The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549

Phase four: the relief of Exeter after victory for the royalist forces under Lord Russell in a series of fierce battles

Russell waits anxiously for reinforcements

Lord Russell had an escort of not more than 300 men at Honiton in early July, insufficient for an attempt to relieve Exeter. He had recruited some gentry from Dorset and Somerset and their retainers, but he had no money to pay them and many had drifted away. Also, the loyalty of those that remained was questionable. Believing that Exeter had no more that eight day's food remaining, Russell was fearful that the city would fall at any time; even if it didn't, the number of rebels was growing by the day, and he thought that Arundell might have sufficient men to advance on Honiton while continuing to hold Exeter. To add to Russell's woes, there was talk of stirrings in the counties to the east, potentially exposing him to attack from the rear.

he [Russell] was daily more and more forsaken of the common people, who at first had readily joined him. His whole force now being reduced to but a very small number, hardly sufficient to be called a bodyguard, he was much more feared for his own safety, than feared by the rebels, whose numbers every day increased; nor could he depend on the fidelity of those who remained with him. [Hooker, p87-88]
Russell, fearing attack from the rear, begins to retreat

With fresh rumours of a disturbance at Salisbury in Wiltshire, and fearing for their safety in Honiton, the gentlemen of Dorset urged a return to that county where they would find sanctuary in Sherborne castle. Easily persuaded, Russell and his cohort began the retreat towards Dorset the following day. Sir Peter Carew was at his family home of Mohuns Ottery nearby. On hearing of Russell's withdrawal he rode hastily to intercept the party with the intention of convincing Russell of his folly in ceding ground to the rebels.

meeting with him on Black-Down, a conference ensued between them; in which Sir Peter used so many strong arguments, that he prevailed upon his Lordship to return to Honiton; where he remained from that time, except one night spent at Ottery St. Mary; at which place his fear surpassed by far his danger. Nevertheless he was much grieved, and showed great uneasiness, for most part of the time he lay there, at not receiving the promised succours; which indeed justly gave him room to fear the consequences from these delays, more especially as he was not only in great want of men, but had also spent all the money he brought with him, and knew not how to help himself in his present condition. [Hooker, p88]
Financial help materialises

Fortuitously Russell's financial difficulties were soon to be eased. He was able to raise loans underwritten by Protector Somerset from three wealthy Exeter merchants who had been unavoidably detained in Honiton due to the rebellion:

Thomas Prestwood, a former mayor, John Budleigh, and John Periam whose brother was a tower of strength to Blackaller throughout the siege. All of them men of great wealth and fully aware of the Lord Privy Seal's needs, they raised on the their own credit large sums from their fellow businessmen in Bristol, Taunton, Lyme and other towns, with which he was able to immediately procure all the stores he required and proceed to the enlistment of a large number of troops. [Cornwall, p120]

Having had his way with the Lord Privy Seal, Sir Peter wanted to ensure there would be no further weakening of Russell's resolve. To this end he had Russell write to the Council to formally appoint himself and his uncle Sir Gawain Carew as members of Russell's Council of War.

The Protector offers Russell mercenaries

The tone of desperation in Russell's letters to the Council was not lost on the Protector; he decided to redeploy some of the foreign mercenaries commissioned for the campaign against Scotland to strengthen the Royalist force in the west.

Russell had asked the Council to provide infantry rather than cavalry thinking they would be more effective in battle in the lanes and hedgerows of Devonshire. On July 10th the Council wrote to Russell pointing out that it would take several weeks before such a force could be mustered and marched to Devon. Instead he promised to dispatch 150 Italian arquebusiers immediately, to be followed by three or four hundred horsemen under Lord Grey, plus a further 400 foreign horse and 1000 Almainnote1 foot; they had also ordered Sir William Herbert to raise a levy in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire for additional support if required. Two days later they had to confess that the arquebusiers and Grey's horse would be delayed by the disturbances which had broken out in Bucks and Oxfordshire. Here is the relevant part of the original letter containing the offer of reinforcements:

