Cornwall and the Tudors: Rebellions and Reformation

Cornwall and the Tudors: Rebellions and Reformation

‘Up to the 16th century, Cornwall was the last outpost of the known world.’ So wrote the county’s most famous historian, A. L. Rowse, in his authoritative study Tudor Cornwall, first published in 1941. A century of conflict with France and Spain, however, punctuated by the Reformation and no less than three rebellions, was to end this isolation and bring Cornwall firmly into the mainstream of British national life.

It may well have been this remoteness which saved the county from the dynastic squabbles of the Wars of the Roses which brought confu­sion to so much of the country during the late 15th century. While others aligned themselves with either the White Rose of York or the Red Rose of Lancaster, the two branches of the Plantagenets competing for the throne of England, the Cornish showed only a passing interest. The sympathies of the people, though, were basically Lancastrian, and several leading Cornish families like the Courtenays played an active part elsewhere, only to pay a heavy price for opposing Yorkists through the execution of three of their leading members. Others, like Sir Henry de Bodrugan, were obliged to forfeit their lands and flee the country as their price for ‘backing the wrong horse’. In contrast, supporters of Henry Tudor were generously rewarded after his victory at Bosworth in 1485; the Treffrys of Fowey received several important manors,., forfeited by Yorkist sympathisers while the Lancastrian loyalist Sir Richard Edgecumbe was elevated to the Privy Council and went on to become a trusted member of the new king’s court.. For the ordinary people, on the other hand, more interested in the coming harvest or when the next shoal of pilchards might appear, these must have been strange goings on with little relevance to their everyday lives. What was: of interest, though, was how much taxation the new Henry VII might try to exact from them and what action could they take to avoid paying it. Few in 1485 would have anticipated the scale of resentment which was to erupt 12 years later.

In 1497 the Cornish exploded onto the national stage with two uprisings against the Crown. The people had a long tradition of inde­pendence which stemmed from racial identity, geographical remoteness and centuries of relative isolation; in 1342 the retiring Archdeacon o Cornwall, Adam de Canton, had observed that ