the prayer book rebellion 1549


4 months – May till August


  • Commons rising, later led by Sir Humphrey Arundell
  • Articles of Protest written by Robert Welsh, a Cornish vicar working near Exeter (thus joining traditionally hostile Cornish and Devonians. He was a man of action – a wrestler and good shot with a crosssbow

Main causes

  • Significant religious element – concern at introduction of new more strictly Protestant prayer book by Edward VI, bans on festivals and pilgrimage
  • Hatred of the government’s greedy and careerist main agent in the area, William Body – a protégé of Thomas Cromwell

Subsidiary causes.

  • Long term economic problems – population, inflation, enclosure
  • Government introduction of a poll tax on sheep
  • 1548 was the first poor harvest for 16 years. (NB there are other examples of trouble happening the year after a poor harvest – 1489 was another such year.)


  • Siege of Exeter by rebels, battle afterwards in which 4,000 rebels are killed by a government force of German mercenaries.
  • Government does not make concessions to the rebels

Degree of threat          

Medium. There was widespread discontent, but no rebel advance into southern England as in 1497. Somerset was distracted by Kett or things would have been over sooner


Cornwall and Devon were among the poorest areas of England and, being peripheral and conservative, were also bastions of Catholic feeling. Discontent there was exacerbated by difficult economic conditions, especially an especially poor harvest in 1548. This combined with rumours that the government planned to introduce a new ta on every sheep – a major threat to farmers, especially in Devon.

William Body arrived in Cornwall in 1548 to ensure that government orders that all Catholic images in the local churches were destroyed had been carried out. One spark was provided in the parish of St Keverne, where a mob led by the local priest attacked and killed him. This provided an example when a second order arrived, proclaiming that the Anglican new prayer book and English-language Bible would be introduced on Whitsunday 1549. This inspired a major local landowner, Sir Humphrey Arundell, to draw up a petition demanding the reinstatement of the old forms of worship. (This petition places the Western Rebellion in the same tradition as the Pilgrimage of Grace.)

Protesters began to gather. The main drivers of rebellion were…

  • Imposition of the new Book of Common Prayer and introduction of a new English bible
  • Fear that religious foundations would be shut down and their church goods seized by Protestants
  • Threatened introduction of the Sheep Tax – and fear it would be extended to pigs and geese
  • Spread of enclosure in the west country
  • General economic discontent. Harvests had been good, but population was up 15% since 1520 and prices had more than double

Lord Protector Somerset was slow to respond. He promised to redress grievances but the rebels failed to disperse and it was only after 7 weeks that he sent in troops.

There were 3 possible reasons for this delay …

  • A power vacuum in the west country… Henry and Thomas Cromwell had purged the main local landowners, the Courtenays, 10 years earlier
  • Distance from London, and distractions caused by protests elsewhere in the country – Somerset felt he could not afford to leave London
  • Somerset may have sympathised with the rebels’ anger at the thoughtless way the religious reforms were being implemented (according to AF Pollard)

Taking advantage of government slowness, Arundel and his rebels set up a camp on Bodmin Moor (shades of Kett’s rebellion) and 2,000 men eventually decided to lay siege to the largest city in the area, Exeter. In doing this they made the same error as Kett, turning protest into open rebellion; they also slowed down any move that might have been made against government forces – the siege lasted 6 weeks (which is a sign that the rebels had far from complete support even in the west).

This gave Lord Russell time to arrive with an army of 8,000 well armed and ruthless German mercenaries. They attacked the rebels in August 1549 and killed more than 4,000 in a general massacre. Robert Welsh and Humphrey Arundell were executed.

Reasons for failure

  • No clear achievable aims – rebels’ articles demanded things the government could not grant, such as abandonment of the Reformation. This forced the government to fight
  • Rebel leadership poor – moved slowly and allowed themselves to be bogged down in siege of Exeter

Key stats, quotes & views

  • As in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the rebels marched under Catholic banner of 5 wounds of Christ
  • Unlike Kett’s rebellion, there was no strong undercurrent of class conflict – this was partly because there was no strong local nobility or gentry, hence no significant problems with eg enclosure


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