Cornish Rebellions, 1497-1648

By Stoyle, Mark | History Today, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Cornish Rebellions, 1497-1648

Stoyle, Mark, History Today

500 years after their uprising against Henry VII, Mark Stoyle discuss why the Cornish were different -- and often rebellious -- in Tudor and Stuart England.

May 1997 sees the 500th anniversary of the Cornish rising of 1497, a rebellion which not only came close to toppling Henry VII from his throne, but which also marked the beginning of a remarkable series of insurrections in the far south-west. Cornwall was a county which had never risen in arms before. Yet over the next 150 years no fewer than five major rebellions were to take place there, while `rebel' Cornish armies were to march into England on four separate occasions.

Why should this have been so? Few historians have ever thought to ask. Rather than viewing these periodic eruptions as part of an ongoing tradition of popular protest, most scholars have preferred to see them as isolated, almost unrelated, events. Yet, as this article will show, the frequency with which Cornwall was convulsed by rebellion during the Tudor and Stuart periods can only be explained in terms of that county's unique position within the early modern British state.

Of all the counties of southern England, Cornwall is the most remote and inaccessible. Writing in 1647, Joshua Sprigg described it thus:

A country ... whose natural situation is

very strong and apt for defence, being

... enwraps with the sea on all sides,

except towards Devonshire, and there

bounded by the River Tamar, which in

a right line runs almost from sea to sea.

These natural advantages had helped to shape Cornwall's early history. When the Saxons drove the indigenous Celtic peoples of Britain into the far west of the island during the Dark Ages, Cornwall had been one of the last bastions of Celtic resistance. During the 930s, however, Cornwall had finally been conquered by King Athelstan.

Athelstan may have brought the Cornish under English rule, but neither he nor his successors managed to subjugate them completely. The Cornish retained their cultural distinctiveness, including their own Brythonic language, and they continued to hold a grudge against the Saxons. Like their kinsmen the Welsh, moreover, the Cornish continued to cherish the belief that they would one day be restored to their ancient inheritance, when King Arthur -- the legendary warrior who was said to have led British resistance against the Saxons during the Dark Ages -- reemerged from the enchantment under which he slept and rode out to give the final overthrow to the ancient enemy.

When, in 1113, a party of French clerics who were visiting Cornwall dared to suggest that Arthur might not be sleeping, but dead, they were mobbed by local people for their pains. Arthur, who was said to have been born in Cornwall, remained a focus of Cornish pride throughout the medieval period. The writer of a fifteenth-century poem commented: `Bretouns & Cornysch sayeth thus, that [Arthur] levyth yet ... and schalle come and be a kyog [again]'. As this English author clearly realised, such predictions were not just idle fancies, but reflected the latent desire of a conquered Celtic people to revenge themselves upon their oppressors and regain their lost independence.

Uneasily aware of Cornwall's independent spirit, the rulers of medieval England took considerable pains to mollify the county's inhabitants. From 1337 onwards the title `Duke of Cornwall' was conferred on the eldest sons of the kings of England, allegedly as a sign of their special concern for that county's welfare. In addition, special institutions known as the Stannaries were set up to govern the local tin-mining industry, institutions which bestowed remarkable privileges upon thousands of Cornish men and women. As Philip Payton has observed, the Duchy and Stannary organisations provided medieval Cornwall with an `aura of semi-independence', while the county's remoteness, its unique history and its scattered pattern of settlement all helped to differentiate it still further from the rest of England. Above allthough, it was language which set the county apart.

English had made little progress in Cornwall during the early medieval period and in 1350 Cornish was still spoken by most of the county's inhabitants. Over the following century, however, that dominance began to ebb away. English was gradually encroaching from the east, and by 1450 the county's inhabitants were almost equally divided between Cornish and English speakers. Meanwhile, plays in the Cornish language had begun to appear. Between 1350 and 1375 an entire cycle of miracle plays, the so-called Cornish Ordinalia, was composed. These plays were written at Glasney, a collegiate church near Penryn, in West Cornwall, which now emerged as the centre of religious scholarship in the Cornish language. As scholars are increasingly coming to realise, medieval and Early Modern plays were not just designed to entertain, they usually had a polemical purpose as well - and it is tempting to suggest that this was true of the Cornish Ordinalia.

