Last week I taught a session about the importance of local history on the History foundation degree at University Centre South Devon. I outlined my interest in local history and the role that it plays in promoting the identity of communities. I also developed this further to suggest that local history can apply new approaches to our understanding of the past in order to develop fresh perspectives. This led onto how the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion has been interpreted in different ways by Cornish historians.

1549 was a decisive year for the Tudor government led by the Duke of Somerset (the uncle of King Edward VI). Ill-judged religious policies, along with the economic impact of a gruelling war with Scotland led to two large rebellions: Kett’s Rebellion in East Anglia, and the Prayer Book Rebellion in the west-country. The first rebellion was ended by the efforts of John Dudley, who would take advantage of the events of 1549 in order to elevate himself into Somerset’s dominant position (becoming known to history as the Duke of Northumberland). The second rebellion was also quashed, resulting in the bloody defeat of the rebels.

Traditionally the Prayer Book Rebellion has been portrayed as a revolt against religious changes. The Edwardian government pushed through further Protestant reform which proved to be a decisive shift from the changes of Henry VIII’s reign. Most notable amongst these reforms was the Book of Common Prayer which translated the bible into vernacular English – as opposed to Latin – for the first time. However, those in the west-country resented such changes due to their commitment to Catholicism, and the various injunctions and changes of the late 1540s caused those in Cornwall and Devon to rebel.

In a very short summary, the rebellion itself did not extend beyond the region; some of the rebels attempted to capture Exeter (the most significant urban settlement in the area), but failed to do so. The government sent an army under the leadership of Lord John Russell into Devon which led to a series of battles, with the king’s forces ultimately subduing the rebels.

Traditionalist historians – both national and regional – believe the events of 1549 came about due to the religious tensions, and in doing so this interpretation views the rebellion within the wider Reformation of western Europe. However, more recently the 1549 rebellion has been re-evaluated from a specific Cornish perspective. The late Craig Weatherhill argued that it should not be titled a rebellion but rather an ‘Anglo-Cornish War’, and that the causes were not just religious but also connected to the English government aiming to destroying any lingering elements of autonomy and cultural identity.

Weatherhill developed this argument to claim that the loss of life (of around 5,000) and the brutal manner in which prisoners were killed (as happened at Clyst Heath) should place the events of 1549 on the level of genocide. This includes direct comparisons with the atrocities committed by the Nazis, with the ‘death squads’ of the English comparable to the Einsatzgruppen actions in eastern Europe in the 1940s during the Second World War.

This is shown in Weatherhill’s description of Sir Anthony Kingston:

‘Cruel, inhumane, a man divested of common humanity – these are just a few historical descriptions of a man who would have been equally at home carrying out the excesses of Nazi Germany.’

Weatherhill made a case of genocide in the following passage:

‘In all, then, the Anglo-Cornish War of June-August 1549 and its sickening aftermath cost the lives of more than 5,000 Cornish people – approximately 10 per cent of the Duchy’s entire population. Such a proportion labels this episode to be one of the worst acts of genocide in the history of the world.’

On the whole, I do not wholly subscribe to Weatherhill’s argument. It is arguable that his use of the term ‘genocide’ undermines genocides that have occurred in world history. But more importantly, I find the term ‘Anglo-Cornish War’ does not provide a true description of the events of 1549, and as such it could lead to the reverse of Weatherhill’s intention of providing a fresh perspective – it could lead to misunderstanding of the causes and consequences.

Of course, a synthesis of sorts can be reached. Other local historians, such as Philip Payton, refer to 1549 as a ‘rebellion’ rather than a war. In his influential book Cornwall: A History he placed the rebellion within a wider pattern of the centralisation of the English state, which was ‘determined to crush all resistance within its peripheries’. This, then, places the reduction of Cornwall – and its culture – alongside other regions and nations, such as the north of England, Ireland, and Wales.

However, although I do not fully agree with Weatherhill’s argument, I do value this addition to the wider debate about 1549 and its significance. It was a defining year in Cornish history, and as such, it should be open to discussion and re-evaluation. As noted earlier in this post, the ability to re-interpret the past with differing questions and conclusions is one of the great strengths of the study of local history.

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