Engraving of a Landsknechte arquebusier
And where your Lordshipp dyssyreth to have a nomber of fote- men, all beyt we thenke yt wold be verie hard to send you in a short tyme suche a nomber of fotemen as with playne force might be hable to mete with the rabells and attempt the settyng on without a suffycent force yt wold be also dengerous, yet do we put in order with all the spede we maye 150 Italyan harquebutters, with furthwith repayre towards you ; we do lykewyse geve order for three or foure hundreth horssemen under the leyding of the lord graie to repayre towards Salysburye and so forward towards you as occasyon shall require, besydes other 400 horssemen strangers and one thossand almaynes fotmen, with we mynd lykwise to send towards you yf nede shall so require. We have also wrytten to Mr. Harbert to be in a Redynes with the force of Wiltshyre and Glocester. (from a Letter sent by the Council to Lord Russell on July 10th, 1549) [Pocock, p23]

The use of foreign mercenaries in an English civil conflict was highly controversial and was bound to be deeply unpopular, especially as they were feared for their extreme brutality. But in the circumstances the Council had little choice. Russell had tried to raise a levy from the commons of Somerset, but they were disinclined. When told of this, the Council wrote back saying that a few of them should be hanged for their treachery as a warning to the others. In addition, Russell was sent a proclamation threatening to forfeit the lands and copyholdsnote2 of any who refused to serve.

The battle of Fenny Bridges

Arquebusiers arrive and take part in skirmish with rebels

By July 21st, following the arrival of the 150 arquebusiers under the command of Paolo Spinola, a Genoese nobleman, it seems likely that Russell's forces had increased to about 1800 men. These included 350 foreign horse of which the majority were Burgundian heavy horse under the command of Jacques Jermigny, the remainder being Albanian light horse captained by Pietro Sanga. There were also 300 English cavalry, the Italian mercenaries, and approximately 1000 native infantry. The rebels had a considerable advantage in numbers, with perhaps twice as many fully equipped men. About one third would have been skilled Cornish bowmen, the remainder billmen. In addition there were many inexperienced lightly armed followers, making about 10000 insurgent fighters in total.

Before the first major battle at Fenny Bridges there was a skirmish between reconnaissance parties from the two sides in the narrow Devon lanes somewhere near Honitonnote3. Cornwall has the rebels faring worse in this brief but intense exchange, though we don't know if any lives were lost on either side.

Thanks largely to Spinola's arquebusiers and the steadiness of the local billmen gallantly led by the gentlemen, he [Russell] got the better of the insurgents who, armed only with bows and bills, stood little chance against the accuracy and penetration of the professionals' disciplined fire. Russell's own archers were not very effective; far too many of their shafts flew wide, and the rebels retrieved them and shot them back. [Cornwall, p132]
Opposing forces meet in first set-piece battle

As July drew to a close, Arundell was keen to take the battle to Russell before the Lord Privy Seal's army was reinforced further by the arrival of Lord Grey's cavalry. Leaving a containing force around Exeter, Arundell advanced to Fenny Bridges that crossed the River Otter about two miles from Honiton. Russell was undecided whether or when to challenge the rebels; his Council of War deliberated for most of the day on what action to take. Eventually the Carews had their way and it was decided to attack the enemy the following day.

Upon the next morning therefore they set forth, and came to the bridge aforesaid, where some of the rebels also were; but the greatest body of them were in a meadow below the bridge: who, as soon as they perceived Lord Russell and his troops, made themselves ready for the fight. The river and the bridge being between them, Lord Russell used all his policy how to win the latter; which by the undaunted valour of his adventurous troops he at length accomplished, but not without considerable loss; Sir Gawen Carew was also hurt by an arrow in the arm.
Russell's soldiers surprised at spoil by Cornish archers
The rebels being driven from the bridge, gathered together in a meadow at the lower side thereof. But Lord Russell, who closely followed, again attacked them so courageously, that tho' they withstood him most manfully, and much blood was shed on both sides, yet they were obliged to give way, and fly before his troops; who, thinking that the victory was certainly now their own, and that the enemy was gone off, thought nothing more than seizing the spoils of the field; but just in the midst of their game, not in the least imagining the enemy would again face them, they were suddenly set upon by a fresh body of Cornishmen, to number of 200 or 240 persons, under the conduct of one Robert Smith, of St. Germans, in Cornwall, Gent. who taking these spoilers napping, many of them paid dearly for their wares.
Lord Russell's men victorious
Lord Russell soon put his scatter'd troops in order, as the rebels did theirs, and the battle was renewed, which for the time was sharp and cruel. For the Cornishmen were very lusty and fresh, and fully bent to fight out the matter: nevertheless they were discomfited, and their captain obliged to fly. In these two fights there were said to be slain about 300 rebels, who were very tall lusty men, and of great courage; and who, in a good cause, might have done better service. [Hooker, p89-90]

