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The Siege of Exeter of 1549 - the Prayer Book Rebellion

Back to historic events in Exeter

In 1549 West country rebels laid siege to Exeter. The siege lasted for five weeks before it was put down after severe fighting, by Lord John Russell, Lord Lieutenant of the West Country, and an army of three thousand troops, half of them foreign mercenaries.

The rebels were protesting against the new Prayer Book, which had been translated into English. They wanted to keep the old Latin prayer book. Cornishmen in particular were very angry, because they could not speak English and were used to the Latin services. The leaders sent a draft of their demands to the King, insisting that the Mass be in Latin and that all Latin services and ceremonies be restored.

Although the movement was supported by many clergy, it was predominantly a layman's movement by the people, who did not want to lose the devotional practices to which they had become accustomed.

The rebels demands were ignored. The government ordered the new Prayer Book to be used in all parishes on Whit Sunday June 9th. This caused widespread anger, and Sampford Courtenay the parish priest was prevented from saying the new service.

A rash gentleman, William Hellyons, tried to suppress the protest and was swiftly murdered by the angry crowd. Within ten days the Devonshire rebels had camped at Crediton. They were joined by the men of Cornwall, and so began the siege of Exeter.

The Rebellion is Defeated

Lord Russell collected reinforcements at Honiton and in the following battles at Fenny Bridges, Clyst Heath and Clyst. St Mary, the rebels were defeated and retreated westward.

The royal troops entered the city on August 6th and the siege was over. The retreating rebels were beaten at Samford Courtenay, and after a last hopeless stand at Launceston the rebellion was ended.

Then came vengeance on the leaders. Brutal executions were carried out in Devon and Cornwall.

The vicar of St. Thomas, Robert Welshe was condemned to suffer as a traitor. He was hauled to the top of the church tower in chains, in full vestments and his tarred body left there for nearly four years, as an example. He had, in fact, saved the city from burning, by preventing the rebels from shooting blazing arrows over the city wall, but that did not spare him the dreadful fate which followed.

There was no great enthusiasm for the reformed faith. A long-expected raid on their goods had been anticipated by many parishes. When the royal commissioners came to St. Olaves church in Exeter, they were told by the wardens that they had sold a great deal of their plate to pay for a new font, a lectern and a pulpit.

The Bishop of Exeter was ordered to surrender his see to the King, Edward VI. His successor was Miles Coverdale, a strict Protestant who later became famous as the first translator of the English Bible. He was appointed Bishop of Exeter in 1551.

By Margaret Ball

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