The Western Rebellion, 1549

By E. T. Fox

I probably first became aware of the so-called ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ while I was researching the early life of Sir Francis Drake for an exhibition when I was working as the curator of a replica of the Golden Hind. Several sources mentioned that the very Protestant Drake family had fled the West Country to avoid persecution by the Catholic conservative rebels. There was not much more detail to be had about the fortunes of the Drake family in 1549, so it became something of a footnote in my researches until I moved into a little cottage in the shadow of Okehampton Castle. I like to know something of the history of where I’m living, and some superficial research led me to believe that the last stand of the 1549 rebels had occurred, literally, in my back yard.

There had been very little written about the rebellion for me to get my teeth into: a couple of slim paperbacks designed for the tourist trade, brief mentions in wider histories, Julian Cornwall’s excellent Revolt of the Peasantry, 1549, which covered both the Western Rebellion and the better-known Kett’s rebellion, and the one big study – The Western Rebellion of 1549, published in 1913 by the indomitable local historian, Mrs Frances Rose-Troup. I devoured them all, fascinated. Here was a major historical event, right on my doorstep, that was barely known about even in Devon, let alone outside the West Country.

I visited the sites at which the action had occurred. I stood on the steps of the church house at Sampford Courtenay where the first blood had been spilled, familiarised myself with the largely-intact defences of Exeter, and walked over the battlefields. It was on one of my battlefield trips that I first got the idea that perhaps there were some errors in the history books. The battle of Fenny Bridges, the first major fighting in the rebellion, occurred when the rebels tried to prevent a Royal army marching to relieve the siege of Exeter by holding a bridge over the River Otter, but the site traditionally identified as the battlefield is about half a mile away. Why defend a bridge from a site nowhere near the bridge?

So I decided to go back to the primary sources and research the rebellion for myself, and in doing so discovered what a brilliant and awful historian Mrs Rose-Troup really was. Her analysis of the situation in the West, the causes of the rebellion, and the personalities of the people involved was superb. Her analysis of the military campaign and battles, however, revealed a penchant for filling in the blanks from her imagination. This might not have been so bad had not every subsequent writer on the rebellion (with the partial exception of Julian Cornwall) followed her narrative of events unquestioningly.

Reassessment of the primary sources led to doubts and questions. Did the rebellion begin in Cornwall, as Rose-Troup and the proponents of the ‘Anglo-Cornish War’ interpretation would have it, or Devon as the only eye-witness chronicler claimed? Was it really all about the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the liturgy from Latin to English, or were there other underlying causes? What part did the government’s landsknecht mercenaries play? Was the massacre of rebels at Clyst Heath (more or less under the Toys R Us carpark) really the ‘worst war crime on English soil’ as several historians, including me, had said? Did the rebels really make their last stand in my garden?

I was pondering these questions when I was approached by Helion and asked if I’d like to write a book on an unspecified sixteenth-century military-history topic of my choice. The rest is history books.

You can now buy ‘The Commotion Time. Tudor Rebellion in the West, 1549’ here.

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