Evidence from later periods reveals that many Cornish people felt that the loss of their ancient language would bring about the loss of Cornish identity as a whole. This is apparent from the words of the parish clerk of St Just, one of the last few native speakers of the language, who in 1700 commented dejectedly that `[the] tongueless man ... lost his land'.

The Cornish gentleman William Scawen, who wrote a spirited defence of the Cornish language in the 1680s, was even more specific, observing that `the loss of tongue ... `[is] an infallible sign of subjection'. If such sentiments could still be expressed in Scawen's day - by which time the battle to save the Cornish tongue had, to all intents and purposes, been lost - then they would surely have been even more strongly felt 300 years earlier, when the balance between Cornish and English was only just beginning to tip. So it seems at least possible that the composition of the Cornish Ordinalia was part of a Cornish cultural counter-offensive against the creeping tide of Englishness, and that the miracle plays which were designed to be performed before large crowds - were written with the express design of upholding and reinforcing the ancient Cornish language.

It is against this background of encroaching Englishness, and Cornish resistance to it, that Cornwall's decision to support the pretender, Henry Tudor, against Richard III during the 1480s, should be seen. Henry, who had been born in North Wales, made much of his `British' descent; indeed he claimed to trace his lineage from Arthur himself. This, together with the fact that the pretender was based in Brittany (still an independent Celtic state at this time) and backed by powerful interests in Wales, made it plausible to see Henry himself as the long-promised hero of legend. One of the most famous of Merlin's prophecies had predicted that Saxon dominance of the British Isles would come to an end when `the mountains of Armorica [i.e. Brittany] ... erupt'. Wales would be `filled with joy', the prophecy went on `and the Cornish oaks shall flourish. The island shall be called by the name of Brutus and the title given to it by the foreigners shall be done away with'.

In the light of these predictions, it is hardly surprising that the news that Henry Tudor was in Brittany and preparing to claim the English crown should have aroused near-millenarian expectations among the Cornish people. According to later traditions, there was so much support for Henry in Cornwall that he originally planned to land there rather than in Wales. Certainly, many of his supporters-in-exile were Cornishmen, and Henry's eventual triumph in 1485 seemed to herald nothing less than a golden age for Cornwall.

Those Cornish gentlemen who had supported the king during his exile received their reward in the shape of prestigious posts at court and, by the favour which he lavished on these men and their Welsh counterparts, Henry showed that he was fully alive to the importance of `Britishness' in underpinning his regime. This point was underlined still further by Henry's decision to name his first son Arthur, and to grant him his livery as Duke of Cornwall. The symbolism of this could scarcely have been better calculated to appeal to Cornish sentiment.

Yet in the end Henry VII let his Cornish subjects down. The favours which he lavished on the Cornish gentry did little to help the bulk of the county's inhabitants. Indeed, the drawing of so many Cornish gentlemen into the orbit of the court may well have encouraged them to abandon their native traditions, thus widening the cultural divide which was already growing up between the greater gentry of Cornwall (few, if any, of whom were Cornish-speakers) and the common people. This was a potentially dangerous development The gentry governors were the men on whom the crown depended to preserve its authority in the county, but as they and, perhaps even more importantly, their lesser-gentry supporters became increasingly `anglicised', so their influence over the Cornish-speaking population began to wane. A gap was opening up within Cornish society, therefore, an estrangement between rulers and ruled, which could be readily exploited by those who sought to challenge the established order.

This fact alone undoubtedly helps to explain Cornwall's subsequent propensity for rebellion, and matters can only have been made worse by the fact that Henry's accession did nothing to stem the remorseless advance of Englishness. By the end of the fifteenth century English had replaced Cornish as the majority language in Cornwall. And it was at this critical juncture - just as the linguistic balance in the county finally swung against the embattled native speakers - that Henry struck at one of the other main pillars on which Cornwall's cherished sense of difference rested. In 1496, angered by the tinminers' refusal to accept a new set of regulations, the king suspended the operation of the Western Stannaries. As a result, the miners lost the ancient privileges which not only protected their livelihoods, but also symbolised royal recognition of Cornwall's unique position within the wider British state.

