The Western Rebellion, which started in 1547, involved the western counties of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. The Western Rebellion is the title given ostensibly to a religious rebellion against the 1547 Act of Uniformity. However, it also coincided with social and economic problems within these counties whereby the gentry was accused of using the dislocation associated with the Reformation as an entity to grasp land from the people and to push through at a local level further enclosure. What was more important – religion or land issues – is difficult to ascertain.
The Western Rebellion started in Cornwall. Here, an archdeacon called William Body was disliked for his support of Protestantism. He was also known for his greed. When Body started to push through the reforms introduced by the Privy Council, he provoked an angry response. He was attacked by an angry mob in Penryn and, for his own personal safety, fled to London. In April 1548, Body returned to Cornwall to supervise the destruction of Catholic images in churches. At Helston, Body was set upon by a mob led by a local priest and killed. The authorities hanged ten men for this crime.
In 1549, men from Cornwall set up an armed camp at Bodmin as they feared that the Act of Uniformity was going to be imposed on Cornwall. However, the leaders of the rebels also voiced their anger towards local gentry for grabbing land that the common people believed was theirs. For this reason few gentry gave their support to the rebels. The demands of the rebels not only failed to attract support amongst the hierarchy in the West, it also greatly angered the government in London. Thomas Cranmer in particular viewed their demands as Catholic and seditious.
What did the rebels demand?
As with many rebellions of Tudor times, the rebels issued a list of demands. However, the very way these were written provoked a very negative reaction in London. In the past, rebels had invariably shown deference to the king. Statements that may have been unacceptable to the government at least started with the phrase “We pray your Grace…..” or “We humbly beseech your majesty….”. The demands of the Western rebels started “Item we will have…..” To the likes of Cranmer this showed an utter lack of respect for the king, Edward VI, and as such showed the rebels to be what they were: dangerous social anarchists who wanted to support Catholicism.
Their first demand stated:
“First we will have the general counsel and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed, and who so ever shall speak against them, we hold them as heretics.”
The second demand stated:
“Item we will have the Lawes of our Sovereign Lord Kyng Henry the VIII concerning the Six Articles, to be used as they were in his time.”
The third demand was:
“Item we will have the mass in Latin, as was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with them”
Items after these dealt with the Bible, images (to be set up in every church), the Sacrament etc. Demand number 13 stated that no man should have more than one servant – a demand the Privy Council found particularly offensive as it undercut, from their point of view, the very fabric of what made up society. Later demands covered issues such as ownership of former church and abbey land.
In Devon a rebellion occurred at Sampford Courtenay – the rebels had the same grievances. By June 20th 1549, both groups had joined together at Crediton and by June 23rd they had set up an armed camp at Clyst St. Mary’s. 6,000-armed rebels besieged the nearby major town of Exeter. The government sent Lord Russell to put down the rebellion but he received little support from local gentry. As a result he only managed to put down the rebels in August.