Social Consequencs of the 1549 Prayerbook Rebellion Under Edward VI

Jennifer Williams

The Prayerbook Rebellion

The 'Prayerbook Rebellion' or 'Western Rising' of 1549 became an indirect flashpoint in the decline of regional dialects across Southwest England. It led to the dissemination of English as the primary language in Devon and Cornwall. Edward VI, or rather his Lord Protector, Edward Seymour's determination for a more stable, united country and a move away from England's weak social and economic condition at the end of King Henry VIII's reign. His ambition for a nation united by religion led him to reform The Book of Common Prayer, translating it from Latin into English to make it more accessible to England's poorly educated masses. What seemed like innovation for social and linguistic unity had unforeseen consequences for regional dialects, concentrated in Southwest England. What began as resistance to King Edward VI's establishment of The Act of Uniformity and his reform of the Book of Common Prayer developed into politically motivated social unrest and ultimately full-scale rebellion by the summer of 1549. The translation made the Bible more accessible to those who were illiterate and needed to have it recited to them by a priest. It was an accompanying law that required all priests to conduct church services in English, which negatively affected minority languages. 'Kernewek' was the native first language of the Cornish people in the 16th Century. However, as religion was at the heart of life in the Early Modern period, the English language imposed on them by the king meant that Kernewek began to decline as a language. It was declared extinct by the 18th Century when the last fluent native speaker, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777.
Social Consequencs of the 1549 Prayerbook Rebellion Under Edward VI
King Edward VI

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Social Consequencs of the 1549 Prayerbook Rebellion Under Edward VI
Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset

The English government declared victory and marked a definitive end to the rebellion

By 1548 Edward had outlawed the celebration of religious festivals and Popish paraphernalia during church services. The act of Holy communion was also made illegal, and Parliament ordered the removal of religious images. An incident of rebellion occurred in the same year when the crown tasked William Body with removing imagery from a church in the village of Helston, in Cornwall. As a result, upwards of three thousand men assembled with people from the neighbouring village of St Keverne and sought Body out. The mob forced him out of his home and stabbed him to death in the street. With tension mounting, the Cornish army began a rebellion as they marched on London, having elected Humphrey Arundell as their leader, who wrote to Parliament against the religious reform. On July the 24th, Parliament replied to Arundell's letter but refused any compromise. In June 1549, three thousand Cornish men marched on Exeter, in addition to the Devon army. Approximately 5000 men died during the altercation that lasted five weeks before Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, ended it. War began in the two months that followed, with battles in Fenny Bridge, near Honiton in Devon and Woodbury Common, near Exeter. Devon and Cornish armies fought parliamentary forces and were defeated, incurring huge losses. Then, on August the 5th, 1549, government soldiers torched buildings in the village of Clyst St Mary, forcing armies out. Many soldiers were killed, and government forces took a vast number of prisoners, so many in fact that Parliament ordered their mass execution due to their concern that they would be unable to control them. Just three days later, on August the 6th, Devon and Cornish forces rose up in response to the massacre. A battle then ensued on Clyst Heath, where parliamentary forces again defeated them. Finally, on August the 17th, 1549, they fought one last battle at Sampford Courtenay in Devon. Approximately 1,400 Devon and Cornish soldiers died; more casualties were captured. The English government declared victory and marked a definitive end to the rebellion. The Prayer Book Rebellion was a brilliant show of Vigilant determination on the part of the Devon and Cornish People. Their defeat resulted in the implementation of The Book of Common Prayer, the outlawing of Saint’s days, and the disappearance of Kernewek. However, the revival of the Cornish language continues in the 21st Century, growing in numbers.
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Social Consequencs of the 1549 Prayerbook Rebellion Under Edward VI

Jennifer Williams

Jennifer Williams is a first-year Medieval and Early Modern History undergraduate at The University of Chichester. She has previously written articles on Cornish history and culture for Gweles.
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