The martyrs of ’97 and the Cornish rising

That’s 1497 of course. On this day in that year the two leaders of the Cornish rising met their grisly end. Michael Angove, a blacksmith from St Keverne and Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London. They suffered this fate for what they had considered was the perfectly reasonable act of marching to London to complain to the king about their grievances. Unfortunately, the Government viewed it otherwise, as a treasonable act of rebellion against Henry VII’s rule. The king had intended to send their body parts back to Cornwall to be put on public display in the main towns. But Cornwall in the summer of 1497 was reported to be ‘unquiet and boiling’ so he decided this wasn’t exactly the wisest course of action.

The rising had been triggered by anger at government demands for taxes to fight a far-off war with the Scots. This was compounded by popular disaffection over the suspension of stannary rights in 1496. All that may have been coupled with residual, lingering Yorkist resentment at the Tudor takeover in 1485. The insurgents struck out across southern England, heading for London to put the complaints of the commons in front of the monarch. They aimed for Kent, hoping to gain support there.

They were disappointed in that, finding the Kentishmen not half as rebellious as they were made out to be. Nonetheless, the complainants had received considerable sympathy on their long march east. The contemporary account, the Great Chronicle of London, reported that the Cornishmen were ‘favoured’ by the people of the lands they passed through, and paid well for their supplies. This source also reported the rebel force was 15,000 strong. Given that the Cornish population at this time was no more than 50-60,000, this either means well over half of all able-bodied Cornishmen were involved or that the host had picked up support in its trek across southern England.

Some proportion of the support that had adhered to the Cornish cause on its march east clearly melted away when it approached London and Henry’s hastily gathered royal army. It was reported that desertions had reduced it to 10,000 or fewer by the time it camped on Blackheath to the south-east of the city. There Angove and Flamank’s force was quickly defeated, with the loss of some 200 lives. Although ‘it seems odd that no peer was able to block their march – or even try to do so – before they got to London’, the rising had failed ultimately because the nobility had belatedly rallied to the king. Of course the Cornish army might have done better had they possessed better weaponry, cavalry and trained soldiers.

As he was being drawn through the streets of London Angove is supposed to have boasted that he would have ‘a fame perpetual and a name immortal’. However, by the nineteenth century the events of 1497 were largely forgotten. It was only the Cornish Revival of the twentieth century and the rise of a national consciousness that restored the place of the 1497 rising in Cornish history.

This reached its climax in 1997 with the Keskerdh Kernow – a hike to London that revisited the route taken by the insurgents of 1497. By this time the actual events of 500 years earlier had been reimagined as the rising took its place as a romanticised icon of national rebellion. A brave Cornish-speaking army was crossing the border into England, St Piran flags fluttering furiously in the breeze.

Liskeard’s great church bells controversy

In the mid-1860s a new vicar – the Reverend F.S.Cook – took up residence at Liskeard in east Cornwall. He was disturbed to find that it was a custom in the town to ring the church bells to announce any interesting event, such as local election victories or successful law suits. The vicar did not take kindly to such indiscriminate secular bell ringing.

In November 1866 therefore, when town councillors made their usual approach requesting that the bells be rung during the annual mayor-choosing, they were firmly rebuffed. The Reverend Cook, annoyed that it was ‘only necessary that a man should have a sovereign to spare to be able to gratify his inclination to have the bells rung’, told the council that in future the church bells would be reserved for marking religious occasions and church services only.

Some councillors were outraged by what they perceived as an attack on their customs and independence. None more so than William Murray, an irascible fifty-year old auctioneer and spokesman for the drink interest, who had seen off a slate of pro-temperance candidates in the recent borough elections. His reply to the vicar was blunt: ‘I think that for a gentleman who is a stranger to come into our town … and do as he would in a small fishing village, ought not to be allowed’.

‘Excited men burst open the belfry door’

Citizens were encouraged to take direct action to defend the hallowed rights and privileges of the borough. The Cornish Times reported that ‘excited men burst open the belfry door, jingled the bells to their hearts’ content and their arms aching, in spite of priest and police. Since then effigies of the vicar have been repeatedly paraded in the streets and publicly burnt, he has been ridiculed in squibs, abused in letters and hissed as he passed along; some of the malcontents have absented themselves from church’.

Once roused, popular excitement was less easy to control. Things got out of hand and two nights of ‘indecent and lawless outrage’ followed. The Cornish Times hastily reversed its initial broadly sympathetic stance. Protests were now ‘participated in only by the scum of the place, or by thoughtless youths, encouraged by a few intolerant men, whose motives are as questionable as their conduct is censorable’.

