church house

Sampford Courtenay is most famous historically as a centre for the Prayerbook rebellion of 1549 and where the rebels made their final stand. The rebellion saw thousands unite against changes to traditional forms of religion imposed by the government of the boy-king Edward VI.

 

Split from Rome

For well-known personal and political reasons, in the 1530s, Edward VI’s father, Henry VIII, decided to split from Rome and the Catholic faith. As the crown dissolved the monasteries and seized their wealth, people became more and more disaffected. By the time Edward came to the throne in 1547, at the age of nine, religious discontent was rife.

With a boy-king in power, government was in the hands of councillors. A set of injunctions for religious reform was imposed and inventories drawn up listing the possessions of every parish church in the country. Assuming that the crown would confiscate these goods too, people became increasingly angry and there was a serious uprising in west Cornwall in 1548 – often seen as a precursor to the rebellion of the following year.

 

A South-West revolt

In 1549, the government introduced a new Book of Common Prayer. Printed in English, the book was alien to those accustomed to hearing church services in Latin and proved even more incendiary in Cornwall, where many people still spoke Cornish. In June, thousands in Cornwall, including parish priests, gathered at the ancient hill fort of Castle Canyke near Bodmin and, within a few days, had captured all who remained loyal to the king.

The protest quickly spread to Sampford Courtenay, where, the day after the new prayerbook came into force, the villagers demanded that their priest wear his old garments and read from the old prayerbook. He swiftly reverted to “his old popish attire and sayeth mass and all such services as in times past accustomed”. A local yeoman farmer, William Hellyons, tried to remonstrate with the rebels but they dragged him to Church House (left), “where he so earnestly reproved them for their rebellion and so sharply threatened them… that they fell in a rage with him: and not only with evil words reviled him, but also as he was going out of the church house and going down the stairs, one of them… with a bill struck him in the neck, and immediately notwithstanding his pitiful requests and lamentations, a number of the rest fell upon him and slew him and cut him in small pieces”.

 

The last stand

The events at Sampford Courtenay had a snowball effect. Cornish rebels were soon marching over the Devon border to join forces with those at Sampford Courtenay. In July 1549, 4,000 to 6,000 Cornish and Devon rebels besieged Exeter, the regional capital, which was loyal to the crown. The siege dragged on for six weeks “until the famine was so sore, that the people [of Exeter] were fain to eat horse-flesh”. The insurgents failed to seize Exeter and the government ordered John Russell, First Earl of Bedford, to put down the rebellion. Several thousand rebels were killed during a series of brutal engagements fought on the eastern side of the city. Then, in a battle fought at Sampford Courtenay on 17 August, the royal army of some 8,000 men finally crushed the insurgents.

 

The 15th-century Church House still stands in Sampford Courtenay, as do the steps outside on which Hellyons was murdered.