The number of fatalities on the Royalist side is not stated by Hooker but is assumed (in secondary sources) to be no more than 100. In this encounter, as in the other major battles, the rebels were numerically inferior. The detachment holding the bridge were probably all Devonshire men who posed less of a threat to Russell's forces than the Cornishmen who arrived later and were possibly armed with longbows. Nevertheless, on the day the arquebus proved its superiority to the arrow.

Emboldened by the victory over the rebels at Fenny Bridges, Lord Russell gave chase to the fleeing stragglers for three miles and was set to advance to Exeter to lift the siege when his household fool Joll suddenly appeared on horseback warning of impending danger from the rear. Joll had remained in Honiton, and with rumours rife in the febrile atmosphere, the ringing of church bells had been misinterpreted by him as the rebels' alarm signal for an impending assault on the loyalist forces. Russell, believing the threat to be real, cautiously withdrew his men to their base in Honiton.

Russell sent messages to the mayor of Exeter urging him to be patient, promising to relieve the siege of the city within days. Some severe summer storms probably delayed his departure from Honiton for a few more days.

Further encounters at Woodbury Common and Clyst St Mary

More reinforcements arrive

Shortly after the Royalist success at Fenny Bridges Lord Russell's army was strengthened by the arrival of Lord Grey de Wilton with 250 horse and a further 80 of Spinola's arquebusiers. The composition and size of Russell's forces at this time is somewhat uncertain; Hooker was holed up in Exeter and his figure of "about 1000 fighting men" is almost certainly too low. Julian Cornwall in his Revolt of the Peasantry 1549 estimates that the strength of the Lord Privy Seal's army was by then upwards of 3000 men of which just under half were foreigner mercenariesnote4.

Etching of Landsknechts by Daniel Hopfer, ca. 1530

The army was organized in three divisions or 'battles': the vanguard would have included Lord Grey's horse and Spinola's arquebusiers, while the other two divisions would most likely have comprised the German Landsknechte, and the locally recruited foot possibly under the command of Sir Peter Carew. Cornwall suggests that after the vanguard division had reached the mill, Spinola recommended to Lord Russell that they continue their advance towards Clyst St Mary, not waiting for the infantry to arrive, thereby hoping to surprise the enemy. If this is so, then the battle that took place that day on the common, as described briefly by Hooker, was between Russell's forward division on the move, and the rebels advancing towards them.

Royalist forces triumph once again at Woodbury Common
Accordingly, about six days after, on Saturday 3rd August, he set out from Honiton, and marched in good order, towards Exeter, with about 1000 fighting men under his command; but leaving the direct high road, he came over the down towards Woodbury, and there pitched his camp that night at a windmill belonging to one Gregory Carie, Gent. When the rebels of St. Mary Clyst heard thereof, they forthwith assembled all their force, and marched forward until they came to the aforesaid mill, where they gave battle; and notwithstanding they fought most valiantly, at length they were defeated, and a great number of them slain. [Hooker, p92]

Following this latest victory Lord Russell's chaplain Miles Coverdale, a militant Protestant preacher who was subsequently ordained as Bishop of Exeter in place of Veysey, gave a sermon of general thanksgiving. The distant sound of troops on the move interrupted his words, galvanizing the cavalry to remount and prepare to counter a fresh attack. It soon became evident the it was simply the main rebel force regrouping at Clyst St Mary.

The battle of Clyst St Mary begins
Battle of Clyst St Mary, August 4-5, 1549

Early the following morning Russell's army assembled and set off on the three mile march to Clyst St Mary. The rebels had worked hard overnight, building fresh ramparts to extend the defensive line to the east of the village. This line followed the deep lane that ran between high banks down to Grindle Brook.

