Royalist victories but Cornish disaster: July 1643

In the war of the five nations in the 1640s we last saw the Cornish army triumphant at the Battle of Stamford Hill at Stratton. Filled with enthusiasm, the army of 3,000 foot soldiers and 800 horsemen, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, advanced across the Tamar. They made contact with the Royalist army of Prince Maurice at Chard in early June, adding another 1,000 troops but a greater number – 1,500 – of cavalry.

By early July, the Royalist army had reached Bath, where it confronted Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarian force. The Parliamentarians established themselves at Lansdown, a high plateau north of the city and dug in. Though outnumbered by the Royalists, they held the commanding position, defended by earthworks and cannon.

A contemporary illustration of the battle

On July 5th the two armies were glowering at each other across an intervening valley. Waller rather impetuously decided to send half his cavalry to attack. They were repulsed by the Cornish army, which then began to advance cautiously across the lower ground towards the Parliamentarian positions on the hill. ‘Believing no man their equal’, the Cornish force, led by Bevil Grenville, repeated the feat of Stratton, fighting their way up the hill in the face of considerable resistance. Around 200 foot soldiers were killed and another 300 wounded before they finally gained the crest.

The memorial to Bevil Grenville at Lansdown

Once there they held, with pikemen fighting off five separate charges of Parliamentarian cavalry determined to dislodge them. Finally, Waller’s army abandoned the field to the Royalists. However, in the Parliamentarian counter-attacks, Bevil Grenville was mortally wounded. While technically a victory, the losses sustained by the Cornish army, the death of their inspired leader and an unfortunate accident the following day when an ammunition cart blew up, blinding Hopton, made this victory a hollow one.

Pursuing the Royalists to Devizes in Wiltshire, Waller and his Parliamentarians were eventually soundly beaten at Roundway Down just outside the town on July 13th. The Royalist cavalry won the day, with the Cornish, penned up in Devizes, only involved later, when the Parliamentarians were already routed.

The Cornish army then advanced to Bristol, where they joined a far bigger force led by Prince Rupert. Well outnumbering the city’s defenders, the Royalist leaders debated whether to invest it and starve it into submission or storm the city walls. The decision was made not to wait. This reckless choice has been blamed on the impatience of Prince Rupert. However, the Cornish foot soldiers were equally eager to attack, pre-empting the assault on July 26th by going into action before the signal came.

Exposed to heavy gunfire from the defenders, they were unable to cross the ditch and reach the walls at Temple Gate to the south of Bristol. Terrible losses ensued during the three hours during which repeated futile assaults were made. Another 300 Cornish soldiers were killed, including two of their leaders, Sir Nicholas Slanning and Colonel John Trevanion.

While Bristol eventually fell to the Royalists that same day, for the Cornish enough was enough. Having sustained major losses at Lansdown and Bristol the Cornish became mutinous and refused to advance further east. They were detached and sent back west to deal with the isolated Parliamentarian towns holding out in Devon and Dorset. Effectively, this was the end of the Cornish army as a coherent fighting unit.

Gone the four wheels of Charles’ wain,
Grenville, Godolphin, Trevanion, Slanning slain’

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 Battle of Stamford Hill: May 1643

Just over 367 years ago the second major Cornish battle of the British Wars took place. After their victory at Braddock Down in January the Royalists had unsuccessfully besieged Plymouth before being driven off, while one of their leaders – Sidney Godolphin – had in the meantime been shot dead in an ambush near Chagford in Devon.

A local truce was brokered in late February and this lasted until late April. During this period both sides took the opportunity to prepare for renewed conflict. On the expiry of the truce on April 23rd a Parliamentarian force crossed the Tamar at Polson Bridge before being beaten off and retiring back into Devon. Two days later, the Cornish militia, although reluctant to advance across the Tamar, were persuaded to do so by the commander Sir Ralph Hopton. Their sally towards Okehampton ended in confused chaos. An ambush at Sourton Down caught the Cornish force by surprise and was followed by a tremendous thunderstorm. The Cornish militia fled in panic back to Launceston, leaving 60 of their number dead on the downs behind them.

Location of the clashes of 1643

Taking heart from the Royalist collapse at Sourton Down the Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Stamford, crossed into Cornwall from Holsworthy towards Stratton on the 15th of May. He took with him an army of 5,400 infantry and 200 cavalry. Unwisely however, he had dispatched the majority of the Parliamentarian cavalry – another 1,200 horsemen – on a surprise lighting raid on Bodmin.

Stamford was opposed by a Royalist army of around 3,000 men. It was, moreover, short of food and gunpowder. Confident of success, the Parliamentarians dug in at the top of a hill north of Stratton. Undeterred and no doubt worried about his supply problems (plus the Parliamentarian cavalry to his rear) Hopton ordered an attack up the hill on the morning of 16th May.

Site of the battle

By the afternoon a series of attacks had failed and the Royalists were beginning to run short of powder. Concealing this from his men Hopton ordered a final desperate attack – spearheaded by the contingent under local man Sir Bevill Grenville. This began to make headway onto the top of the hill.  In the words of Hopton, the Parliamentarians, on seeing their ‘men recoil from less numbers, and the enemy gaining the hill … advanced with a good stand of pikes’. Sir Bevill was ‘borne to the ground’ in this counter-attack. But being ‘quickly relieved … [he] so reinforced the charge, that having killed most of the assailants and dispersed the rest, they took Major General Chudleigh (the Parliamentarian second in command) prisoner’.

