West Country Rebels

Mark Hailwood

A patchwork of conversations, thoughts and observations on the rebellious history of the South West of England, stitched together by a Somerset-born honorary-Devonian….

It’s a small world. On a recent archival trip to the Hampshire Record Office I got chatting to their immensely helpful Principal Archivist Sarah Lewin, and after a bit of biographical back-and-forth it transpired that I had done my undergraduate degree in her hometown of Norwich, where she grew up as good friends with my now MP – as a resident of Exeter – recent Labour Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw.

Anyway, our conversation then moved on to the remarkable fact that the said Ben Bradshaw is now the only non-Conservative MP in the South West outside of Bristol (and you can take quite a broad definition of the South West here, encompassing Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). Whilst the Conservatives have long been the dominant party in the region, this is nonetheless a significant historical departure: few governments have ever been able to consider the West Country quite the stronghold that this one can.[1]

The remarkable Tory dominance of the South West, courtesy of BBC News website

The remarkable Tory dominance of the South West, courtesy of BBC News website

And I’m not just talking here about recent electoral history: for the past 500 years the South West of England has more often than not made itself a thorn in the side of the political establishment. As early as 1497 the Cornish had rebelled against royal demands for taxation, leading a march on London that was supported by as many as 15,000 West Country folk. In the seventeenth century Dorset, Devon and Somerset provided the setting and the manpower for the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, in which the aptly named James Scott (well, at least for those of you who know your anthropologists of popular politics), an illegitimate but Protestant son of Charles II, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the new Catholic King James II (Brixham, Devon, was also the landing place of William III’s rather more successful usurpation of James’ throne in 1688). Then in the eighteenth century the people of the South West were in up in arms again, staging a series of ‘Cider Riots’ in opposition to a newly proposed cider tax. The region also has a very strong tradition of religious non-conformity, something which helps to explain the long standing but now obliterated presence of the Liberal political parties in the West Country. Not to mention Cornish nationalism.

St Thomas Parish Church

St Thomas Parish Church

Another chapter of the West Country’s biography of bolshiness came to mind last week as I was stretching my legs during a lunchbreak by ‘beating the bounds’ of my now home parish, St Thomas in Exeter. As I ambled past the parish church itself, I was reminded that it was here upon the church tower that a brutal instance of exemplary punishment had been enacted to mark the defeat of another major uprising of South Westerners in 1549.

Best known to posterity as the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’, the summer of that year saw a rebel host of up to 6000 men lay siege to Exeter in an attempt to seize control of the region and force the crown into a series of policy climb-downs. It all kicked off in Cornwall, where local residents took exception to the imposition of a new Book of Common Prayer – one that symbolised the sweeping away of the old Catholic religion and its replacement with a new Protestant evangelicalism. But there was more than just religion at the root of the rebellion – a new tax on sheep and the sale of woollen cloth was deeply resented in a region that stood at the heart of England’s foremost industry at the time, the cloth trade. Cornishmen and Devonians put their differences aside and produced a list of demands to put to the central government, but they were ultimately defeated on the battlefield by royal forces, and up to 4000 West Country men were slain in the decisive battle at Sampford Courtenay.[2]

But victory by force of arms was not enough for the draconian Tudor state: they needed to send out a clear symbolic statement about the cost of rebellion. So they decided to make an example of the ring leaders, one of whom was identified as Robert Welsh, the vicar of St Thomas. He was an intriguing character. Perhaps surprisingly for a vicar he was renowned for his strength; had a reputation as a crack shot with both longbow and crossbow; and was known as a formidable wrestler. Of greater significance was the fact that Welsh was actually a native Cornishman, and was therefore well placed to act as a unity candidate for the rebel leadership, bringing together the often divided Cornish and Devonians in support of a common cause.

It didn’t end well for Welsh though. Lord Russell, who had led the royalist troops in crushing the uprising, ordered for him to be hanged on a gallows erected atop the tower of St Thomas church. Moreover, he was sent to this fate dressed in his vestments and adorned with various other symbols of his Catholic faith, described by one contemporary as ‘a holy-water bucket, a sprinkle, a scaring bell, a pair of beads and such other like popish trash hanged about him’.[3] He was left there to rot, as a crystal clear message to those who dared to oppose royal religious policy.