Supporters of the vicar pointed the finger at the operators ‘of the ropes and pulleys … that set Liskeard mobocracy in action … audacious conduct based upon the too well grounded belief that the town was given up to their base will and pleasure’. There was clearly more to this episode than meets the eye.

Alarmed at the mayhem that had erupted, ‘respectable’ opinion in the town quickly let the matter drop. No one was brought to court for the disturbances and discretion was exercised. It’s not clear whether the bells were indeed reserved solely for religious occasions or not thereafter. But Liskeard’s Great Church Bells Question soon faded into the mists of history.

Transhumance in Cornwall

These days we often hear the word transgender in the news. But what about transhumance? And why was it important to Cornwall? The dictionary definition of transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock from one grazing ground to another.

Let’s go back around 1,300 years to the time when transhumance was widely operating in Cornwall.  The practice involved moving animals every May from the fields around the hamlet to rough grazing on the uplands. This helped to protect the crops and hay being grown and harvested over the summer close to the farms. In October the stock was rounded up and brought back down to the home settlement.

Groups of small huts discovered on Bodmin Moor provide the physical evidence for the practice. Around two metres by four, there was ‘room for a single bed, open fire and some storage’. The huts were clustered in groups of up to ten, probably reflecting a hamlet, with the individual huts used by different households.

Bodmin Moor

From May to October, these huts were occupied by the young women who watched over the animals. But that was not their only task. They milked the cows, made butter and cheese and worked with wool. Periodically, they would have been visited by others bringing supplies and taking away the dairy produce. Meanwhile, men and older women remained in the home hamlet to harvest the crops, care for the children and the vulnerable and generally maintain their households.

This system involved an estimated minimum 1,000 households on Bodmin Moor alone. It was in place by the late 600s at least from the evidence of placenames such as havos (or summer-land). It survived into the late 700s but began to disappear in the early 800s.

Peter Herring, the expert on Cornish transhumance, tells us this was not merely of interest economically. He suggests its extent ‘suggests a stable and peaceful rural society [and] a sophisticated farming practice’. The annual round-ups on the open moors and downlands ‘would have required administration and authority’ at some level above the hamlet.

Moreover, the cycle of transhumance was marked by the festivals of Beltain and Samhain, bringing communities together and marking the passage of the seasons. Meanwhile, for the young women, time spent on the uplands acted as a rite of passage and provided a spell of independence. In all, Peter Herring concludes that ‘many, maybe all, Cornish hamlets seem to have practiced transhumance in the early medieval period; it was, perhaps, a fundamental part of being Cornish’.

For the context of transhumance see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age

John Spargo; a forgotten Cornishman

John Spargo was born at Longdowns, a few miles north-west of Penryn, in 1876. He became a stonecutter, working at one of the quarries that had made the district the centre of the Cornish granite industry from the 1840s. He also became a Wesleyan Methodist lay preacher.

So far, so typical. But the young John came across England for All, a socialist polemic penned by Henry Hyndman, founder in 1881 of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). John was converted, although his socialism combined a distinctively Christian humanitarianism with an intellectual commitment to ‘scientific’ marxism.

In 1895 he moved to Barry in South Wales. There, he became active in the local branch of the SDF and the Barry Trades and Labour Council. In spring 1898 the South Wales valleys were convulsed by a bitter coal miners’ strike for higher pay. This dragged on for six months and was ultimately unsuccessful. During it, John threw himself into writing and speaking in support of the miners, though remaining sceptical about their prospects of winning, preferring ‘political action’ to strikes.

In 1900 he helped Keir Hardie in his victorious campaign to get elected as a Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and participated in the meetings that led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. Soon he was invited to lecture in the States, where he arrived with his wife Prudence in February 1901. Later that same year, John became a founder member of the Socialist Party of America, serving on its National Committee from 1909.

His early days in New York proved difficult. The lecture invitations failed to materialise, forcing John to earn his dollars by, at one stage, shovelling snow. Following the death of his first wife and a child from tuberculosis, he eventually made his name as a lecturer and a ‘muckraking’ writer. Although largely self-taught, he wrote books condemning child factory labour and calling for action on behalf of underprivileged children. He also produced an acclaimed biography of Karl Marx in 1908.

John Spargo in 1919

Around 1912 John moved with his second wife, Amelia, and their daughter to Vermont. At odds with the syndicalism and direct action associated with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, John was by now firmly linked to the right wing of the Socialist Party. However, he broke with the party in 1917 when it opposed American entry into the War.

In 1924 he became a Republican and in the 1930s denounced Roosevelt’s New Deal as a threat to constitutional government and an attack on individual liberty. By 1964 a supporter of Goldwater’s Presidential bid, he ended up politically far distant from his earlier socialist days. Nonetheless, a streak of stubborn individualism might be traced as a constant from his Cornish roots.

