Friday, August 28, 2015

Julian Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry 1549

1549 was an extraordinary year. England was ruled by the Duke of Somerset, standing in for Edward, Henry VIII's son who had not yet reached the age of majority. The Duke wasn't the most sophisticated of rulers and he presided over a difficult situation. Cash was short, France was putting pressure on England and its possessions on the continent. Scotland was the eternal threat in the north and, most importantly, things were difficult back home.

The year saw a series of peasant risings across the country. Two major ones are the best known today, the Western Rising, or the Prayer Book Revolt that engulfed Cornwall and Devon. Better known was Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk. But there were also dozens of rebellions, protests and riots across the country, some of which required large scale military repression.

Julian Cornwall's book explores this crisis year as a whole. Often the major rebellions are written of separately, linked only by the point that repression of the Norfolk Rising could only begin when the best troops had finished putting the Cornish rebels to the sword. Julian Cornwall however argues that the risings were linked, not in any sense of being co-ordinated (they certainly were not) and not really in terms of sharing demands, but in the sense that they arose out of the political and economic circumstances - a changing Tudor society that was particularly impacting upon rural inhabitants coupled with wider changes of population.

Neither of these two major revolts should be understood as revolutions in the modern sense. They did not seek the downfall of the government, nor the king. Though interestingly sections of the ruling class clearly had thoughts that way in the aftermath. They did want change, or more accurately, most of the rebels wanted to protect their way of life, their religious practises and to improve their lot. In particular, for the rebels in the West, this meant the question of the Prayer Book introduced by Archbishop Cranmer. Julian Cornwall notes that Cornwall was very different to the rest of England, "a land apart", many spoke a different language, having strong links with Brittany and a high population of "aliens". There was much discontent with England, particularly London and a sense of exception to the rule. The country was very poor and the gentry tended to leave to seek fortunes elsewhere, helping ensure that London's grip on the region was weaker than elsewhere. The population was religiously conservative and deeply resented the changes introduced by Henry VIII and carried on by the regency. Key rebel demands concerned returning things to how they were at Henry VIII's death and ensuring that this was held until Edward reached maturity. But in June 1549 when the new Prayer Book was used for the first time, it led, almost inevitably to rebellion. As Julian Cornwall explains,
In churches throughout the land the Book of Common Prayer was opened and the new services in English read for the first time. No voice was raised in protest... And then, within a day or two, came a bombshell. The people of  remote village in Devonshire had taken up arms and defied the authorities. The magistrates had temporised, lost control of the situation... the flame of revolt was spreading like wildfire, threatening to engulf the whole county, perhaps all the West Country. And the most alarming fact was that this was no riot about enclosures purporting to stimulate enforcement of the law, but open defiance of the government, demanding the withdrawal of the Prayer Book and the restoration of the Mass.
This was very different to Norfolk. There rebellion was focused on anger at enclosures and the introduction of sheep. The rebels, after their initial uprising uprooted hedges as they marched on Norwich, the local capital. There, tens of thousands, under the able leadership of Robert Kett, laid siege to the city. Though, like in the West, with the rebel siege of Exeter, this effectively prevented any march on the capital which certainly would have led to a major confrontation.

At the root of Norfolk's demands like, what Julian Cornwall calls "a decade of acute crisis". He explains that
since four-fifths of the population depended more or less directly on agriculture, was intimately bound up with the land. The agrarian problem comprised several distinct grievances of which the most inflammatory was enclosure, so much so that it had become the omnibus term for the lot.
I have argued elsewhere though, that the religious grievances of the West were in themselves essentially economic ones. That the rebellion exploded in the West over religious issues was merely because of the peculiarities of this part of England. But the deep seated discontent that led to 1000s of Cornish and Devonshire men preparing to engage the armies in pitched battle was not dissimilar to that elsewhere in the country.

Julian Cornwall's book is a good account of this history. He concentrates on the military aspect of the rebellions and their suppression. Which is useful as we get a flavour of just how threatened the ruling class felt, and the extent to which they were prepared to put down the risings. The author notes, for instance, that the repression was so great in Cornwall that it was on a par with the per-capita death rate the French experienced at Verdun, and the shock to the psyche must have been just as great. It was a very long time before Cornwall was to partake in rebellion again and, as Julian Cornwall notes, Catholicism was essentially destroyed in the area by the repression.

There was much bloodletting in Norfolk too. The final battle at "Dussindale" was less a military confrontation than a massacre.

Intriguingly Julian Cornwall suggests that Kett's rising only reached the scale it did because military forces were committed elsewhere. It was a "calculated risk" he suggested to let Norfolk rise, while the West was put down. Norfolk was no different to any number of other 1549 rural risings which were crushed before a leader could arise who was able, like Kett, to turn a local outburst of anger into a major rebellion.
Able to flourish until a decisive victory had been gained in the West and Exeter relieved, the Norfolk rebellion was granted a further three weeks' respite while the government redeployed its forces. After that, Warwick had a walkover against farmers and labourers who had never wanted to fight in the first place, but had been driven into a posture of rebellion by the government's blunders.
But there were similarities, not least, in what Julian Cornwall describes as polaristaion", the "manifestation of peasant antagonism against the gentry". This is perhaps nicely summed up by Robert Burnham, who was hauled before the mayor for saying "There are too many gentlemen in England by five hundred". Such sentiments were rarely expressed during the rebellions themselves, but at root, these were risings to defend the livelihoods of the rural poor who faced the destruction of their traditions and religion and their impoverishment at the hands of those who wanted to use land and labour to simply make money. They are sentiments that have been shared by peasants through the ages and remain powerful demands in modern agrarian conflicts.

Related Reviews

Caraman - The Western Rising
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England

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