Sampford Courtenay in Devon endured one Sunday of the liturgy in English; they detested the enforced novelty so much that the following week they forced their priest to revert to the old Mass. Interestingly, one of their complaints was that the Mass in English was “lyke a Christmas game.”

Justices arrived the following week to ensure that Sampford heard Mass according to the prayer book. One of the local farmers, William Hellyons, got into a dispute with the parishioners and advocated acceptance of the reforms. Hellyons was overwhelmed by the Catholics and taken to a building near the church to continue the dispute indoors. While there, the argument turned heated and he was run through with a pitchfork; after his death his body was hacked to pieces. The royal justices fled.

The mob from Sampford decided to march to Exeter, the largest city in Devon, to protest the English liturgy. Many of the people of Exeter were sympathetic, but the city refused to open its gates. Large numbers of Catholics from Devon came to join to Sampford men, swelling their ranks. Exeter remained in what amounted to a state of siege for over a month. Meanwhile, another army formed in Cornwall at the town of Bodmin under the leadership of its mayor, Henry Bray, and two staunch Catholic landowners, Sir Humphrey Arundell of Helland and John Winslade of Tregarrick.

Finding themselves unable to make any headway at Exeter, the armies began rampaging throughout the countryside, seizing the castles of the English gentry. In early summer the Cornish army under Arundell and Winslade marched east and joined up with the Devon army at Crediton. The aims of the rebels were simple: destroy the Protestantizing English gentry and restore the Catholic Mass as they had celebrated it undisturbed throughout the reign of Henry VIII.

The Cornish armies rampaged across the countryside, attacking royal power in hopes of restoring the old Mass

Royal Response

Somerset had taken notice of the rebellion early on but was not able to prevent the two armies joining, which now collectively numbered some 7,000 men. A royal force was dispatched under Sir John Russell composed of a mishmash of mercenaries from various countries. Russell and the rebels under Arundell fought an inconclusive battle at a narrow pass called Fenny Bridges on July 28th.

On August 2nd, however, Russell was strongly reinforced, his forces now grown to around 8,600, all well-trained professional soldiers against the 7,000 farmer-rebels of Devon and Cornwall. The rebels attempted to attack Russell’s camp on the 4th but failed. The following day the royal force attacked Arundell furiously. While the rebel force was able to escape, they paid a high price with a thousand left dead on the field of battle and nine hundred taken prisoner at a place called Clyst St. Mary. The rebel force had suffered a tremendous setback. To strike fear into the rebels, Russell ordered all nine hundred prisoners to have their throats slit in what has been known as the Massacre of Clyst Heath.

Arundell attempted to reverse the defeat of the previous day by charging Russell’s position at Clyst Heath on August 6th, but again was thrown back with horrific losses. Arundell withdrew his army and returned west to Devon. Russell’s army marched on and relieved the city of Exeter. This was accompanied by a proclamation from London that the lands of the rebels were to be confiscated. Arundell’s property was taken and given to some knights who had fought under Russell. For his part, Russell thought the rebellion over.

Revolt Crushed at Sampford Courtenay

Arundell, however, had not given up. His army had regrouped at Sampford Courtenay, the home of the revolt. Arundell had been given a message that 1,000 men from Winchester would join his force. This promised aid never materialized, however. Further ill luck came in the person of John Kessell, Arundell’s secretary, who was secretly a partisan of the Protestants and was supplying information on rebel movements to Lord Russell. When Russell heard of Arundell’s regrouping, he marched to Sampford after being yet reinforced again. By now Russell was leading an army of almost 9,000 against probably less than 3,000 rebels.

Russell’s men opted for a full on charge against the rebel positions. The gunfire was hot for over an hour, but Cornish losses were frightful, and eventually the royal army stormed the rebel positions. The surviving rebels of Cornwall were mostly able to escape and return west, but those of Devon, where most of the fighting took place, were unable to get away; many were hunted down and hanged, drawn, and quartered in summary executions presided over by Russell’s captains.

Arundell and a few other ringleaders were captured and transferred to the Tower after a brief stay in Exeter. In January, 1550, Arundell and several other rebel leaders were led out to be drawn on hurdles through the City of London to the gallows at Tyburn and on “that gallows suspended, and while yet alive to be cast down upon the ground and the entrails of each to be taken out and burnt before their eyes while [they are] yet living, and their heads then cut off and their bodies to be divided into four parts.”

A total of 5,500 people died in the uprising. Though the rebellion was broken, Cranmer and Somerset gave orders for Russell to continue a campaign of reprisal against the people of Devon and Cornwall. A season of terror followed as the subdued people of those counties were pillaged and executed in retaliation. English was enforced not only in the liturgy but in common usage as well. For example, the Welsh were allowed to use translations of the Bible in Welsh, but a Cornish translation was denied as part of a systematic attempt to root out the Cornish language. Indeed, it was after the Prayer Book Rebellion that Cornish as a language began to go into decline.

The Prayer Book Rebellion was certainly not as peaceful as the Pilgrimage of Grace, nor was it solely religious in nature. There has always been a strong separatist strain in Cornwall; as recently as 1497 they had been engaged in another revolt. That revolt began at St. Keverne, the same place at which Hellyson was run through with a pitchfork at the beginning of the 1549 rebellion.

We do not affirm that arguments over liturgy should end in impalement. But it was never just about liturgy; it was about the political machinations of Somerset’s ambition and bound up with royal policy. The people of Cornwall merely wanted the old Mass. Their ferocious attachment to tradition is admirable, and given the days they lived in and the tyranny of the English monarchs, we can sympathize with their response, even if we can’t approve of all their deeds.

Phillip Campbell, “The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, October 21, 2014. Available online at