By the mid-1490s, then, the self-declared embodiment of British hopes stood revealed to his Cornish subjects as a fraud. Not only had Henry failed to bring about the longed-for Celtic resurgence, he now seemed to be attacking what residual autonomy Cornwall still possessed. It is only against this background of resentment and disillusion that Cornwall's sudden explosion into violence during May 1497 can be fully understood. As many historians have observed, it was Henry's demand for money to finance his Scottish war which sparked off the first Cornish rising, but without the much deeper cultural tensions which had been building up for centuries beforehand, the county would never have burst into flames as it did. It is surely significant that the rebellion first broke out at St Keverne, in the far west of the county, for it was in this region that Cornish language and culture remained most vibrant and resentment against the English most intense.

There is no need to explore the events of May 1497 in detail, or to follow the 3-6,000 Cornishmen who marched across the Tamar to their eventual defeat at Blackheath, near London, in June. The rebel force lost its exclusively Cornish nature once it had moved into England, in any case, for the Cornishmen were quickly joined by a rag-tag band of followers whose motives were as disparate as their geographical origins. The crucial thing to note is that Henry's victory, crushing as it was, did not bring an end to the disturbances in Cornwall. Instead, the situation there remained `beyond control' throughout summer 1497 - and reports soon began to circulate that the Cornish were preparing themselves for a fresh insurrection.

Such rumours were confirmed in September, when the Yorkist pretender Perkin Warbeck - who had been invited to put himself at the head of the original rebellion shortly after it began - finally landed near Penzance. Warbeck was far too late to take advantage of the initial rising, of course, but it is symptomatic of the despair which was gripping late fifteenth-century Cornwall that, despite the recent defeat at Blackheath, thousands of Cornishmen were prepared to flock to his banner. Warbeck's rebellion was, in many ways, a reprise of the earlier rising and, once again, it is hard not to suspect that the rebels' ostensible aims - in this case, to support Warbeck's claim to the English throne - in fact concealed more atavistic emotions. In September, as in June, the trouble began in the far west of Cornwall, and of those who were later charged with supporting Warbeck, over a third came from the two western hundreds of Penwith and Kerrier, both of which remained almost entirely Cornish-speaking at this time.

Warbeck managed to assemble some 3,000 men and lead them over the Tamar into Devon, but he proved no more capable of defeating Henry VII than the earlier rebels had been. Warbeck's forces failed to take Exeter, and quickly melted away when they learnt that Henry himself was approaching with a powerful army. No further resistance was offered to the king and by the end of 1497 peace had been restored throughout the south-west. Henry VII was comparatively restrained in the revenge exacted on the defeated rebels, probably because he feared that excessive severity might spark off further trouble. Having once crushed the risings, moreover, and waited for a decent interval of time to elapse, he restored the Stannary privileges on payment of a fine.

Nevertheless, the 1497 risings left a simmering undercurrent of resentment behind them. Recent reinterpretations of Beunans Meriasek, a play written in the Cornish language around 1504, have argued that the text contains a thinly-veiled critique of Henry VII, who is represented - in the guise of `King Teudar' - as a tyrannous oppressor of the Cornish people. Significantly, Teudar is opposed in the play by `The Duke of Cornwall', a character who resides at Tintagel Castle (the traditional birth-place of King Arthur), and who is clearly intended to represent the spirit of Cornish nationhood.

During the 1530s, Cornish resentment against the cultural hegemony of England became still further inflamed by the onset of the Reformation, which heralded an attack on many traditional religious practices. Some of these practices were associated almost as much with Cornishness as they were with Catholicism, so by striking at them, the Henrician government struck at the very roots of local identity. And although the unprecedented series of risings and near-risings which gripped the West Country between 1537 and 1549 had a multiplicity of causes - including religious discontent, economic distress and governmental weakness - the disturbances cannot be fully understood unless the deep-seated Cornish hostility towards further assimilation within the British state is also taken into account. Throughout these turbulent years, it was the Cornish-speaking district of West Cornwall which was the storm-centre of popular protest.

