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.

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 1960s: when everything in Cornwall began to change

The Torrey Canyon begins to break up

On March 18th 1967 the Liberian registered oil tanker, the Torrey Canyon, struck the Seven Stones reef west of Land’s End. Attempts to refloat the ship failed and it began to break up, releasing the 100,000 tons or so of crude oil on board.

Attempts by the RAF to bomb the ship and burn the oil were less than successful. Several of the bombs missed and much of the oil ended up on the coasts of Cornwall and Brittany. Meanwhile, heavy-handed use of chemical dispersants did as much damage as the oil. The Government and their ‘experts’ refused to listen to local advice and thus failed to tap into local knowledge and expertise. As a result, thousands of sea birds perished and miles of coastline were polluted.

The plume of smoke from the blazing oil was clearly visible fom West Penwith

Images of bombed oil tankers, dying sea birds and beaches clogged with oil are iconic reminders of the 1960s in Cornwall. But they aren’t the only or the most important ones. This was the decade of counter-culture. The ‘summer of love’ in California had its echo at St Ives as hippies from the English suburbs descended on the town in an attempt to recreate their own version. Locals gazed bemusedly at the hippies, who were blissfully unaware they were recreating the earlier painterly westwards migration. The local business community fumed. Hordes of fish and chip gobbling tourists were one thing; scruffy hippies with little to spend quite another.

Moreover, it wasn’t just a matter of culture. The 1960s was the decade when population turnaround occurred, with the beginning of mass in-migration, itself triggered by mass car-borne tourism. Demographic change was followed by social change. In the words of the late Ron Perry, this was a ‘bourgeois invasion’, Cornwall being ‘swamped by a flood of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-browed city-dwellers who effectively imposed their standards upon local society’.

Housing at Bodmin for its overspill population

As that was happening, a ferocious campaign had been waged to prevent planned ‘overspill’ from London to Cornish towns. With the exception of Bodmin this was largely successful in the short term, although it did little to stem the unplanned migration in search of the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’. But it did bring Cornish nationalism to public attention, as Cornish Celts started to ape their big brothers and sisters in Wales and Scotland.

Whether their preference was the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan, Cornish people of a certain age will remember the 60s as the decade when everything began to change and nothing was ever the same.