The Prayerbook Rebellion
Just as The Shearing Gang cross the moors of Cornwall, so did the 16th century women sent out to tend the sheep on the summer grazing. Meanwhile, most years, the menfolk tended to the farmsteads. However, in 1549, one of the years in the play echoes, 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 special sections of The Shearing Gang,
The Shearing Gang is set firmly in the present day
but it reflects upon a momentous uprising that shaped a large part of England nearly 500 years ago...