In 1537, a St Keverne man commissioned a banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, the religious symbol which had been adopted by the Northern rebels in 1536, and planned to parade with it through the surrounding countryside. Local gentlemen fearing a repetition of the 1497 rising, had him arrested and (probably) hanged. Then, in 1547, the clergy and churchwardens of West Cornwall took part in a tumultuous demonstration against the reformist Archdeacon William Body at Penryn. And when Body embarked on an `iconoclastic tour' of the district in 1548, an angry mob rose up to resist him. Soon afterwards Body was stabbed to death in Helston marketplace, his killers proclaiming that anyone else who dared to embrace `new fashions' (might they have been referring to cultural/linguistic fashions here, as well as religious ones?) would perish in the same manner.

Next year thousands of Cornishmen took part in the so-called `Prayer Book Rebellion', one of the most serious popular disturbances of the Tudor century. This insurrection, which swept over all of Cornwall and much of Devon during the summer of 1549, was primarily a protest against the Protestant religious policies of Edward VI's regime (and more particularly against the introduction of a new English prayer book) but there were signs of an ethnic undertow as well. Certainly, the rebel statement that:

We wyll have our olde service ... in Latten,

not in English, as it was before.

And so we the Cornyshe men, (whereof

certen of us understande no Englysh)

utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.

suggests the existence of a principled Cornish resistance to English cultural aggression. The fact that Glasney College had recently been dissolved may also be significant. Had the suppression of this ancient cultural centre provoked unrest among native speakers? And was it mere coincidence that Robert Welsh, the cleric whom Joyce Youings has identified as the `real leader' of the rebellion, was a Penryn man?

There are strong suggestions, then, that the Cornish rebels were in part motivated by a desire to protect their ancient culture and language, and this lends a particular poignancy to the fact that their efforts had the very opposite result. A.L. Rowse has described the 1549 rising as Cornwall's equivalent of the Scottish '45 and the comparison seems an apt one. The government put down the revolt with brutal force, killing some 4,000 Devon and Cornishmen in the process, and the intensification of Protestant reformation which followed saw the end of the traditional religious practices to which the Cornish people were so attached. Defeated and demoralised, the Cornish had little choice but to acquiesce in the new dispensation. There were no further rebellions during the sixteenth century, and by 1600 Cornwall had become, on the surface at least, a firmly Protestant county.

This did not mean that the Cornish people had relinquished their separate identity, however. True, they had adopted Protestantism, but it was Protestantism of a very conservative sort, almost untainted by the Puritanism which was so central to the reformed faith in many parts of England. In religious terms, therefore, the Cornish people had reinvented their old distinctiveness. And in West Cornwall, at least, they continued to cling to the other badges of difference as well: to the old legends, to the old language (though this was by now restricted to the area west of Truro) and to the old enmities. Writing in the 1580s, Norden observed that the Cornish, `retayne a kinde of conceyled envye agaynste the Englishe, whome they yet affecte with a desire of revenge for their fathers sakes', and similar observations were made by Carew, in his Survey of the county, published in 1602.

A dark vein of ethnic hatred, then, continued to run below the surface of Cornish life throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and, as the recent conflict in Yugoslavia has shown, such hatreds can re-emerge with frightening speed once established political structures start to collapse. The fragmentation of the British state which occurred during the early 1640s - as Charles I came into conflict first with the Scots, then with his own Parliament - resurrected the ancient ethnic fault-line in the south-west. Most of southern England came out in support of Parliament, but Cornwall - deeply hostile to the puritanical, culturally aggressive, strain of Englishness which the Parliamentary cause appeared to represent - sympathised with the king instead. As a result the spectre of `a privy insurrection of Cornishmen' returned to haunt Parliamentarian minds.

Such fears were well-founded. In October 1642 a huge popular rising took place in Western Cornwall. Some 10,000 men rose in arms, routed Parliament's few local supporters and secured the county for the king. Roundhead propagandists, spitting with rage, dubbed this extraordinary rising `Cornwall's second Commotion' (thus drawing a specific parallel with the events of 1549) and castigated Charles' Cornish supporters as `rebels'. Soon afterwards a Cornish army marched across the Tamar to do battle with the Parliamentarians, and for the next four years Cornwall remained a Royalist stronghold.