Lord Russell's forces retreat ignominiously after false alarm
On Sunday Russell pushed forward, dividing his army into three parts, each to assail one of the ramparts defending the entry. Sir William Francis, of Somerset, led the advance; the barricades were taken and the army entering the village, when Sir Thomas Pomeroy, who had hidden himself in a furze close with a trumpeter and drummer, caused them to sound the trumpet and beat the drum. Russell and his company, thinking themselves caught in an ambush, retired hurriedly; the panic spread - Tudor armies appear to always to have been very temperamental; the wagons were left in the highway; the rebels brought them into the village with all their munitions and treasure. [Rowse, p277]

This was probably the decisive moment of the campaign: for want of a few hundred cavalry, the rebels were unable to pursue the Royalist army retreating in disarray. Once they had realised there was no threat from the rear they reformed and embarked upon a fresh assault of the village. The rebels had regrouped behind the original front line, occupying the village houses as strongpoints, but the mercenaries exposed these positions as vulnerable by igniting the thatched roofs.

The battle is rejoined in earnest and rebels defeated once again
The army having recovered the hill did pause there for a while; and finding themselves to be deceived, marched back again towards the town; but before they came thither, his Lordship was inform'd that every house therein was fortified, and full of men; and that it was not possible to pass that way without great danger unless the town was set on fire. Upon this, order was given to set fire thereto, notwithstanding it belonged to his Lordship. Sir William Francis, who was at the head of the foremost division, leaving the road which he first march'd, took now one that was both deep and narrow; when the enemy, being upon the banks on each side of the road, with stones so beat him, that they struck his headpiece fast to his head, of which he died.
The army having, however, got into the town, set fire to every house they could come at. But the rebels, who now assembled themselves in the middle of it, stood upon their defence; when a very fierce, cruel, and bloody fight began, in which some were slain by the sword, some burnt in the houses, some shifting for themselves, were taken prisoners, and many, thinking to escape over the water, were drowned; so that there fell that day about a thousand of these obstinate and foolish men. [Hooker, p93-94]
The bridge over the River Clyst is taken

With Russell's army in control of the town, the surviving rebels made good their escape across the bridge which was blocked with felled trees and defended by a cannon manned by a solitary gunner. Lord Grey was keen to get his cavalry to the open fields of Clyst Heath by fording the river, but the tidal surge in the river made this unsafe. A local man, John Yarde, came to their aid, recalling that there was a shallower crossing further upstream that could be utilised for the horse. Nevertheless, it was necessary to clear the bridge to allow the infantry to cross.

Proclamation was now made, that whoever should pass first over the bridge, should have 400 crowns as a reward. Immediately hereupon one of the company, more respecting the gain that forecasting the peril, gave the adventure; but the gunner discharging his piece, slew him. But before he could again charge his piece, one of the company who had before passed over the water, entered the bridge at the farther end, and coming behind him, slew him; and the timber and trees then removed, the whole army passed over the bridge to the heath. [Hooker, p95]
Slaughter of prisoners at Clyst Heath
An unknown nobleman, thought to be Lord Grey de Wilton in 1547, by Gerlach Flicke

Gazing across to Woodbury Hill from Clyst Heath, Grey thought he could make out a sizeable formation of armed men marching towards Clyst St Mary. He feared that the many prisoners taken in battle at the mill and in the fighting in the village might escape and rejoin their comrades should there be a further engagement with the rebels. He gave orders for all the prisoners to be killed forthwith. This was the signal for a most grisly spectacle as the captors slit the throats of the several hundred hapless captives.

This was the way to treat a rebellious peasantry: warfare with mercenaries on the continental model. [Rowse, p 277]
Rebels return to the fray next morning

Lord Russell's forces had camped overnight on the high ground of Clyst Heath. Meanwhile, Arundell having heard news of the bloody events of the day before, summoned all the remaining rebels including those dug in round the walls of Exeter for one last thrust against the Royalists. The aim was to strike first thing in the morning from lower down the heath, hoping to catch their opponents unprepared. At daybreak the rebels discharged their ordnance at the bivouacked army who in response quickly separated into the usual three divisions for a counterattack. Russell's division, being to the left in an enclosed position, was unable to get at the enemy.

