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. …

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