The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries between Catholics and Protestants largely passed England by. Perhaps the recent bloodletting of the Wars of the Roses dissuaded the English from civil conflict, or perhaps the skill of the Tudor monarchs in steering a moderate path ensured little conflict.
Whatever the case, there were some outbreaks of religious violence of which by far the most bloody took place in Devon during the summer of 1549. King Henry VIII had died in 1547 leaving as his heir the ten year old Edward VI. While Henry’s Protestantism could be termed “Catholicism without the Pope”, Edward’s was altogether a more radical and fiery faith. Under the guidance of his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, Edward approved a new Book of Common Prayer that set down which services were allowed to be performed in English churches. Crucially a new law was passed stating that only those services could be celebrated and that no local variations would be allowed. The new rites were clearly Protestant, banning the music and colourful ceremonies of Catholicism.
In Cornwall and Devon most people had been content with the old services and there was none of the fervour for Protestantism that held sway elsewhere in the country. It was unfortunate that the religious move coincided with a crisis of government finances that necessitated debasing the coinage of the realm and also with a crop failure. The new Prayer Book became the focus of opposition to the government of Somerset.
On Whit Sunday the parish priest of Sampford Courtney stood up to begin his service according to the new rites. Within minutes he had been set upon by his congregation who roughed him up, tore up his book and forced him to continue according to the traditional rituals. The news spread rapidly and the following Sunday the parishioners in most Devon churches likewise forced their priests to revert to the old practice.
from BATTLEFIELD WALKS IN DEVON by Rupert Matthews
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About the book
A peaceful county today, Devon has seen clashes between Dumnonian and
Welsh kings in the seventh century, Viking raids in the tenth and
eleventh centuries and baronial uprisings in the fifteenth century. In
1549 the so-called Prayer Book Rebellion led to violent skirmishes at
Sampford Courtney, Fenny Bridges and Clyst St Mary. It was the Civil War
in the mid-seventeenth century that brought the greatest bloodshed to
Rupert Matthews, ‘the History Man’, presents
eighteen guided walks around the battlefields of Devon. He provides an
account of events as they unfolded on the ground along with full
background and context. His expertise, descriptive powers and lively
enthusiasm bring the drama of history vividly to life.