Lord Russell having no way open before him, caused his pioneers to cut thro' the hedges of inclosed grounds; by which means he at length came upon the back of the enemy; and they were so entrapped on every side, that they could not any way escape, but must either yield or fight. The one they would not, and in the other they prevailed not; tho' indeed they fought most stoutly, nor would give out as long as life and limb lasted; so that few or none were left alive. Great was the slaughter, and cruel was the fight; and such was the valour of these men, that the Lord Grey declared, that he never, in all the wars that he had been, knew the like. [Hooker, p96]
Lord Russell relieves Exeter at long last

With the crushing of the remnants of the insurgents, it appeared to Lord Russell that the rebellion was now over. He marched his army in orderly fashion the short distance to Topsham where they remained overnight. The body of Sir William Francis, the highest ranking Royalist casualty of the campaign, was carried in a horse litter for subsequent burial with full military honours in Exeter cathedral.

On hearing of their latest defeat and the imminent arrival of Russell's army, the last of the rebels manning the walls outside the city melted away, fearing for their own safety. The gentlemen who had been imprisoned in churches and other places outside the city, having been freed, went to the gates and informed the watch that the siege was now lifted. They in turn passed this news to the mayor.

Early the next morning (being Tuesday August 6th, 1549) Lord Russell, thinking it long till he came to the relief of the city, commanded the trumpet to sound, and every man to make ready to march. Accordingly, about eight o'clock the same morning, he drew near to the walls, and pitch'd his tent in St. John's Fields, adjoining to Southernhay, to the inexpressible joy of the citizens. [Hooker, p98]

For want of provisions within the city for his army, the Lord Privy Seal was urged to set up camp outside the walls where he raised the red dragon of the King's Standard. The mayor and his aldermen came out to greet Russell who thanked them for their loyalty and steadfastness, saying that the king would reward them amply, which in due course he did. Amongst other privileges granted to the city by the crown, they were allowed to reclaim the Manor of Exe Island which had been seized from them by the Earls of Devon. Sir William Herbert arrived with his Welsh levies shortly afterwards. They were too late to participate in battle, but showed considerable enthusiasm for plundering the neighbouring countryside to gather badly needed victuals for the starving citizens and Russell's hungry combatants, so that within two days the city was fully restocked.

Russell remained at Exeter for twelve days, ordering the meting out of summary justice to those deemed to have been rebel ringleaders while pardoning those who played a minor role provided they pledged their loyalty to the crown and the new religion.

Sites of major battles leading up to the relief of Exeter

The map shows the sites of the decisive battles between the rebels and the forces of the crown led by Lord Russell prior to the relief of Exeter during the Prayer Book Rebellion.


'Almain foot' refers to German mercenary infantry, possibly equipped with Almain plate, a form of light breast armour consisting of overlapping plates, that was invented in that country in the 15th century. Some writers refer to these mercenaries Landsknechte (e.g. Cornwall[5, p177]). [return]
copyhold was a form of property tenure falling short of freehold that was in widespread use in England at the time. Evidence of such tenure was held in the rolls of the manorial court. Protector Somerset was of the opinion that forfeiture of copyhold was likely to be an effective punishment: [return]
..the matyer of Copiholds being so generall a leving to the nomber of those shires, shalbe as moche a terror as anye other thing that can be possibly devised. [letter from Somerset and the Council to Russell, July 29th] Pococke[2, p32]
Rose-Troup[3, p253] refers to this brief encounter as "a skirmish in the streights" (her quotes), saying that it gave no tangible result. [return]
Using all available evidence, Cornwall[5, p178] gives this table showing the composition of Lord Russell's army prior to the battle at Woodbury Common on August 3rd. [return] :
Russell's retinue and local horse 300
Grey's English horse 250
Jermigny's horse 259
Sanga's horse 141
--------------------------------- ----
Total horse 950
--------------------------------- ----
2 ensigns of landsknechts(say) 850
Spinola's arquebusiers 212
Somerset and Dorset levies(say) 1,000
--------------------------------- ------
Total foot 2,062
--------------------------------- ------


Primary sources.
The ancient history and description of the city of Exeter by John Hooker, Andrews and Trewman, Exeter, 1765. This book is a compilation of earlier writings of Hooker and others.
Troubles Connected with the Prayer Book of 1549 - Original documents and letters edited by Nicholas Pocock, Camden Society, London, 1884.
Secondary sources.
The Western Rising 1549: The Prayer Book Rebellion by Philip Caraman, Westcountry Books, 1994.
Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549 by Julian Cornwall, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.
Tudor Cornwall by A L Rowse, 2nd Edition, Macmillan, 1969.


The map icon signifying the battle locations is derived from the original by MapMaster and is reproduced under the CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons License.