Sir Bevill Grenville

In the Royalist victory 300 Parliamentarian soldiers were killed and 1,700 captured, along with 13 cannons and all the baggage, which included £5,000. Cornwall was made safe for the Crown, Sir Bevill Grenville had become the local hero, the Parliamentarians were demoralised and the road into south west England was now open.

Trematon Castle

The Normans arrived in Cornwall in 1070, around four years after seeing off the English at Hastings. Once here, they threw up a handful of their trademark castles, probably at first wooden structures on top of a raised piece of ground – a motte – overlooking an enclosed courtyard – or bailey. The first two hugged the Tamar at Launceston and Trematon and were joined within a few decades by a castle at Restormel, near Lostwithiel. The location of the first castles in the far east suggest an initial uncertainty about possible insurgencies by the native Cornish.

In the 1100s these castles were rebuilt with impressive stone keeps and, along with Tintagel, which was built in the early 1200s, eventually became the visible symbols of the power of the earldom of Cornwall. Trematon is probably the least well-known of the four but stands comparison with the others. It’s described in the recent edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England as ‘more impressive than Launceston, if not as perfect as Restormel’.

The castle keep at Trematon

Situated on a hill overlooking a branch of the Tamar estuary near Saltash, Trematon castle was sold to the earl in 1270 and since then has been the property of the earldom and, from 1337, the Duchy of Cornwall. In the late 1200s a gatehouse was built, together with a hall and other buildings in the bailey. The gatehouse survives although the other buildings have long gone, being replaced in 1808-09 by a country house. In the process part of the castle wall was demolished in order to obtain a sea view.

The house built in 1808-09 in the former bailey

Handed around from favourite to favourite by a succession of earls and dukes, the castle for the most part remained untroubled by the swirls and currents of medieval and early modern history. One flurry of excitement occurred in 1400 when Geoffrey Penriche, bailiff of Trematon, led a group of armed men into Saltash in belated support of a rising to restore Richard II to the throne taken by Henry IV.  Failing miserably to garner support from the townsfolk, Penriche contented himself with stealing some cash and a few barrels of red wine before riding off eastwards into the dustbin of history.

The battle of Braddock Down

This week sees the anniversary of the first battle of the Cornish army in the seventeenth century civil wars – the battle of Braddock Down.

In the autumn of 1642 when the wars began it wasn’t at all certain who would rally Cornwall behind them. Would it be Royalists or Parliamentarians? The greater gentry in Cornwall were fairly evenly split. Eastern gentry such as the Bullers, Carews, Corytons, Eliots and Robartes made up a puritan ‘godly network’ supporting Parliament. Others, especially in the west, the Bassets, Godolphins and Vyvyans, together with Lord Mohun at Boconnoc and Bevill Grenville in the north, declared for King Charles.  In the meantime, Somerset and most of Dorset, along with Plymouth, Exeter and other Devon towns, had already sided with Parliament.

The scales were decisively tipped in Cornwall in favour of the King by the call to arms to the trained bands in October 1642. According to Mark Stoyle, a ‘vast and somewhat unruly Royalist mob’ of up to 10,000 men had volunteered to defend Cornwall against a small Parliamentarian force that had lodged itself at Launceston. Moving east, they forced the outnumbered Parliamentarians to seek the safer sanctuary of Plymouth.

By November 1642 the two forces were glaring at each other across the Tamar. The Cornish army was encouraged by their military commander, Sir Ralph Hopton, to sally towards Exeter. This they did – twice. But each time the city proved to be too well defended. After the second attempt, at the end of December, the Cornish army fell back in some disarray towards the Tamar, a serious mutiny breaking out on the way back.

While the demoralised Royalists scurried westwards, a reinforced Parliamentarian force led by Colonel Ruthin re-entered south east Cornwall, retaking Saltash and occupying Liskeard. It was on January 18th that Hopton was able to persuade his army to confront these Parliamentarians. This was made easier by the fortuitous capture of three Parliamentarian ships, driven into Falmouth by gales and carrying arms and money. Some of the latter was used to encourage the reluctant foot soldiers.

Thus fortified, Hopton’s force met the Parliamentarians a day later at Braddock Down, a few miles east of Lostwithiel. Ruthin had advanced from Liskeard, not waiting either for his handful of cannon to be brought up, nor for a second Parliamentarian force that was on its way. He was confident after the poor showing of the Cornish Royalists in Devon at the end of 1642. The two armies faced off for a couple of hours while musketeers fired the occasional round at each other. Ruthin occupied rising ground and could afford to wait. Hopton wasn’t so sure of his somewhat more unpredictable and fractious men and knew Parliamentary reinforcements were only a day or two away.

Possible site of the battle. Ruthin’s troops would have occupied the hill to the right.

The Cornish foot soldiers, mainly pikemen, were ordered to attack. Led by Bevill Grenville, they charged down a slope and up towards the Parliamentarians. The sight of an advancing horde of screaming Cornishmen apparently ‘struck a terror’ into the raw Parliamentary foot soldiers who, simultaneously assailed on their flanks by Royalist cavalry, panicked and broke. A Parliamentarian officer wrote: ‘both our horse and foot were suddenly routed, and every man divided and dispersed, ran and rode as fast as fear could carry them towards Saltash’.

Two hundred Parliamentarians had been killed for very little loss on the Royalist side. Over 1,000 prisoners were taken, as well as five guns and ammunition. Another 140 prisoners and 20 guns fell into Royalist hands when Saltash was re-taken three days later.

The morale of the Cornish army was lifted by the victory, Hopton’s reputation as a commander enhanced and Cornwall made safe for the king.