The Prayer Book rebellion, also referred to as the Western Rising, took place between 6th June and 17th August 1549, in Devon and Cornwall. This was a response to widespread opposition to the authorisation of the Book of Common Prayer in January of the same year.
Following Henry VIII’s religious reformations through the 1520s and 30s, the English state religion had moved away from the Pope’s rule of Catholicism and instead adopted the church of England. While still Catholic, this placed the English monarch at the head of the church and brought change to the nature of religious practice in England. Following Henry’s death in 1547, his nine-year-old son came to the throne and his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset was appointed as his Lord Protector. Due to the break away from Papal authority and the subsequent religious changes, there were existing tensions in England. This was only furthered by the Duke of Somerset’s Protestant ambitions for the country, which promised to cause more change and unrest.
The Common Book of Prayer was composed primarily by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. Cranmer had been appointed in 1533 by Henry VIII and was the first Protestant to ever hold the position. The book combined traditional, Catholic ideas with more reformist, Protestant ideas to propose a compromise between the two prominent sectors of English religion. This was introduced as the official liturgy of Edward VI’s Protestant church, and so was to be adopted by churches nationwide. However, rather than working to appease the two sides, it prompted opposition from both; the Book of Common Prayer proved too reformist for traditionalists, and too traditional for reformists, leading to public unrest. Despite an inclusion of some traditional elements, the book made highly significant changes to English religious practice, such as the focus on doctrines of justification by faith and predestination, along with the erasure of a sense of merit surrounding human contribution to salvation. In addition to this, it focused on the English language as opposed to Latin, which was central to the teachings of Catholicism. New prayer and service practices were introduced, but the Liturgical calendar was left mostly unchanged, which is evident of the compromise between reform and traditional ideas. Despite some continuation, these significant changes brought unrest among the particularly traditionalist South West of England.
In early June, the rebellion began, as the Catholic inhabitants of Sampford Courtenay, Devon, led by William Underhill, persuaded their parish priest to disobey the enforcement of the Book of Common Prayer and revert to the usual Latin service. As word of this revolt spread, protesters gathered and made their way to Crediton, close to Exeter, where they were attacked by a group of Protestants who killed several of the protesters. This only angered the rebels further, taking the uprising from a small protest to a full-scale rebellion. Despite some Protestant resistance, by the 2nd of July, the Devon rebels, assisted by another group from Cornwall, besieged the city of Exeter. Due to the preoccupation of Edward VI’s forces with other rebellions, the king sent Lord Russel to suppress the uprising, who was too afraid to attack the rebels. Around the 26th of July, on the verge of the city’s surrender, the rebels put forward their formal demands, in which they officially opposed the Crown’s religious policies.
Lord Russell soon received reinforcements, which aided him in defeating a group of rebels who had advanced towards his base, and soon after he led his army to a full defence of Exeter. The battle of Clyst Heath on the 5th of August was brutal; the rebels were defeated and the remainder of them abandoned the siege of the city. Russel and his army went on to liberate Exeter on the 6th of August, which was celebrated annually for years following. The rebels regrouped at Sampford Courtenay and began gathering more men, but Russell acted quickly in another savage defeat of the rebels, killing Underhill and many others. Following this battle, Russell’s troops continued to imprison and sometimes execute the inciting rebellious figures, such as the vicar of the rebellious Cornish parish of St Keverne, who was hanged on the 26th of August. The surviving rebel leaders were then sent up to London, found guilty of treason, and then publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered, taking the estimated number of deaths during the rebellion to around 4,000.
Various other editions of the Book of Common Prayer were published following the 1549 edition. The 1552 edition was significantly more reformist and made great changes, which were inevitably reversed by the successive, heavily Catholic reign of Mary I. The 1552 edition was restored during the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I, under the 1559 Act of Uniformity. The later 1662 edition of the prayer book remains the standard liturgy of most Anglican churches in the British Commonwealth.
Though it was defeated, the Prayer Book Rebellion represents the nature and scale of social unrest in the Early Modern period, along with the population’s refusal to accept radical changes that were in opposition to their beliefs. Rebellions proved to be a significant threat to the English monarchy in the Tudor period, which is evident of their effectiveness in encouraging change.
By Gabriella Bee