Cornish history: the Prayerbook Rebellion

The Prayerbook Rebellion started when Henry decided to divorce Katherine.

Yeah, that Henry. Isn’t it odd how we’re on first-name terms with people who wouldn’t have known us from the dirt under their feet?

By way of full disclosure, I set the start date a little early, just for context, so nothing happened for the first few years. Then in 1534 Henry founded the Church of England, with himself as its head. And–no one could’ve been more surprised than him–it decided to grant him his divorce, which the Catholic Church was being very crabby about.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. 


Henry the Much-Married starts the ball rolling downhill

The reconfiguration of the church took on a logic of its own, and starting in 1536 Henry closed religious centers–monasteries, hospitals, nunneries, abbeys. Some of them served a purpose in their communities–as schools and hospitals. The confiscated land and the buildings went to the crown and a lot of it was sold off to the wealthy. Who else had that kind of money? 

We’ll get to Cornwall any minute here. I promise.

In 1537, Henry banned the feasts on saints’ days. That included St. Piran’s Day, which is where I finally get Cornwall into the picture. St. Piran is Cornwall’s patron saint, and at this point we have a reaction on record: A fisherman from St. Keverne planned a protest and was arrested and probably executed. In Truro–Cornwall’s capital–a customs officer tried to stop a ship carrying people to Brittany to celebrate some unspecified saint’s day. He was pushed into the sea. The story seems to drop out of history there but let’s assume the ship got away and the people came back later and lived happily ever after.

The next year, pilgrimages were banned. 

You get a sense of how life was changing, right? Anne Bolyn, who Henry divorced Katherine for, had been dead by Henry’s executioner’s hand for two years by now. I mention that as a reminder of how far all this had wandered from where it started.

Along with the ban on pilgrimages came a directive that churches had to use an English-language translation of the bible. When I first heard about that–this was, oh, maybe a hundred years ago–I thought it meant people could understand the book they considered holy. The problem was, English wasn’t Cornwall’s language. Cornish was. 

It didn’t go down well. So let’s talk about the ways Cornwall was both a part of England and not English.


Cornwall as a country and a county

Cornwall was governed by England at this point, and it had been for a long time. Technically speaking, it was just another English county.  But it also had a distinctive culture: Not just its own language, but its own style of dress, folklore, naming customs, agricultural practices, and games and pastimes.”

High on the list of games and pastimes was pushing customs officers into the sea.

Cornwall also had two distinctive administrative institutions, the Stannary organisation, which oversaw tin mining, and  the Duchy of Cornwall. We won’t stop to make sense of those; we’ll just take it on faith they underlined its sense of separation.

Writers of the time–and well into the next century–wrote about the Cornish as a separate people, as distinct and recognizable as the Welsh, and about Cornwall as almost a separate country.

So that’s what we get to plunk onto the separate-country side of the scales. On the English-county side was an English gentry, which England had long since imposed on Cornwall, and the gradual inward seep of the English language. 

It might not have looked that way at the time, but from our point of view we can see the Cornish language in a slow retreat from the Devon border down toward the tip of Cornwall’s foot. 

Why’d that happen? The English gentry spoke English, although they may (or may not–I don’t know) have spoken Cornish as well. That made it useful to know enough English to do business with them, to work for them, to mix with them in whatever other ways the non-gentry mixed with the gentry. To people who cared about refinement, the fact that the gentry spoke English would’ve made English seem like the language of refinement. 

Cornwall’s ports would also have been full of the English language and the people who spoke it. This was a time when it was easier to get from, say, London by sea than by road.


All hell breaks (slowly) loose

In 1547, colleges, hospitals, chapels, and guilds were closed, and no provision was made for anyone else to fill the roles they’d played in caring for the sick and educating–well, some small number of kids, but still it mattered to the ones who might’ve been able to take advantage of it, leaving a very practical gap. The next year, an English official was stabbed when he tried to take down an image in a parish church. 

That makes it sound like a sudden thing. It wasn’t. The conflict had rocked back and forth for months, but we don’t do detail here at Notes. Twenty-eight Cornishmen were arrested and ten were executed for it. 

Then in 1549, Edward VI–or at least his government, since he’d have been somewhere in the neighborhood of eleven–introduced the Book of Common Prayer. Which was in English. And it insisted that church services follow it. That demand’s called the Act of Uniformity, in case that rings any bells from your long-buried memory of history classes.




For all that Cornish was in retreat, it was still Cornwall’s language, and for many people it was their only language. This wasn’t bringing the church’s language closer to them, it was moving it further away. 

Nationalism, meet outraged religious beliefs. You’ll find you have a lot to talk about.

Three thousand men gathered outside Bodmin–the geographical center of Cornwall, in case that’s of any relevance, which I suspect it isn’t–and drew up a set of complaints. They chose a leader, Humphrey Arundell, who was one of the richest and most powerful men in Cornwall and from an aristocratic English Catholic family. 

