A patchwork of conversations, thoughts and observations on the rebellious history of the South West of England, stitched together by a Somerset-born honorary-Devonian….
It’s a small world. On a recent archival trip to the Hampshire Record Office I got chatting to their immensely helpful Principal Archivist Sarah Lewin, and after a bit of biographical back-and-forth it transpired that I had done my undergraduate degree in her hometown of Norwich, where she grew up as good friends with my now MP – as a resident of Exeter – recent Labour Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw.
Anyway, our conversation then moved on to the remarkable fact that the said Ben Bradshaw is now the only non-Conservative MP in the South West outside of Bristol (and you can take quite a broad definition of the South West here, encompassing Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). Whilst the Conservatives have long been the dominant party in the region, this is nonetheless a significant historical departure: few governments have ever been able to consider the West Country quite the stronghold that this one can.
And I’m not just talking here about recent electoral history: for the past 500 years the South West of England has more often than not made itself a thorn in the side of the political establishment. As early as 1497 the Cornish had rebelled against royal demands for taxation, leading a march on London that was supported by as many as 15,000 West Country folk. In the seventeenth century Dorset, Devon and Somerset provided the setting and the manpower for the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, in which the aptly named James Scott (well, at least for those of you who know your anthropologists of popular politics), an illegitimate but Protestant son of Charles II, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the new Catholic King James II (Brixham, Devon, was also the landing place of William III’s rather more successful usurpation of James’ throne in 1688). Then in the eighteenth century the people of the South West were in up in arms again, staging a series of ‘Cider Riots’ in opposition to a newly proposed cider tax. The region also has a very strong tradition of religious non-conformity, something which helps to explain the long standing but now obliterated presence of the Liberal political parties in the West Country. Not to mention Cornish nationalism.
Another chapter of the West Country’s biography of bolshiness came to mind last week as I was stretching my legs during a lunchbreak by ‘beating the bounds’ of my now home parish, St Thomas in Exeter. As I ambled past the parish church itself, I was reminded that it was here upon the church tower that a brutal instance of exemplary punishment had been enacted to mark the defeat of another major uprising of South Westerners in 1549.
Best known to posterity as the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’, the summer of that year saw a rebel host of up to 6000 men lay siege to Exeter in an attempt to seize control of the region and force the crown into a series of policy climb-downs. It all kicked off in Cornwall, where local residents took exception to the imposition of a new Book of Common Prayer – one that symbolised the sweeping away of the old Catholic religion and its replacement with a new Protestant evangelicalism. But there was more than just religion at the root of the rebellion – a new tax on sheep and the sale of woollen cloth was deeply resented in a region that stood at the heart of England’s foremost industry at the time, the cloth trade. Cornishmen and Devonians put their differences aside and produced a list of demands to put to the central government, but they were ultimately defeated on the battlefield by royal forces, and up to 4000 West Country men were slain in the decisive battle at Sampford Courtenay.
But victory by force of arms was not enough for the draconian Tudor state: they needed to send out a clear symbolic statement about the cost of rebellion. So they decided to make an example of the ring leaders, one of whom was identified as Robert Welsh, the vicar of St Thomas. He was an intriguing character. Perhaps surprisingly for a vicar he was renowned for his strength; had a reputation as a crack shot with both longbow and crossbow; and was known as a formidable wrestler. Of greater significance was the fact that Welsh was actually a native Cornishman, and was therefore well placed to act as a unity candidate for the rebel leadership, bringing together the often divided Cornish and Devonians in support of a common cause.
It didn’t end well for Welsh though. Lord Russell, who had led the royalist troops in crushing the uprising, ordered for him to be hanged on a gallows erected atop the tower of St Thomas church. Moreover, he was sent to this fate dressed in his vestments and adorned with various other symbols of his Catholic faith, described by one contemporary as ‘a holy-water bucket, a sprinkle, a scaring bell, a pair of beads and such other like popish trash hanged about him’. He was left there to rot, as a crystal clear message to those who dared to oppose royal religious policy.
The 1549 rising and its defeat left a deep imprint on West Country society – something I had found evidence of a few weeks earlier whilst rooting around in the Devon Record Office. Looking through some church court cases from the year 1556, as part of my work on my current project on women’s work in the region, I came across a witness statement by a parishioner of Jacobstowe – a neighbouring parish of Sampford Courtenay – who was referring to events that occurred in 1550 as having happened ‘the year next after the commotions in these west parts about six years ago’. It was very rare for deponents in church court cases to date events with references to anything other than Saints’ Days or other calendrical reference points – ‘Midsummer last past’; ‘St Bartholomew’s Tide about three years ago’ – so I was surprised to see that the events of 1549 had forced their way into local dating practices, disrupting the usual cyclical and seasonal framework for marking the passage of time. Clearly these events were embedded in local memory as a historic rupture in the usual rhythms of their world.
But how well remembered are the dramatic events of 1549 – or indeed any of the key episodes in the tradition of rebellion outlined above – in the South West today? For how many of my fellow parishioners is the gruesome end of Robert Welsh evoked by a stroll through the tranquil grounds of St Thomas parish church nowadays? It’s true that Sampford Courtenay has a plaque up in the village, but I’d wager that Robert Welsh is not as famous in the South West as Robert Kett is in East Anglia. Kett led a simultaneous rebellion in Norfolk in 1549, and befell a similar end to Welsh, being hanged to die in chains from the walls of Norwich Castle. He is commemorated by plaques in both his home town of Wymondham and at Norwich Castle, as well as having the odd distinction of having an office-building named after him on Station Road in Cambridge. No such distinctions for Welsh.
And yet traditions of rebellion have not been entirely neglected in the South West. Allow me to weave in another chance conversation, this time with Steve Knightley, one half of the Devon folk duo ‘Show of Hands’, at the grand re-opening of Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum a couple of years ago. After plucking up the courage to introduce myself – he and fellow band member Phil Beer were once voted ‘Greatest Ever Devonians’ ahead of Francis Drake, so this was a big moment for me – the conversation turned inevitably to history. Steve’s defining memory of studying it at school in Exmouth was having the importance of the Monmouth Rebellion drummed into him by his history teacher. His home town of Topsham, just south of Exeter, was one of many in the South West to host a pub named the ‘Duke of Monmouth’ (it’s now gone).
If Steve’s experience a few decades back suggests that history at school once played a part in conveying the West Country’s rebelliousness past, it seems rather harder to imagine that the region’s schoolchildren of today will grow up with much of a sense of it. And now the political map shows little evidence of it either. Is the West Country’s long tradition of rebelliousness and non-conformity on the verge of extinction?
** For anyone who wants to find out more about West Country rebels, and specifically about the 1549 rising, Professor Mark Stoyle is giving a public lecture at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Early Modern Studies, on ‘The South Western Rebellion of 1549 Revisited’ , on Thursday 5th November at 6.30pm. Click here for a flyer**
 For a longer view consult the maps in this article, which although in the main body lumps the South West in with the South in general – like so much political commentary in this country – does contain interesting maps which shed light on the shifting voting habits of the region.
 See Fletcher and MacCulloch, p.58
 DRO, Chanter 855, p.38