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The following is a synopsis on the
1549 Cornish Prayer Book Rebellion

 

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St. Hilary, Cornwall, Britain

Howard Curnow writes:

 

 

The 1549 Cornish Prayer Book Rebellion

 

Throughout much of the 15th and 16th centuries Cornwall was in a state of considerable unrest. Notwithstanding the Saxon invasions many centuries previously, followed by the Norman conquest, 500 years ago the Cornish were still a race apart from those east of the Tamar. The use of their own language was widespread, and under Stannary Law, which in many respects meant that they were self-governing, they co-existed alongside England in a situation which a 20th century American President might term a 'favored nation status'. In return for a system of taxation - imposed for the benefit of the Duke of Cornwall - the Stannary Parliament, which had jurisdiction well into present-day Devon, was empowered to overturn 'unwanted' laws handed down to them from Westminster.

However, all was not well in the State of Kernow! Existence in the 15th century must have been tough for anyone, and during the reign of Henry VII the struggle just to survive seemed to be getting more difficult. Things came to a head when, in 1497 Henry imposed an additional tax (to enable him to fight James IV of Scotland) on people, not just in Cornwall, who were already greatly oppressed. The result was the March from St. Keverne to Blackheath, London, the 500th anniversary of which was commemorated by many thousands of people in 1997.

 
 
 

 

The suffering in Cornwall in the wake of this event was great. Many were executed for their complicity in the uprising and their property seized. Even more people had punitive fines imposed, as well as having to pay the tax which sparked the uprising. This would seem to be like trying to squeeze blood out of a stone, and as the years rolled by these events were not forgotten.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries & Chantries from 1536 to 1548 by Henry VIII had considerable impact during the following years, particularly on the people of Penryn, home of that great centre of Cornish learning, Glasney College, and in Bodmin, the acknowledged centre of Cornwall and location of the Priory Church. Although he set himself up as the Head of the 'Church in England', Henry did not change the basic form of Roman Catholic worship to which the people were accustomed. After his death, however, in 1547, those who governed this new Church saw the opportunity for permanent change, thus ensuring their own positions of power. Henry's son, Edward VI, was only nine years old at the time and was unable to withstand the intentions of Archbishop Cranmer. He told the young monarch that he would '... see idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished from your subjects, and all images destroyed.' Much of this planned destruction subsequently took place throughout the land. In recent years the remnants of wall paintings which were plastered over for 'safe keeping' have been discovered in a number of Cornish churches, and the casket containing St. Petroc's remains, which were safely hidden during those troubled years, can still be seen in Bodmin parish church.

The Act of Uniformity was passed and Commissioners of the king travelled all over the country destroying the symbols of the old Catholic form of worship. The blessing of candles on Candlemas Day was banned. Lights and bells used during Holy Communion for the sick and dying were abolished. Ashes on Ash Wednesday, 'palm' leaves on Palm Sunday, creeping to the cross on Good Friday and the distribution of the blessed bread at the church door after Mass - all of these were banned.

Perhaps the ordinary people would have grudgingly accepted change had it been introduced more diplomatically, but diplomacy when dealing with the common man was an unknown art-form. Commissioners were soon to be seen on the highways dressed in the spoils of their deeds. Pieces of holy silver-ware were worn about their bodies, in some cases beaten into sheaths for their daggers. On the 5th April 1548 Sir William Body, Archdeacon of Cornwall (a position which he bought for 30 pounds a year) and hated king's Commissioner, met with a crowd of a thousand farmers, fishermen and miners in Helston. People from all around, from Gwennap, Constantine and St. Keverne (seat of the 1497 rebellion) rioted in the streets of the town, and in the affray, Body was murdered. On 28th May two men were hanged, drawn and quartered for this act, together with seven others who had been there in Helston that day. Ten days later Father Martin Geoffrey, parish priest at St. Keverne was similarly executed in London.

So there was little wonder, by the Spring of 1549 when the new Prayer Book in English had been passed by the Parliament in Westminster and had been given Royal Assent, that the feelings in Cornwall of being forced into something completely unacceptable were raised to the point of action. As in 1497 the people set out on the road to England to seek redress for all these wrong-doings. They joined up with the people of Devon where there were similar riots, in particular to the command that the new Prayer Book should be used in every church in the land on Whitsunday 1549. [There were also riots concerning the introduction of the English Prayer Book in Gloucester, Worcester, Rutland, Norfolk and Suffolk.]