Was he Cornish or English? These days, the only way to figure out who’s Cornish and who isn’t is by how many generations of ancestors a person has buried in Cornish soil. I’ve been told four. I’ve also been told two. Either way, I’m too late. Whether either of those was the standard then, when Cornish identity was more sharply defined, I don’t know. I know Arundell was born in Cornwall and that he had family in England. He could as easily have been moved by religious belief as by nationalism. 

Either this set of complaints of a later one (sorry–the quotes have all gone adrift) said, “We will not receive the newe service because it is but lyke a Christmas game, and so we the Cornyshe men (wherof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.” 

Half the church’s confiscated land was to be returned.

The complaints were sent to the government, which shrugged its shoulders and ignored them, convinced everyone would settle down as soon as it was time for Coronation Street to come on.

Then, in the random way that these things tend to happen, a rebellion broke out in Devon, the neighboring county: A congregation forced its priest to conduct the service in Latin, and in case that wasn’t enough, a supporter of the book of Common Prayer was killed. Somehow or other things escalated and the next thing anyone knew (okay: the next thing I knew) an army was marching on Exeter, Devon’s capital. 

You know how things can get out of hand, right? One day you’re killing someone over a prayer book and before you know you’ve got a whole damn army and you’re marching on the capital, thinking, How’d I get here? Do I really want to do this? Did someone think to bring sandwiches?

Arundell hadn’t wanted a fight, but the snowball was rolling downhill too fast. His army started off toward London. His plan was to talk to the government, with a few thousand soldiers at his back to serve as a megaphone, but on the way it took Trematon Castle, where some members of the gentry had holed up, and Plymouth. It also took St Michael’s Mount, which is in the wrong direction. This tells us that sat-navs (what Americans would soon learn to call GPSs) were no different then than they are now.  

Plymouth, by the way, isn’t in Cornwall, it’s in Devon, a change that’s marked by the River Tamar, which is wide enough at that point that you’d be hard put not to notice it. It’s also very wet, both there and along its entire length. But like I said, snowball; downhill; and melting gently in the Tamar’s waters. Who’s going to argue about county borders when all that’s going on?


Across the Tamar

At roughly this point, the Cornish and Devon armies joined together and laid siege to Exeter for five weeks, and they would have blown up the city walls but their gunpowder was too wet. That’s the English weather for you. 

The Cornish weather’s no better.

In London, the news that a Cornish army was marching on London caused a panic. Bridges were pulled down. Plays were banned–they might turn people against the government. France rubbed its hands and declared war.

The government sent soldiers to defend Exeter.

The leaders of the Cornish on Devonian armies wrote the government again, saying essentially the same thing: “We will have our old service of matins, mass, evensong and procession in Latin as it was before.”

This time the government wrote back. Three times, in fact, all of them saying no. In a long-winded, oddly spelled sort of way.

Several battles were fought, and I won’t drag you through them. The English army was bigger and the Cornish and Devonians lost. In one battle so many were captured that the English were afraid they’d lose control of them and slaughtered them instead. 

In the final battle, 1,400 were killed and the survivors fled. Arundell went into hiding and was captured (his servant turned out to have been working for the English). He was taken to London and with other leaders of the rebellion was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Which kind of makes getting slaughtered en masse by the people who captured you look almost good. 

His lands were also confiscated and given to the leader of the English army that had defeated him. He was past doing anything with them by then, but it meant his family lost out. 

All told, some three thousand to four thousand Westcountry men were killed, including some priests and mayors hanged after the rebellion was over. According to one source, hundreds may have been killed for taking part–including many who may not have had anything to do with the uprising. 


The aftermath

The Cornish language went into a sharper decline after this, and although the Book of Common Prayer was translated into Welsh, it was never translated into Cornish.

Mind you, I’m not sure how welcome the translation was in Wales.

Stained glass windows were broken out of Cornish churches and images with any scent of Catholicism were destroyed, as they were elsewhere in England. 

Maps stopped showing Cornwall as a separate nation, and by 1700 you don’t find anyone writing about it as almost a separate country.

Ironically, the defeat of the rebellion, which was against the king’s new religion, set Cornwall up to support the king during the Civil War. The king was seen as British and the Parliamentary Army was seen as English. I suspect you had to be there at the time for that to make sense. The Parliamentary Army was also far more Protestantly Protestant than the king’s. I don’t know how heavily that weighed on the scales, but I assume it mattered.

When the king was defeated, it was another whack on the head for Cornwall’s status as an almost-country of its own.