Throughout this period the Royalist high command - sensing that Cornwall's allegiance was a conditional one, founded on particularism as well as on mere loyalty to the crown - did their best to accommodate, and to exploit, the Cornish sense of difference. Cornish soldiers were permitted to serve in wholly Cornish regiments, for example, while `foreign' Royalist troops were usually kept out of the county. As a result Cornwall enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy during 1642-45 than is had done since the brief periods of rebel control in 1497 and 1549.

Yet this period of semi-independence, like those which had preceded it, was dearly bought. As the Civil War dragged on, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Cornishmen were killed, while the financial pressures on the county's inhabitants mounted. By late 1645 the tide had turned decisively against the king, and Cornwall faced the prospect of a Parliamentary invasion. At this critical moment, the Cornish Royalist leader Sir Richard Grenville, brother of the more famous Sir Bevil, proposed that Cornwall should withdraw from the conflict unilaterally and set itself up as a semi-independent statelet. Grenville's scheme had little chance of success, but that it should have been mooted at all - and that Grenville clearly expected it to be popular among the Cornish troops - is intriguing. Alarmed, the king's local commanders eventually had Grenville imprisoned. A few weeks later, the rout of the Royalist forces and the advance of the Parliamentary army across the Tamar put paid to any hopes that the limited degree of autonomy which Cornwall had obtained for itself as a result of the war might be retained. By August 1646 the Civil War in the West was over and Cornwall firmly in Round-head hands.

During the post-war period, Cornwall was more firmly subordinated to the central authorities than ever before. Between 1646 and 1649 Parliament launched an all-out assault upon the traditional Anglican faith which so many of Cornwall's inhabitants espoused. In addition, Round-head troops destroyed several of the holy wells and standing stones which were such a distinctive feature of the Cornish landscape, while local games and pastimes were discouraged. Nowhere was this cultural offensive more acutely resented than in the Celtic far west of the county, where the Cornish language was by now confined to a small group of perhaps thirty-forty parishes. In May 1648 this last bastion of Cornishness exploded into violence, with pro-Royalist rebellions breaking out at Penzance, St Keverne and elsewhere. The rising were hopeless from the start. Outnumbered and disorganised, the rebels were quickly dispersed by the Parliamentary troops.

Many were taken prisoner, and the subsequent treatment of these men by the Parliamentarians is of the greatest interest. Having dragged their sullen captives to Penryn, the Parliamentarians paraded them through the town in a humiliating public show, preceded by three Round-head soldiers who carried, upon the points of their swords, `three silver balls used in hurling'. Hurling (a form of handball) was regarded as `a sport peculiar to Cornwall' at this time, so the significance of the soldiers' action is obvious. By parading violated hurling balls through Penryn, of all places, they were making the clearest possible statement about the final defeat of the ancient Cornish culture which had endured in this region for so long.

The Roundhead soldiers were justified in their triumph: 1648 was indeed to prove the last stand of traditional `Cornishness'. The assault on local distinctiveness intensified during the Interregnum, and by 1660 the Cornish language was dying, even in its last western strongholds. As it did so, the visceral sense of racial difference which had lain, like a twisted thread, at the heart of the risings of 1497-1648 gradually faded away.

By the early eighteenth century the politics of cultural nationalism in the far south-west had become transmuted into the politics of provincialism. Cornwall was at last part of England, and the voices of the most neglected victims of English cultural dominance in the British Isles had finally fallen silent.

FOR FURTHER READING: A.L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall Jonathan Cape, 1941); I. Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy, 1491-99 (Alan Sutton, 1994); P. Payton, `A Concealed Envy Against the English', Cornish Studies, New Series, 1, (1993); J. Cornwall, Revolt of the Peasantry: 1549, (Routledge and Keegan Pasul, 1977); K.J George, `How Many People Spoke Cornish Traditionally?', Cornish Studies, Old Series, 14, (1986); M. Coate, Cornwall in the Great Civil War and Interregnum, (Oxford University Press, 1933); M.J. Stoyle, `Pagans or Paragons?: Images of the Cornish during the English Civil War', EHR, 111, No. 441, (April 1996).

Mark Stoyle is lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Southampton. He is the author of From Deliverance to Destruction: Rebellions and Civil War In An English City (Exeter University Press, 1996.

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