King Henry VIII's reign was a time of great religious upheaval for his country. The Protestant Reformation saw the severing of ties to Rome and the Catholic Church, the establishment of the Church of England with the monarch at its head, and the dissolution of the monasteries. These reforms were backed by Henry out of political expediency unlike the more religiously inspired Lutheran Protestant movement in Germany; the most pressing issue for the King was to find a legitimate means of divorcing his first wife Katherine of Aragon who had been unable to bear him a son and heir, having had this divorce denied to him by the Pope.
Despite presiding over these momentous changes, Henry VIII was a religious conservative and remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, believing in the miraculous power of the sacraments. In 1539, becoming increasingly concerned that the Catholic doctrine was under threat from the influence of the Lutheran Protestants who would remove all symbols of Catholic imagery from churches, and against the wishes of his Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, Henry supported the passing of the parliamentary Act known as the Six Articles of Religion which aimed to enshrine some of the important elements of Catholicism in law.
The first of these Articles affirmed the body and blood of Christ to be present in the consecrated Bread and Wine of the Holy Communion through transubstantiation. Among the other Articles were the forbidding of marriage by the clergy and enforced celibacy of monks and nuns. In his will Henry stipulated that these Articles should remain in force until his young son and future King Edward VI came of age. Defiance was punishable by death for each Article at first, but the ultimate punishment was subsequently retained for denial of transubstantiation only. Nevertheless, Cranmer wasted no time in hurrying his wife back to her native Germany.
Henry had been reluctant to introduce the sweeping changes that the more ardent Protestants would have liked, except where he could appropriate the wealth of the church by dissolving the monasteries. This process was taken a step further in the dying days of Henry's reign.
Perhaps Henry had lingering misgivings, for this process did not begin in earnest until after his death.
Cranmer left no-one in any doubt as to his intentions, proclaiming in his homily at the boy King Edward VI's coronation that he would 'see idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished from your subjects and images destroyed.'
The new parliament under the Lord Protector, Thomas Seymour, Duke of Somerset and maternal uncle of the new king wasted no time in bringing Cranmer's agenda forward by repealing the Six Articles and introducing a new Chantries Act that went further than Henry's provisions. In the new Act, the King was to 'have and enjoy goods, chattels, jewels, plate, ornaments and other moveables' belonging to chantry chapels and colleges and all the stipends of the priests serving them. In 1548 commissioners were sent across the land to carry out this work that was for the most part deeply unpopular with the common people.
The scene familiar from the suppression of the monasteries was being reenacted, this time with greater impact on local communities:
In the winter of 1547-48 the widely despised William Body, Archdeacon of Cornwall, set out on a visitation of the county acting as commissioner for the Councilnote1. 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.
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. 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.
This depiction of Launceston Castle was engraved by the brothers Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in 1734, by which time most of the castle had fallen to ruin save the part containing the County Gaol. In earlier times the assizes were held in the castle's great hall which is where many of those implicated in William Body's murder were tried.
In January of 1549 the Act of Uniformity, a decisive next step in the Reformation, received assent. This required all Church services in the land to use Cranmer's new Book of Common Prayer written in English in place of the Latin Mass. This lead to much dissent in Cornwall where, in addition to the lamenting of the loss of the familiar Catholic rituals, in many parishes English was seldom spoken.
The Act stipulated that the new prayer book must be used from Whit-Sunday 1549 in all places of worship. This was the flash point for the Rebellion to gain momentum. A well-organised and sizeable gathering of defiant Cornishmen was congregating in the town of Bodmin; soon after there was a more spontaneous uprising in the village of Sampford Courtenay in Mid-Devon.
On June 6th in Bodmin Mayor Bray convened a town meeting at which resolutions were put containing the gist of the rebels eventual demands note3. Many parish priests attended as did two representatives of the landed gentry, Humphrey Arundell of Helland and John Winslade of Tregarrick.
Having the backing of the nobility added a certain legitimacy to the rebellion: 'the squires who ruled the countryside in peacetime also led its fighting men in war, and it was taken for granted that military expertise was the prerogative of this class' [Cornwall, p58]. However, the gentry of Cornwall were few in number and for the most part relatively poor, lacking substantial armouries. Though some may have sympathised with the rebels, many sought sanctuary with their families in St Michael's Mount in the far west, fearing that the common people might see them as legitimate targets.
Arundell and Winslade differed in temperament. Arundell was age 36 at the time and had previous military experience; he had fought with distinction while leading a band of foot soldiers at the siege of Boulogne in 1544. There was a dark side to his character: he had been the subject of various lawsuits involving trespass on the lands of others and unpaid expenses, and it was claimed by his younger brothers that he had withheld monies due to them in their mother's will. Winslade in contrast was well liked, known for his generosity and hospitality.
