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September 15th, 2017

Devon Men Who Died for the Mass

My friend Fr Mike Murphy, a former parish priest of Okehampton in Devon, now retired to his native Cork, was once invited to give a lecture on the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549 to the Church of England parishioners of Sampford Courtenay nearby. He was surprised to find that the villagers were almost totally ignorant of the drama in which their ancestors had played a prominent part more than 400 years ago. Until comparatively recently the revolt had been more or less airbrushed out of English history. (On our recent visit to Devon, which I regard as my native county, we spent some time in the village, and had lunch in  the local pub.)

After the death of King Henry VIII, the guardians of the boy king Edward VI  were determined to abolish the immemorial Mass and replace it with their own vernacular service. That was the origin of the Book of Common Prayer, still widely used in the Church of England. The first people to rebel on a serious scale were those of Cornwall, some of whom still spoke their own Celtic tongue and couldn’t understand English. They described the new service as like “a Christmas game” and insisted on retaining the Mass in Latin. The (now Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who always stressed the importance of  holding services in a language “understanded of the people” pointed out contemptuously and rather irrelevantly that  the Cornish didn’t understand Latin either.

In Devon, the people of Sampford Courtenay forced their priest to put on his usual vestments at Sunday Mass and follow the old rubrics. Outside the church, a local worthy protested against this disobedience in threatening terms.  He received a mortal blow from a bystander named Lithibridge.  who “struck him, with his bill, on the neck, and the blow being followed by several others, his body was soon dispatched, and was cut into several pieces” .

The revolt quickly spread to other places in Devon. Though mostly armed only with farm implements, several thousand of the rebels marched on Exeter, the county town, and besieged it.  When they prepared to burn the city down by lobbing fiery missiles over the walls on top of the mainly wooden houses, they were dissuaded by Robert Welsh, parish priest of St Thomas’s church, who was ministering to the insurgents.  When the rebellion was eventually put down by German and Italian mercenaries, Fr Welsh’s intervention did him no good:  he was dressed in his Mass vestments and hanged from the steeple of his own church.

The insurgents were highly praised by their victorious enemies for their “stoutness and valour”.  After one battle the mercenaries, led by a Lord Russell, cut the throats of 900 bound and gagged rebel prisoners, in the space of 10 minutes.  Many others were hanged, some being taken as far as London for execution.


After Fr Murphy’s talk, there was a shocked silence among the assembled parishioners of Sampford Courtenay. Eventually one of them expressed sorrow for the massacre and the brutal treatment of their ancestors, but thought they must have been rather superstitious people.

You can find out far more about the rebellion if you Google “Prayer Book Rebellion” and “Sampford Courtenay”.

Just a mile or so up the road from Sampford is the hamlet of Honeychurch, where the church, pictured below, dates from the eleventh century. The interior still looks much as it did when Mass was last celebrated here during the reign of Catholic queen Mary I in the 1550s. (Apart, that is, from the oil heater.) You’ll find more pictures—by mystery writer Hannah Dennison—if you Google “Honeychurch” and click the first entry.





Devon historian Professor W.G. Hoskins writes:

Honeychurch is one of the simplest and most unsophisticated country interiors in the whole of England. It owes its preservation from any kind of vigorous Victorian ‘restoration’ to the fact that it has always been a small parish without a squire, and without the money to ruin it by reckless alterations as happened in so many of  our parish churches in the Victorian period.  There is occasionally something to be said for not having too much money!

John Betjeman wrote a poem about the phenomenon of restoration, which Catholics of our own time call “reordering”. (Trads among us  usually refer to it as “wreckovation”.)  Betjeman’s  poem is a parody of the Anglican hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”:

The Church’s Restoration
In eighteen-eighty-three
Has left for contemplation
Not what there used to be.
How well the ancient woodwork
Looks round the Rect’ry hall,
Memorial of the good work
Of him who plann’d it all.

He who took down the pew-ends
And sold them anywhere
But kindly spared a few ends
Work’d up into a chair.
O worthy persecution
Of dust! O hue divine!
O cheerful substitution,
Thou varnished pitch-pine!

Church furnishing! Church furnishing!
Sing art and crafty praise!
He gave the brass for burnishing
He gave the thick red baize,
He gave the new addition,
Pull’d down the dull old aisle,
– To pave the sweet transition
He gave th’ encaustic tile.

Of marble brown and veinèd
He did the pulpit make;
He order’d windows stainèd
Light red and crimson lake.
Sing on, with hymns uproarious,
Ye humble and aloof,
Look up! and oh how glorious
He has restored the roof.


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