The 1549 rising and its defeat left a deep imprint on West Country society – something I had found evidence of a few weeks earlier whilst rooting around in the Devon Record Office. Looking through some church court cases from the year 1556, as part of my work on my current project on women’s work in the region, I came across a witness statement by a parishioner of Jacobstowe – a neighbouring parish of Sampford Courtenay – who was referring to events that occurred in 1550 as having happened ‘the year next after the commotions in these west parts about six years ago’.[4] It was very rare for deponents in church court cases to date events with references to anything other than Saints’ Days or other calendrical reference points – ‘Midsummer last past’; ‘St Bartholomew’s Tide about three years ago’ – so I was surprised to see that the events of 1549 had forced their way into local dating practices, disrupting the usual cyclical and seasonal framework for marking the passage of time. Clearly these events were embedded in local memory as a historic rupture in the usual rhythms of their world.

Plaque at Sampford Courtenay, courtesy of John Palmer

Plaque at Sampford Courtenay, courtesy of John Palmer

But how well remembered are the dramatic events of 1549 – or indeed any of the key episodes in the tradition of rebellion outlined above – in the South West today? For how many of my fellow parishioners is the gruesome end of Robert Welsh evoked by a stroll through the tranquil grounds of St Thomas parish church nowadays? It’s true that Sampford Courtenay has a plaque up in the village, but I’d wager that Robert Welsh is not as famous in the South West as Robert Kett is in East Anglia. Kett led a simultaneous rebellion in Norfolk in 1549, and befell a similar end to Welsh, being hanged to die in chains from the walls of Norwich Castle. He is commemorated by plaques in both his home town of Wymondham and at Norwich Castle, as well as having the odd distinction of having an office-building named after him on Station Road in Cambridge. No such distinctions for Welsh.

And yet traditions of rebellion have not been entirely neglected in the South West. Allow me to weave in another chance conversation, this time with Steve Knightley, one half of the Devon folk duo ‘Show of Hands’, at the grand re-opening of Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum a couple of years ago. After plucking up the courage to introduce myself – he and fellow band member Phil Beer were once voted ‘Greatest Ever Devonians’ ahead of Francis Drake, so this was a big moment for me – the conversation turned inevitably to history. Steve’s defining memory of studying it at school in Exmouth was having the importance of the Monmouth Rebellion drummed into him by his history teacher. His home town of Topsham, just south of Exeter, was one of many in the South West to host a pub named the ‘Duke of Monmouth’ (it’s now gone).

If Steve’s experience a few decades back suggests that history at school once played a part in conveying the West Country’s rebelliousness past, it seems rather harder to imagine that the region’s schoolchildren of today will grow up with much of a sense of it. And now the political map shows little evidence of it either. Is the West Country’s long tradition of rebelliousness and non-conformity on the verge of extinction?

** For anyone who wants to find out more about West Country rebels, and specifically about the 1549 rising, Professor Mark Stoyle is giving a public lecture at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Early Modern Studies, on ‘The South Western Rebellion of 1549 Revisited’ , on Thursday 5th November at 6.30pm. Click here for a flyer**


[1] For a longer view consult the maps in this article, which although in the main body lumps the South West in with the South in general – like so much political commentary in this country – does contain interesting maps which shed light on the shifting voting habits of the region.

[2] For a fuller account of the rebellion see Fletcher and MacCulloch, Tudor Rebellions. There is also a chapter on it in Eamon Duffy’s wonderful micro-history The Voices of Morebath.

[3] See Fletcher and MacCulloch, p.58

[4] DRO, Chanter 855, p.38

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21 thoughts on “West Country Rebels