Arundell was persuaded to act as general of the rebel army - albeit with great reluctance as he alleged later under cross-examination. Winslade remained for some weeks in Bodmin but avoided the fighting and was eventually pardoned. Arundell directed the men who were arriving in Bodmin on foot in their hundreds to Castle Kynoch, an ancient earthwork outside the town, where they set up camp. Before the army began the march to the Devon border Humphrey dispatched a detachment on horse and foot to secure the rear from loyalists who might have chosen to counter-attack under the command of the gentry holed up in St Michael's Mount.
Their captives were marched back to Bodmin before being incarcerated in Launceston gaol along with Sir Richard Grenville who was lured from his stronghold of Trematon Castle. The rounding up of the gentry encouraged many more wavering peasants, tinners, and fishermen to join the rebel army. Now of fighting strength, the time was ripe them to move to the east. As they crossed the River Tamar into Devon a small force was sent to besiege Plymouth, and the town soon surrendered.
It was Whit-Sunday 1549, and as required by the new statute the parish priest of St Andrew's Church in Sampford Courtenay, the aging William Harper, conducted the service in English using the Book of Common Prayer.
There was discontent, but the day passed peacefully. By Monday the tension was increasing palpably. The villagers had had enough and would no longer tolerate the changes to their traditional service. After discussing the situation with others, William Underhill, a tailor, and William Segar, a labourer, entered the vestry and accosted Harper who was preparing for morning prayers. They asked him if he would he be using the new Prayer Book once again. He replied that he was obliged to do so in compliance with the law. His answer was unacceptable to the two men: 'That you will not!. We will have all such laws and ordinances touching Christian religion as were appointed by King Henry (God rest his soul!), until the King's majesty that now is reaches the age of twenty-four years, for so his father appointed it.' [Rose-Troup, p133] note4
By now the majority of villagers had congregated outside the church and the mood was restive. The hapless priest felt unable to resist the will of the angry crowd and submitted to their demands.
Word soon spread of the defiance of the common people at Sampford Courtney. Hoping to defuse the situation before it spread to the adjoining parishes, the authorities sent a party of local justices to negotiate with the leaders. The delegation was lead by Sir Hugh Pollard of King's Nympton and Anthony Harvey of Columbjohn with the support of an armed escort. Underhill and Segar refused to parley with them until they agreed to leave their armed cohorts at a safe distance. There were sufficient in the party to have taken on the rebels as there were very few gathered at that time, but Pollard decided that quiet diplomacy was called for and acceded to their request. The ensuing discussions were fruitless and the the visiting justices departed empty handed. Pollard was branded a coward for failing to nip the rebellion in the bud while some believed he was motivated by sympathy for the rebels' cause.
A day or two later a well-respected (if somewhat officious) franklin named William Hellyons from a neighbouring parish took it upon himself to make a stand against the dissidents. Shortly after arriving in the village he was detained and taken to the upper chamber of Church House which the rebels had commandeered as their headquarters. They allowed him to have his say after which they subjected him to a torrent of abuse before he slunk out of the room. As he made his way out of the house he received a mortal blow from a bystander named Lithibridge note5who 'struck him, with his bill, on the neck, and the blow being followed by several others, his body was soon dispatched, and was cut into several pieces' [Jenkins, p115].
The outside steps of Church House, Sampford Courtenay, on which William Hellyons was struck with a bill-hook.
It seems likely that the main force of the Cornish rebels didn't cross into Devon until the end of June, though an advance party may have met up with the men of Sampford Courtenay and others from the surrounding area who were assembled at Crediton, five miles to the north-west of Exeter, by June 20th.
Meanwhile, Protector Somerset, concerned by Sir Hugh Pollard's feeble attempt to quell the rebellion, decided to send an emissary with a reputation as a man of action and a distinguished military record to deal with this threat to stability in the region: Sir Peter Carew, who was raised in the county and had served as sheriff of Devon in 1547, was the natural choice. He was staying on his wife's estates in Lincolnshire at the time. He immediately set out on the long ride to Devonshire, accompanied by his uncle Sir Gawen Carew, arriving in Exeter on June 21st.
His instructions were to strike a conciliatory tone in the first instance at least, offering to pardon those who agreed to return to their homes and afterwards refrain from further action. The King's representatives first held discussions with the current sheriff, Sir Piers Courtenay, and the local justices to agree on a plan of action.
The rebels refused all entreaties. Angered by this rebuttal, Sir Peter and his men charged the rampart only to be met by a barrage of arrows, suffering some losses, after which they retreated. During the resulting confusion, a servant of Sir Hugh Pollard set alight the thatched roof of one of the barns causing the rebels to abandon their positions in panic. When the Carews entered the town after this they found the town deserted apart from a few old folk, so they returned to Exeter.
The burning of the barn hardened the rebel's resolve and gained them additional support for the insurrection.
The map shows the paths taken by the Cornish rebels(red) and Devonshire rebels(black) during June 1549 and the principal battle sites.
|- site of a major battle
|- site of a minor skirmish