45 thoughts on “Cornish history: the Prayerbook Rebellion

  1. Fascinating stuff. Those English prayer books upet a lot of people (I have a vague memory of it being one of the triggers with the Scots just before the English civil war). It’s had enough having your common lands enclosed (pinched by the gentry) and the monasteries closed down and sold off the the gentry (again) but to have your language of prayer changed was obviously a bridge too far. !”Bloody” Mary has a reputation for being brutal (some 280 odd executions, I think) whereas Henry VIII was much more bloody and vicious in his reprisals.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a bit confused, because hasn’t Cornwall been part of England as long as Wessex has, since England first came into existence? It might have managed to keep its own identity for longer than the rest of the ancient kingdoms, but it’s not like Wales which was a separate country conquered by the English.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was conquered (as I understand it, and my Cornish history is shaky) by the Anglo-Saxons–who destroyed a lot of records, which doesn’t help people who want to reconstruct the history. But since its people were Celtic, not Anglo-Saxon, it didn’t fold as seamlessly into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Exactly why Wales maintained its status as a country and Cornwall didn’t quite I can’t explain.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s what I thought. It could hardly have had a status as a separate country from a country it was part of (however unwillingly) from the beginning. Cornwall wasn’t conquered by the English, it was English. It was another three centuries before Wales was conquered.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, I think we’d have to say it was conquered (and wasn’t English, except for legally speaking), but it happened earlier. Presumably that’s the difference. It occupied an odd position–both English and not English.


  3. Presumably there was no identifiable leader claiming sovereignty over Cornwall, in the way the Welsh had (competing) princes capable of maintaining armies and making life difficult for the Norman kings.

    Next up, Trelawny and the Seven Bishops (about the only bit of Cornish history I ever came scross at school)?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Extremely interesting – information that is fairly easy to take in about something I had no clue about. That’s the real point of education – to never want to stop learning something new !
    I asked Lord Google for a map of Cornwall and was surprised at some of the places I’d read of but didn’t connect with WHERE exactly they were – like Tintagel and The Lizard.-St Ives – and Eden ?? THE Eden ? (Some people contend Eden was on the Mississippi River.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies so this blog fits nicely into where my historical head was at. Recommend them highly (at least the first two as I’ve not read the third yet) for an absorbing take on Tudor England. It has always made me wonder why so many people objected to the English Bible, even in the English speaking areas of the country, because I suspect very few of them could read any Latin. And granted, general literacy rates were low but, there would have been more who could read English. Is this a case of better the God that you don’t know than the God you may be in danger of getting to know?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Literacy was increasing in Tudor times but was still very limited. I think it wasn’t about reading the Bible but about going to hell–or not. The church had, for centuries, told people that they way to avoid hell was to do what the priest said. The priest was the link between you and everything holy–and the church’s language was Latin. I expect to most people the language itself was holy. It must’ve been terrifying to be told you couldn’t use it anymore. What would happen to you after you died?

      I enjoyed Mantel’s books too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s hard for me to imagine that level of trust and belief, being the small scale cynic that I am! But the reformation movements were definitely pushed forward by the educated, up and coming mercantile classes and I wonder how much literacy increased with this sea change. I blame Johannes Gutenberg!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m sure a lot of people did.

          At a late date, the Methodist movement may have been started by a minister–presumably from the middle class–but it was very much a working class movement. Which is probably completely irrelevant, but it comes to mind as a point of comparison.


    • Well, yes, because the object was to keep the person alive throughout. So they’d be hanged not quite until dead, then have their guts spilled out in front of them. And so on. Guy Fawkes managed to cheat them by throwing himself off the ladder once they had the noose around his neck and dying faster than they wanted.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The thing that shocked me most about the way this uprising was put down was the use of foreign mercenaries by the crown. They used them as well in suppressing the Kett rebellion in Norfolk that was going on at the same time. I found it quite hard to comprehend a government bringing foreigners to kill their own people – really shows the low regard they had for those who did the backbreaking work on which their wealth rested.
    The Voices of Morebath by Eamon Duffy is worth looking at by anyone interested in the effect of the Reformation at the village level. It looks at a single Devon village Morebath from 1520 to 1574.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The book sounds good and I’ll look for it. Thanks. The sources I found on this, like you, emphasized the use of foreign mercenaries. I skipped over them, since they didn’t strike me as central to the story, but in hindsight they may well speak to the government’s sense that the country was almost slipping away from it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the government was under pressure – they’d been at war with Scotland and there was inflation, unemployment, rising rents and declining wages. Grievance was growing among the common people not only due to the imposition of Protestantism and loss of the old ways of worship but landlords encroaching on common lands, some even dispossessing tenants. CJ Sansom’s Tombland, which covers the Kett rebellion, shows well how many of the common people felt. He also has a comprehensive 50 page essay on the Rebellion at the end of the book. The only thing is that to get the best from the novel, although it can stand alone, you need to have read the preceding six solid books.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Is WordPress going to let me comment today? Why not find out?

    The relationship between Cornwall and England is interesting. I imagine it was only possible in times when most people couldn’t read any language, had no paper anyway, and had to travel by boat or horse to get further than they could walk. Cornwall certainly wasn’t a colony, nor anything so formal as a protectorate. More like a territory?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure we’re going to find a parallel from more recent times. They’re too different. And I struggle to understand the relationship, so approach any explanation I offer with extreme caution. Having said that, though, I doubt we should go past the almost-a-country but also a county formulation. In legal terms, it was and is a county, and yet it wasn’t like the English counties. That’s about as far as I can get.

      And thank you, WordPress, for allowing the comment to come through.


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