Essential Wessex: The Prayer Book Rebellion

Plaque in Sampford Courtenay

The Prayer Book Rebellion, also known as the Western Rebellion, was an uprising that took place in Devon and Cornwall in 1549. At the time, there was already social unrest due to a poll tax on sheep, and rumours that it was due to be expanded to other forms of livestock. This was a major burden on farming communities. The straw that broke the camel's back proved to be the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in place of the Latin mass.

The use of English was particularly unpopular in the western parts of Cornwall, where there were still many monoglot Cornish speakers at the time. But it was in Sampford Courtenay in Devon where both the first and the last battles of the rebellion were fought.

The rebellion began when a local farmer, William Hellyons, was run through with a pitchfork for supporting the change. The rebels marched on Exeter, where they were defeated by forces summoned by the Council of the West, the regional government set up by Henry VIII. The leader of the rebels, Humphrey Arundell, regrouped at Sampford Courtenay with the promise of reinforcements from Winchester, but was betrayed by his secretary, John Kessell. The reinforcements never came, and vastly outnumbered, the rebels were thoroughly defeated.

The Western Rebellion is still considered an important part of Cornish history. Hopefully, this very brief summary shows that it has a Wessex dimension as well.

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