He died in 1966, having also become an expert on the local history of Vermont and on ceramics. He even wrote a booklet on his family name – Spargo – which comes from an apposite placename meaning a thorn hedge.

Covid-19 and Cornwall: the facts

A lot of often conflicting nonsense has appeared on both social media and the ‘mainstream’ media about how far this virus is present in Cornwall or the number of cases and deaths. Let’s look at what we know.

By the end of May the ONS had recorded 200 deaths in Cornwall where Covid-19 was cited as a cause of death or a contributory factor.

A map of those deaths shows a spread across the land with only a few places – Newlyn East and Grampound Road, Padstow, St Breward, Tintagel and Torpoint and the Rame peninsula – escaping with no mortalities. More generally, the more rural north of Cornwall looks to have best survived the outbreak. Other rural areas, for example the Lizard or mid-Cornwall between St Columb and Lostwithiel – have also seen relatively few victims. However, rurality has not guaranteed immunity. The rural Probus and Roseland has recorded the highest number of deaths, while the district east of the Fowey River has also suffered more than average.

That rurality is no magic bullet is confirmed by this map of detected cases per head across the UK.

Cases of Covid-19 per 100k population

Areas that are as rural, if not more so, than Cornwall such as East Anglia, North Yorkshire or Powys in Wales have seen twice as many detected cases. Meanwhile, Cumbria has had four times the Cornish number. A marginal location also seems important. Those regions with a lower number of cases per resident than Cornwall are Dorset and rural Devon in England, Ceredigion in Wales, the Highlands in Scotland and Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland.

Clearly the number of cases reported is only the tip of the iceberg. Currently the total of detected cases in Cornwall is running at 591. Given an assumed mortality rate of somewhere between 1 and 10% we should expect the real figure, based on 200 deaths, to be more like 2,000 to 20,000! Either the proportion detected is very low or we have an unusual and shockingly high mortality rate.

Overall however, Cornwall has fared relatively well. ‘Well’ in the context of the UK is of course pretty bad when compared to most of the rest of the world. Two hundred early and unexpected deaths are hardly cause for congratulation.

Moreover, before becoming too complacent we might note the final piece of evidence – the seven-day rolling average of detected cases in Cornwall.

For what it’s worth, this suggests that after a steady fall from early May, there was a small but significant jump in the number of cases in the first week of June.

The virus is still out there, so as the tourist sector eagerly gears up to resume its operations it’s best to remain vigilant and take care.

Maps for the surnames Guy and Ivey

Many thanks to the various readers who have requested information on surnames. Only four of the 18 requests received were not included in The Surnames of Cornwall. These four have now been covered in the last two surname blogs here and here.

The other requests have not been forgotten. I will place a previously unpublished distribution map for each of these, two at a time.

Here are the first two. You can find maps of these in 1861 for comparison here.

In the meantime, if you want information on a surname that hasn’t appeared in my book or been a subject of a previous blog do let me know.

The 1549 rising: the revised chronology

Early June is usually taken to be the anniversary of the time in 1549 when the Prayer Book rising began. According to the Government indictment of its leaders, a thousand men gathered on June 6th at Bodmin to protest against the new English Prayer Book to be used in church services. This predated the rising in Devon, which occurred on June 10th. This narrative, first put forward in 1913, has been uncritically repeated by virtually every account since. However, in 2014 Mark Stoyle revisited and convincingly revised the chronology of the rising. This has not received the attention it deserves, perhaps because it is hidden behind an academic paywall. But here’s a short summary. (See also my review of the state of Cornish Studies in From a Cornish Study, p.91.)

Mark picked up on a suggestion made as early as 1910 that the date of June 6th given in the indictment was a transcription error for July 6th and backed this up with previously unpublished contemporary evidence from Penzance, Falmouth and Plymouth. He says ‘we know almost nothing at all about how the Cornish rebellion of 1549 began’. Nor do we have any details as to how and when the Cornish joined the Devonian insurgents. Meanwhile, the accounts of the rising all come from the loyalist side, while nothing has survived giving the insurgents’ perspective.

The revised chronology proposed by Stoyle runs like this. The rising did not begin in Cornwall but at Sampford Courteney in mid-Devon. It arrived there from the east, not the west, as similar protests about the religious changes rippled out from south-east England. Dissidents flocked to the banner before moving on to Crediton and then laying siege to Exeter on July 2nd. While all this was happening, there was no contemporary reference to any disturbances in Cornwall until late June.

Instead, the gathering at Bodmin that triggered the Cornish rising occurred sometime between 26th June and 6th July. From there it spread outwards, pulling in support. Some time was lost in pursuing gentry loyal to the Government. They had taken refuge on St Michael’s Mount, as well as at Pendennis and at Trematon Castle in the east. At the Mount and at Trematon the loyalists were taken captive although Pendennis held out through the rising. Plymouth was under siege by 22nd July at the latest.