  1. Thanks for this enjoyable and poignant post for despairing West Britons! Seems a stark and necessary task to look at how the Westcountry (rarely a broadly cohesive, unified place in most people’s minds) has almost in its entirety slipped into lamentable obeisance to the current Government’s (actually very radical) politics. The non-conforming tradition, the sense of ‘otherness’ does now seem to be merely historical. This meaningful sense of ‘otherness’ is the key continuum which seems to have fallen away. I mean that it is now only seen through vapid cultural-consumerist angles – beer, cider and food mostly!! Certainly a world away from the Otherness feared by the Tudor State leading to the suppression of the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion. Given the ‘frontline’ location of the south west peninsula to the Religious continental foe, the Tudor reaction is perhaps understandable – and even though memories of the brutal suppression endured, vanguard resistance to the Spanish Armada throughout the region’s ports was assured just four decades later. I grew up in Plymouth and had Drake, the Armada, the growth of the Tudor State and Protestantism drummed into me in history class. I enjoyed the Civil War lessons, proud in my little schoolboy’s mind that Plymouth stood solid for Parliament whilst enveloped by Royalist siege. But, this tradition along with the naval heritage meant that the military ‘mindset’ – a conservative aliberal mindframe has had a stranglehold on that particular area for a long long time. This despite the large working class in Plymouth and Devonport. There is of course a radical tradition in that city too – the Social Democratic Federation were quite strident and speakers on the docksides were common. These traditions are just the type of stories this excellent blog exists for! (If I had more time …).

    • Thanks for this Christian. Particularly interesting to get your input on Plymouth and on the existence of a parallel ‘loyalist’ tradition – Exeter of course has ‘Semper Fidelis’ as its city motto, ‘always loyal’, dating I think from its contribution to the Armada defeat, and it also stood firm against the rebels in 1549. What your contributions make clearer to me is the extent to which the South West has quite a complex and distinctive (and by no means homogeneous) political culture, which makes me feel all the more frustrated when it is just lumped in with ‘the South’ by political commentators, and indeed historians. But I also think it is becoming less distinctive. It is something I’ll continue to be thinking about on the blog so watch this space!

    • Yes, Plymouth’s history of radicalism seems to have been overlooked. The Three Towns branch of the Social Democratic Federation was one of the few which was active outside London but gets hardly (or if I remember correctly no) mention in the published accounts of the SDF. It’s campaigning for housing reform, education, poor law reform etc. was tireless and strident including, as Christian Algar mentions, dockside public meetings. Under its auspices the Three Towns Association for the Better Housing of the Working Classes campaigned for municipalisation of all housing, as well as for more short term objectives such as the provision of some council housing.
      it would be a mistake to assume though that even across the Three Towns (Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse) there was a homogenised political culture. Devonport had a tendency towards ‘self-help’ with a thriving mechanics’ institute, which really was patronised by mechanics and artisans, and the formation of the Devonport Dockyard Workman’s Dwellings Company being just two manifestations of this. But Devonport was still under the grip of almost feudal landownership, The St Aubyn family as lords of the manor of Stoke Damerel refused to sell land for development and became the focus of a campaign for land reform. (This was the subject of my talk to the Devon History Society AGM/Conference a couple of weeks ago “The Curse of Devonport: town and manor in conflict.”)
      Although it is almost universally believed now that Devonport as a whole resisted amalgamation with Plymouth, the SDF and many campaigning Liberals supported it and were arguing for it for many years before it actually happened. They believed that this would serve to loosen the grip of the St Aubyn’s on land tenure and the deference of the Borough Council.

  2. Thanks Mark – I really enjoyed this, not least because I also have the privilege of living and working in the south west too. It’s distinct regional history makes it a great place to teach, and it is rare for one of my early modern modules not to incorporate some aspect of local goings on.

    I also wanted to share one of the more infamous demands of the 1549 rebels, the manifesto drawn up outside Exeter. In it, the rebels demand a return to Latin in public worship, since English is foreign to many of them:

    ‘Item we wil not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure olde serivice of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten not in English, as it was before. And so we the Cornyshe men (whereof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.’

    [‘The Demands of the Western Rebels 1549’ reproduced in in Anthony Fletcher & Dairmaid MacCulloch, Tudor Rebellions (4th edn, London, 1997), pp. 151-153.]

  3. Great post, Mark! A case of ‘from chalk to cheese’? (Though that analogy is perhaps as unfruitful as the original!)

    I’m not as up-to-speed on my knowledge of the English nobility as I should be, but would wager that the relative dearth of resident nobility has something to do with the disorder of the 16th and 17th centuries. Someone reliable to step up and step in for the Crown, raise a host, and quell trouble before it gets out of hand. I was quite surprised, when I looked at Somerset in the 17th century, at how quietly conformist so many ordinary inhabitants were (or appeared to be), leading to the 14k who ended up signing a petition for episcopacy and common prayer just before the civil war. Committed minorities have real habit of making their voices heard very loudly indeed, especially when fewer mechanisms are in place for rapid responses by the government. Just to contradict myself completely, a lot of working class (especially rural working class) westcountry Tories do see themselves as anti-establishment types, poking the eye of ‘Brussels’, or ‘the liberal Westminster elites’, or ‘political correctness’. So maybe there is a continuity of anti-court behaviour after all!

