The 1549 rising: the revised chronology

Early June is usually taken to be the anniversary of the time in 1549 when the Prayer Book rising began. According to the Government indictment of its leaders, a thousand men gathered on June 6th at Bodmin to protest against the new English Prayer Book to be used in church services. This predated the rising in Devon, which occurred on June 10th. This narrative, first put forward in 1913, has been uncritically repeated by virtually every account since. However, in 2014 Mark Stoyle revisited and convincingly revised the chronology of the rising. This has not received the attention it deserves, perhaps because it is hidden behind an academic paywall. But here’s a short summary. (See also my review of the state of Cornish Studies in From a Cornish Study, p.91.)

Mark picked up on a suggestion made as early as 1910 that the date of June 6th given in the indictment was a transcription error for July 6th and backed this up with previously unpublished contemporary evidence from Penzance, Falmouth and Plymouth. He says ‘we know almost nothing at all about how the Cornish rebellion of 1549 began’. Nor do we have any details as to how and when the Cornish joined the Devonian insurgents. Meanwhile, the accounts of the rising all come from the loyalist side, while nothing has survived giving the insurgents’ perspective.

The revised chronology proposed by Stoyle runs like this. The rising did not begin in Cornwall but at Sampford Courteney in mid-Devon. It arrived there from the east, not the west, as similar protests about the religious changes rippled out from south-east England. Dissidents flocked to the banner before moving on to Crediton and then laying siege to Exeter on July 2nd. While all this was happening, there was no contemporary reference to any disturbances in Cornwall until late June.

Instead, the gathering at Bodmin that triggered the Cornish rising occurred sometime between 26th June and 6th July. From there it spread outwards, pulling in support. Some time was lost in pursuing gentry loyal to the Government. They had taken refuge on St Michael’s Mount, as well as at Pendennis and at Trematon Castle in the east. At the Mount and at Trematon the loyalists were taken captive although Pendennis held out through the rising. Plymouth was under siege by 22nd July at the latest.

The same date provided the first written evidence of a conjunction between the Cornish insurgents and the Devonian rebels in a letter from Exeter sent to Lord Russell, who was tasked by the Government to quash the rising. At some point in mid-July, the Cornish had completed their trek from Bodmin and joined those besieging Exeter. Mark Stoyle suggests that the Cornish force advanced into Devon after the siege of Exeter began, rather than before, emboldened by the news of that action.

The course of the rising after the Cornish arrived is well known. In late July, perhaps encouraged by the more aggressive Cornishmen, a force moved east towards Honiton. This was met and driven back at Fenny Bridges. The (loyalist) account of this specifically referred to 800 Cornish reinforcements, again suggesting a recent arrival. A series of battles followed on 3rd-5th August when ‘hundreds of rebels were slain’ by Russell and his mercenaries and Exeter relieved.

The besiegers broke camp on 5th August. Most moved back towards the west while an estimated 1,000 fled north into Somerset, hoping to make a stand there. Eventually this force, including many Cornishmen, was cut down by cavalry near Langport. This was the location that was supposed to have witnessed the death of the Cornish King Gerent in 710. The past was echoing eerily down through the centuries, although it’s a moot point how many, if any, of those at Langport in 1549 were aware of this.

A modernist interpretation of the rising

It was claimed that around 7,000 or more men regrouped near Samford Courtenay in mid-August. They were attacked by Russell on 16th August and after a hard fight many – it was claimed 2,000 – were slain. Humphrey Arundell, the leader of the Cornish force, was captured in the streets of Launceston on 20th August. The rising was over. Four days later the Government had reasserted its control, to the point where it could safely hang two clergymen on the Lizard.

A loyalist account boasted that it had been ‘such a scouring that the memorial will not be lightly forgotten’. He was right. Carew wrote two generations later that the ‘western people’ fostered ‘a fresh memory of their expulsion long ago by the English’. The ‘scouring’ may have had unforeseen long-term consequences.

(Mark Stoyle’s article is ‘ “Fullye bente to fighte oute the matter”: Reconsidering Cornwall’s Role in the Western Rebellion of 1549’, English Historical Review 129 (538), 2014, pp.549-577.)

2 thoughts on “The 1549 rising: the revised chronology

  1. It would be useful to understand what the actual issue with the new prayer book was, and why people were prepared to die in their thousands. Can you explain the religious and social background sometime?

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  2. This was a traditionalist Catholic reaction against the imposition of the prayerbook written in English and the new Protestant Church of England in which the monarch and no longer the Pope in Rome was head of the Church. The next monarch, Queen Mary, did her best to restore the Catholic faith in England and there was savage retribution against leading Protestants. The majority of people were not unhappy with their church as it had been for hundreds of years. When Henry VIII broke with Rome there was little doctrinal change but a progressively more Protestant approach was taken by the regents of his successor, Edward VI the boy king.

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