The Prayer Book Rebellion was a bloody chapter in England's past

"A portrait of King Henry VIII of England is depicted in this vintage engraving by W. T. Fry (1789 -

Religious conflict began with King Henry VIII's departure from the Catholic Church - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Today, the subject of which prayer book should be used might seem an unlikely subject to provoke serious rioting and upheaval. In the mid-16th century, however, it was a different story. 

England had been in a state of religious turmoil ever since King Henry VIII had fallen out with the Pope over the second Tudor King’s desire to end his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The result had been that Henry had broken with Rome entirely and declared himself the head of a new Church of England. The C of E followed the Protestant tradition established by the German, Martin Luther who had rebelled against the Catholic church himself, precipitating what is known as the Reformation. We don’t really have the space to go into the reasons why exactly this happened now, but needless to say this is basically the reason why we have C of E as well as Catholic churches today, instead of one united Christian one.

In 1547, Henry VIII died, but the religious conflict which he had helped stir up showed little sign of abating even though his son, the boy King Edward VI, the fruit of his third marriage to Jane Seymour, was now on the throne. In what was surely intended to be a provocative act, it was announced in 1549 that a new Protestant Book of Common Prayer would be used from now on. It was also ruled that church services could no longer be conducted in Latin. There was in fact still plenty of pro-Catholic feeling throughout England, so this decision was never likely to go down well with everyone.

Soon, the south-west was erupting into full blown rebellion. Some say the trouble began in Sampford Courtenay, where a local farmer named William Hellyons was shot as he tried to calm things down during an increasingly heated confrontation outside the local church. Another story is that the man who would become the father of Sir Walter Raleigh provoked a riot near Clyst St Mary after an argument with an old lady who objected to the new Prayer Book got out of hand. Others say, the protest began in Cornwall. Either way, a large number of people were soon marching in the direction of London and their numbers were growing all the time. The Prayer Book Rebellion had begun.

The King’s men blocked the rebels as they approached Honiton. Battle commenced as the two forces clashed at Fenny Bridges. The Cornish and Devon rebels proved no match for the better-equipped army led by Lord Russell. Russell had been forced into battle as the rebels had blocked his path to Exeter which he was hoping to relieve a siege of the city being led by Humphrey Arundel. Ultimately, the rebels were defeated.

Despite his victory, Lord Russell retreated back to Honiton as he reportedly thought the sound of church bells indicated a signal being sent out to other potential rebels in the surrounding area. In fact, Lord Russell was himself soon boosted by substantial reinforcements supplied by the arrival of Earl Grey who helped him push the defeated forces which were pushed back to Clyst St Mary. Things didn't go well for the rebellion after this and 900 rebels were massacred after the bloody battle of Clyst Heath. Further reprisals followed.

As it turned out, Edward VI would die in 1553, aged just 16, and the succession of his older half-sister Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary (the daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who being a woman came behind her younger brother in the line of succession) would see a vigorous reaffirmation of Catholic traditions and Latin services as well as persecutions and burnings at the stake for many resisting Protestants. The pendulum would swing back the other way a few years later when Mary herself would die in 1558 and her own half-sister, Elizabeth I (the daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn) came to the throne and the persecution of Roman Catholics once again began anew.

In short, the 16th century was not an easy time for anyone.

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