Our history and much of the world’s contains many war supposedly based on religion. We tend to think of it as being something that generally happens elsewhere until there’s the current sporadic violence on our streets. We find it difficult to understand, how people can get so enraged, knowing that their lives will almost certainly be lost. It’s difficult to imagine how we – the “normal people” - could choose to do the same. Historically though, it has happened here and those fighting will have only been too aware that the usual outcome for rebellion is death.
In our play, some of our local community cast members will play the part of 16th century women sent out onto Bodmin Moor. They were the unmarried members of the community and they were there to tend the sheep as they moved to summer grazing. Meanwhile, most years, the menfolk tended to the farmsteads. However, in 1549, one of the years in which the play is set, many of the men participated in a Cornish & Devonian rebellion against the King joining fisherman and miners.
In that year, the Book of Common Prayer, arising from the English Reformation, was introduced. The change was widely unpopular in areas where there was still a strong Catholic loyalty and after years of poverty, including a poll tax on sheep, this was the spark that fired a rebellion in Devon and Cornwall. There had already been bloodshed: religious processions and pilgrimages were already banned and the commissioner sent out to remove all symbols of Catholicism in Cornwall, William Body, was murdered in April 1548, Helston.
In the play, the characters menfolk are taking part of the siege of Exeter, one of the final battles. The rebellion was a hugely bloody, but short-lived affair with more than 8,000 people being killed. And, true to form, its leaders were executed in London, their heads being impaled on spikes at the city gates.
The failure of the Prayer Book Rebellion and the imposition of the prayer book are often seen as the time when the Cornish language was finally supressed. However, the language lives on in The Shearing Gang, with the cast having been coached by local experts with the help of Cornwall Council.