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1549 Prayer Book Rebellion

With help from A. Venning and Arthur Wills.

The Prayer Book Rebellion was a popular revolt in Devon and Cornwall in 1549. In that year, the Book of Common Prayer, presenting the theology of the English Reformation, was introduced. The change was widely unpopular – particularly in areas of still firmly Catholic religious loyalty (even after the Act of Supremacy in 1534) such as Lancashire. Along with poor economic conditions, the attack on the Catholic Church led to an explosion of anger in Devon and Cornwall, initiating an uprising. In response, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, sent Lord John Russell with an army composed partly of German and Italian mercenaries to suppress the revolt.

The revolt can be said to have its origins at Launceston in 1541, when the clergy were summoned to St. Stephens Church to pay their ‘proxes and synages.’ William Body, although a layman, had been able to lease the Arch deaconry of Cornwall from the illegitimate son of Cardinal Wolsey. William was one of Thomas Cromwell’s minions in the confused undercover politics of that time, and he used the Archdiaconal Visitation to St. Stephens to try out his strength against the Bishop. With the Bishop’s representative, John Harris forbidding him to exercise his office and exhorting the clergy not to pay him their procurations, a near riot ensued, with people being jostled and bumped, and the roll-book being snatched from hand to hand. Despite his pretensions to ecclesiastical office, Body went for his dagger, but was over powered, carried out of the church and had the doors bolted against him.
A long drawn out set of legal actions commenced, and with the beginnings of the Reformation now set in motion, further trouble was ahead. It duly occurred in the winter of 1547-48, when Body, as Royal Commissioner, was busy confiscating Church belongings for the Crown’s use, and possibly for his own gain as well.  The widely despised William Body set out on a visitation of the county acting as commissioner for the Council . He summoned a number of parish priests and churchwardens to meet him at Penryn, where he was prebendary and also owned a house. He read out to them the Council’s injunctions under the Chantries Act.
It seems that Body gave the impression that the inventories of Church goods that the commissioners were taking implied that they were to be confiscated by the crown, whereas in reality at this time the intent was to prevent them being embezzled or sold off privately. This was of particular sensitivity in Penryn which was near to the College of St Mary and St Thomas at Glasney, the largest religious foundation in the county. Once Body had finished speaking there were angry cries from the assembled crowd followed by threatening demonstrations. Fearing that the disturbances might spread, Body asked the Council for guidance; they called for a lenient response, not wanting to fan the flames.
It soon transpired that the protesters’ concerns were justified: in February an order demanding the removal of all images from the churches was proclaimed. Body returned to Cornwall in the Spring and gave notice that all such images be removed from the churches and chapels under his jurisdiction. On April 5th he arrived in Helston and was greeted by a large crowd of protesters lead by Martin Geoffrey, the parish priest of St Keverne remembered as the home of the blacksmith Michael Joseph, a leader of the revolt of 1497 against King Henry VII’s punitive taxes.
Body was already in the church as the crowd was gathering. Taking shelter in a house said to have been at the bottom the hill in Church Street, his refuge was immediately surrounded by the angry mob: he was dragged out, struck down and stabbed. William Kylter, a yeoman from Constantine, and Pascoe Trevian, a mariner, then came forward and despatched him. The people then moved to the market place where they were addressed by John Resseigh from Helston. Speaking on behalf of the people he declared that they ‘would have all such laws as were made by the late King Henry VIII and none other until the King’s majority accomplished the age of twenty-four years. And that whoso would defend Body or follow such new fashions as he did, they would punish him likewise.’.

On April 7th a crowd containing as many as three thousand had assembled threatening reprisals should any of the ringleaders be arraigned to appear at the Helston Sessions due to be held the following Tuesday. Sir William Godolphin and his fellow justices were powerless.The Cornish gentry had no hold on the far west of the county and requested Sir Richard Edgecombe, a leading light of the Devon gentry, to come to their aid. By this time the rebels had dispersed, apparently satisfied by the taking of Body’s scalp.
A general pardon was issued for all involved in the disturbances save twenty-eight of the ringleaders. Six of them including Geoffrey the priest were taken to London, while the rest were brought to Launceston for trial. Kylter and Trevian, Body’s killers, were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, while some others would be hanged. William Kylter, it is said, was a huge man who held great strength. During his incarceration in Launceston Castle Gaol, it was recorded that he lay on his back in the Green ‘and threw a stone of some pounds weight over the tower which leadeth to the park.’
One execution took place on Plymouth Hoe; the town’s accounts of that year itemized the cost of the timber for the gallows, and ‘poles to put the head and quarters of the said traitor upon’. Those sent to London were treated more leniently: they were all pardoned save Martin Geoffrey who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield on June 7th. As was the grisly custom for traitors, his head was impaled on a spike and left in public view on London Bridge. Resseigh’s fate is unknown.

The revolt was quelled for a short time, but at Whitsun 1549, it flared up again, only this time into a major rebellion. The rebel army, 10,000 strong, under Sir Humphrey Arundell of Helland, marched through Launceston to lay siege to Exeter. During the  siege of Exeter, Arundell and his troops had little artillery and had taken some small calibre guns from Plymouth and other forts of the King, including those on St Michael’s Mount, St Mawes Castle, Pendennis Castle and Trematon Castle. The Cornishmen outside the walls of Exeter made the statement “and so we Cornishmen, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English”. At the battle of Sampford Courtenay, Arundell led a large contingent of rebels from the rear throwing the Royal troops into confusion. The rebels were forced to make another stand at Okehampton, but were quickly routed with Arundell and the stragglers of his army managinf to retreat back across the Tamar to Launceston where they made a last stand. After some fighting in the street, Arundell was wounded and captured, he was taken to the Tower of London and in November 1549, Arundell was taken to Westminster Hall where he was found guilty of high treason and condemned to be taken back to the Tower and later hanged, drawn and quartered. As the chronicle of the Grey Friars of London recorded:

[1550] the xxvii. day of [January], was draune from the tower of London un-to Tyborne iiii. persons, and there hongyd and quartered, and their quarteres sette abowte London on every gatte; thes was of them that dyd ryse in the West cuntre.
Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London

He was executed on 27 January 1550 and the estates of the ringleaders were distributed to those who had served the King in the rising. Sir Gawen Carew received most of Humprey Arundell’s lands.

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