    • Thanks for this John. I think your last point is especially significant – if I was going to attempt to draw together the various political traditions in the South West (probably unwise anyway) I think I would see them as ‘libertarian’, rather than necessarily rebellious/radical in a neatly leftist sense, so an anti-establishment Toryism or Ukip-ism wouldn’t necessarily be out of line with that.

  4. Just a colonial with a Cornish name – I thought I had read somewhere that the 1549 Prayer Book rebellion had a lot to do with the forcible imposition of English language prayers and preaching on a Cornish speaking population. In that version they were happy with Latin & Catholicism on the basis that the language and religion that is the enemy of my enemy (the English speakers) is my friend.

      • Thanks Greg (and DrSang): yes, language was indeed part of the story in 1549, another layer of complexity of the political culture and identity of the South West. The concept of the Cornish as an ethnic minority today is a continuation of this, of course, and reminds us that the West Country is hard to homogenise – you ask many Devonians and Cornish what they think of each other and this becomes clear enough! Still, they have had their moments of unity, as in 1549, and memorialised recently at Fenny Bridges in Devon (thanks to @c_gibbins for the image):

        Memorial at Fenny Bridges

  5. ‘Is the West Country’s long tradition of rebelliousness and non-conformity on the verge of extinction?’
    After that catalogue of repression, you wouldn’t be surprised, would you? And the Anglican-Conservative stranglehold on British government is kept firmly in place by the antiquated First Past the Post voting system. What’s the point in voting for a 3rd party?

    • Thanks for this Alan – I share your feelings about First Past the Post, but what is interesting is that many in the South West have voted for a 3rd party over the years nonetheless, but that something seems to have changed that recently. It will be interesting to see what the May elections next year bring in the region.

  6. There has not been a comprehensive study of the 1549 rebellion since Rose-Troup, and that was a century ago. I wonder if this may have something to do with the damage done to Exeter’s record office during the Second World War, or just a lack of scholarly interest?

    • Yes Mike, absolutely right – this has always puzzled me. Especially when other sixteenth-century rebellions such as the Pilgrimage of Grace and Kett’s Rebellion have received a lot of scholarly attention. I’m not sure that the relevant records would have been lost in the war damage though – I think I have heard someone say that there just weren’t as many surviving records for it as there are for the others. Anyway, I think Mark Stoyle may be working on just such a book – I’ll ask him when he comes to talk at Exeter University on Thursday evening! If he isn’t it is something I’d like to do one day…

      • For my MA dissertation, i am doing a comparative study of rebellions from 1525 to 1550, and what i want to do is argue that debates on the general causation of rebellions is an intellectual cul-de-sac. In the Western Rebellion for example, religion is such a pervading influence across that period, that it seems inconceivable to say with definitive authority, ‘the western rebellion occurred because of enclosure grievances’. But, it is equally inconceivable to just simply ignore economics and focus solely on religion.

        In other words, breaking down the wall that separates economic and religious historians.

      • That sounds entirely sensible. It is anachronistic to assume that early modern contemporaries understood their world in terms of discrete ‘economic’ and ‘religious’ spheres anyway, let alone were motivated exclusively by one or the other.

  7. Could one even argue that the final sixteen articles reveal more distinct geographical differences between the rebels than social class? Such as for example the reiteration of the Cornish rebels in article eight to ‘refuse this new English’?

    • Yes – and Mark Stoyle’s recent article in the English Historical Review argues that the two components of the rebellion – Cornish and Devonian – need to be understood as two distinct rebellions-within-a-rebellion.

      • The full reference is:

        Stoyle, M., (2014) ‘”Fullye bente to fighte oute the matter”: reconsidering Cornwall’s role in the Western Rebellion of 1549’, English Historical Review, 129, 538, pp. 549-577.

  8. Pingback: All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation | the many-headed monster

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