The same date provided the first written evidence of a conjunction between the Cornish insurgents and the Devonian rebels in a letter from Exeter sent to Lord Russell, who was tasked by the Government to quash the rising. At some point in mid-July, the Cornish had completed their trek from Bodmin and joined those besieging Exeter. Mark Stoyle suggests that the Cornish force advanced into Devon after the siege of Exeter began, rather than before, emboldened by the news of that action.

The course of the rising after the Cornish arrived is well known. In late July, perhaps encouraged by the more aggressive Cornishmen, a force moved east towards Honiton. This was met and driven back at Fenny Bridges. The (loyalist) account of this specifically referred to 800 Cornish reinforcements, again suggesting a recent arrival. A series of battles followed on 3rd-5th August when ‘hundreds of rebels were slain’ by Russell and his mercenaries and Exeter relieved.

The besiegers broke camp on 5th August. Most moved back towards the west while an estimated 1,000 fled north into Somerset, hoping to make a stand there. Eventually this force, including many Cornishmen, was cut down by cavalry near Langport. This was the location that was supposed to have witnessed the death of the Cornish King Gerent in 710. The past was echoing eerily down through the centuries, although it’s a moot point how many, if any, of those at Langport in 1549 were aware of this.

A modernist interpretation of the rising

It was claimed that around 7,000 or more men regrouped near Samford Courtenay in mid-August. They were attacked by Russell on 16th August and after a hard fight many – it was claimed 2,000 – were slain. Humphrey Arundell, the leader of the Cornish force, was captured in the streets of Launceston on 20th August. The rising was over. Four days later the Government had reasserted its control, to the point where it could safely hang two clergymen on the Lizard.

A loyalist account boasted that it had been ‘such a scouring that the memorial will not be lightly forgotten’. He was right. Carew wrote two generations later that the ‘western people’ fostered ‘a fresh memory of their expulsion long ago by the English’. The ‘scouring’ may have had unforeseen long-term consequences.

(Mark Stoyle’s article is ‘ “Fullye bente to fighte oute the matter”: Reconsidering Cornwall’s Role in the Western Rebellion of 1549’, English Historical Review 129 (538), 2014, pp.549-577.)

The state of Cornish towns in 1600: Part 2

As Richard Carew turned his attention westwards, his accounts of Cornish towns became noticeably briefer, probably reflecting his lack of acquaintance with places increasingly distant from his home at Antony, close to the Tamar.

St Columb was merely ‘a mean market town’, while St Austell was still too insignificant to get a mention. Despite being equally unimportant at this time ‘New Kaye’ did appear in Carew’s account. It was ‘so called, because in former times their neighbours attempted to supply the defect of nature by art, in making there a quay (for trade) … though want of means in themselves, or the place, have … only left them the benefit of … fisherboats.’

Grampound around 1900 after achieving fame by being the first parliamentary borough disenfranchised for bribery in 1820.

Grampound had its own corporation but was only ‘half replenished with inhabitants, who may better vaunt of their town’s antiquity, than the town of their ability’. Passing quickly over Tregony, which was ‘not generally memorable’, Carew found something more worth writing about at Truro. Although only consisting of ‘three streets’, it benefitted from courts, coinages and markets and ‘got the start in wealth of any other Cornish towns, and to come behind none in buildings, Launceston only excepted.’ Carew felt however that the residents of Truro needed to show a bit more entrepreneurial energy. ‘I wish that they would likewise deserve praise for getting and employing their riches in some industrious trade … as the harbours invite them.’

Down the Fal, Penryn was ‘rather passable than notable for wealth, buildings and inhabitants, in all of which … it giveth Truro the prominence’. Nevertheless, Penryn could claim the prominence over Falmouth, where there was just the manor house of Arwenack and a collection of cottages up the estuary, ignored by Carew. Another place not mentioned by Carew was Redruth, although it was a market town by this time. A relatively underpopulated hinterland with much land still unenclosed did not provide many hints of the mineral riches yet to be exploited.

Helston was ‘well seated and peopled’ but Carew had little to say about West Penwith. St Ives was ‘of mean plight’. Even a new pier had failed to have an impact, ‘Either want or slackness, or impossibility, hitherto withhold the effect’, although fish was ‘very cheap’. Across the peninsula Marazion was  ‘a town of petty fortune’, while Penzance, then a new settlement, was described as ‘a market town, not so regardable for its substance, as memorable for the late accident of the Spaniards firing’ a reference to the Spanish raid on Mount’s Bay in 1595.

A 19th century view of the raid in 1595