How the Cornish Carews lost their heads

Many will be aware of the name of Richard Carew of Antony, near Torpoint. He was the author of the Survey of Cornwall, published in 1602, the first such history written in the British Isles and a window onto life in Cornwall in the late 1500s. His son and grandsons are less well known but no less interesting.

His son was also named Richard. Born in 1580 and inheriting the estate in 1620, he was a cat breeder, dabbler in medical experimentation and educationist. He was particularly obsessed by the problem of keeping warm, inventing a type of boot attached to a horse’s saddle to keep the rider’s feet warm and also a warming stone, recommended for old folk and those suffering from colds. His own experience when learning Latin and French convinced him that the best way to learn a language was to listen to it spoken and to read and translate as much as possible, only learning the grammar at a later stage.

Richard died in 1643. Two of his sons came to a stickier end. Alexander was the child of Richard and his first wife Bridget, while John was one of the children of his marriage to his second wife Grace. Grace was 17 years old at the time of their wedding, when Richard was 40.

The Carews, like their father, were Puritans in religion. But, unlike their father, Alexander and John actively supported Parliament against the King when civil war broke out in 1642. Alexander, who succeeded to his father’s estates, was in charge of Drake Island and its fort commanding the entrance to the Tamar. With Plymouth besieged by the Royalists and Bristol falling to the King, Alexander began to have second thoughts. He started secret negotiations to change sides and hand the fort over to the Royalists.

When a Parliamentary ship anchored in the estuary Carew allegedly ordered his gunners to fire on it. The story is that they refused, instead turning on Carew and holding him captive. Another story is that on being taken to Plymouth he was almost lynched by a furious crowd of Parliamentarian women. Both stories are probably apocryphal. But Carew was certainly arrested, taken to London, tried for treason and then executed in December 1644. Two blows of the axe were needed to sever his head from his body.

Many Fifth Monarchists believed that in 1666 earthly monarchies would vanish and Christ’s rule replace them

Meanwhile, his half-brother John was a more enthusiastic supporter of the Parliamentary cause, so much so that he remained an MP when the army purged Parliament of its moderates in 1648. John became a regicide, signing Charles I’s death warrant. However, his religious views led him to oppose the protectorate declared by Oliver Cromwell in 1653. John had become a Fifth Monarchist, holding that only Christ should rule. He was thrown into prison in 1655-56 after criticising Cromwell’s hereditary pretensions.

Released, he managed to avoid being implicated in a planned Fifth Monarchist rising in 1657. But his luck ran out on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The Royalists were bent on revenging themselves on the regicides. John was arrested in Cornwall and taken to London. He did not repent, to the end confident that monarchy was ultimately doomed to extinction. For that, he was executed in October 1660.

Both brothers had lost their heads, but to opposite sides of the seventeenth century conflict.

2 thoughts on “How the Cornish Carews lost their heads

  1. Love these accounts, truly wonderful. But why do you think the stories about Alexander Carew in relation to firing on Parliamentarian ships, or being nearly lynched by furious Parliamentarian women, are unlikely to be true? As ever I am alert to (potential) assumptions that deny women agency!


    1. The accounts appeared in Parliamentary newsletters which were essentially propaganda sheets. There was no corroborating evidence from any other contemporary observers. In addition, Alexander Carew’s biographer in the DNB concludes these particular stories have to be viewed with considerable scepticism.


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