Once again in Cornwall this was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was obvious, for example, that the young king was just a pawn in this power struggle, and amongst the 'Final Demands of the Western Rebels' in 1549 they set out their demands in 'The Articles of us the Commoners of Devonshire and Cornwall in divers Campes by East and West of Excettor' that:

"...we will have the Lawes of our Soverayne Lord Kyng Henry the viii concernynge the syxe articles to be in use again, as in hys time they were ..." [this echoed the previous demands sent from Castle Canyke (Bodmin) that they only wanted the will of the old king to be carried out until the new king was old enough to rule]. The Articles stated further that, "... we wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game ... but we wyll have oure olde service ... in Latten not in Englysh, as it was before. And so we the Cornyshe men (whereof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse this newe Englysh." Sampford Courtenay, just north of Okehampton, made its own impact on history when, as seems likely in Bodmin, St. Ives, Helston, St. Keverne, Launceston, Penryn and many other places throughout Cornwall, the parish priest refused to read from the new Prayer Book. The local people joined the Cornish in their march towards Exeter. Crediton, Ottery St. Mary, Honiton, Fenny Bridges and Clyst St. Mary (where 900 Cornish prisoners were executed in a very short space of time), all have their place in what is known as 'The Prayer Book' or 'Western Rebellion', but it was their lack of success at the City walls of Exeter that was for the rebels the beginning of the end.

A few final points which have long rankled in the memories of the Cornish.

On 2nd July 1549 after Exeter had closed its gates, the army outside was incited to set fire to the City. However, the Rev. Robert Welsh, a Penryn man who was the priest of St. Thomas', across the river from Exeter, persuaded the Cornish not to do so, but to show mercy to the innocent people of the City. This they did, and on the 5th August they released their prisoners and marched away from the walls of the City. Welsh's reward was to be drawn up by a rope about his middle to a gallows projecting from the top of his own church tower. There his body remained in chains, 'bedecked in his popish apparel', for something like three years.

A total of some 4,000 Cornishmen were killed in this uprising, which, together with another 1,000 or so who were hanged afterwards, represented approximately one in ten of the population of Cornwall. With many of these protesters drawn from the areas that still spoke Cornish, the heart was ripped out of the Cornish speaking community. Until this time the history of Cornwall had been played out in the Celtic language of Cornwall.

Another consequence was to lose the close friendship of their Cousins from Brittany. There seems to have been many Bretons caught up in these disturbances, indicating the continuing close relationship between the Cornish and the Bretons, but following 1549 these Catholics from across the sea were no longer welcome in Protestant Britain.

Yet another major change would seem to be the use on English soil of foreign mercenaries. Nearly 1,000 Lanzkechts and Arquebusiers were used to devastating effect by the English to crush the Prayer Book Rebellion.

with grateful thanks to Joanna Mattingley for historical advice, and reference to 'Cornwall's Secret War' (bi-lingual) by Pol Hodge, Kowethas as Yeth Kernewek, 1999; 'The Western Rising' by Philip Caraman, West Country Books, 1994; 'Revolt in the West (The Western Rebellion 1549)' by John Sturt and 'The Western Rebellion of 1549' by Frances Rose-Troup pub. in 1913.

There is no doubt that in the hearts and minds of all true Cornish people, we have not made a great deal of progress since 1549. We have not been able to get the teaching of our mother tongue to be even an option on the schools curriculum. We have not been allowed even the slightest degree of autonomy, even to having our own Member of the European Parliament. We are constantly over-ruled by the English government in Westminster, having a vastly expanded infrastructure, houses and supermarkets constructed against the wishes of the local people, and we have not been allowed to pursue the establishment of a Cornish university. Neither have we been allowed to have our own Economic Development Agency, but have been lumped together with areas 200 miles to the east, areas where commuters drive to their daily work in the city of London, areas where the unit of economic well-being is well over the 100% average figure for the whole of the European Community. We have been so deprived by ! the English governments down through the ages, but in particular since World War II, that the corresponding figure of economic success for Cornwall is 69%. All of this negative administration by the English encourages a constant flow of young Cornish blood out of our country. But we have not given up in the last 50 years, the last 500 years or the last 1,000 years. As we approach the new millenium there is every reason to believe that the wild Celtic enthusiasm for, and love of the world around them, which has shone down through the ages like a rich golden thread in the dull tapestry of the history of Europe, will not only continue to shine, but will blossom under the new European umbrella. There is a determination that Kernow will once again be recognised, accepted and given a degree of autonomy as befits its role in the history of this continent. [To quote the slogan for the Prayer Book Rebellion: Kernow Arta =Cornwall Again!]

Without the drive and determination of our interminable Celtic spirit our people would have given up after the Prayer Book Rebellion, if not before. As it is, we recognise that although we are administered by the English as a part of England, we do not live in England and we are not English. We are 'Cornish', 'Celtic', 'British' & 'European'.
KERNOW BYS VYKEN (kernow biss vicken) = CORNWALL FOR EVER.

 

Howard Curnow, Route Organiser.

tel / fax: (44) 1736.710116
An Gernyk, St. Hilary, Penzance

>

kernow@netcomuk.co.uk

 

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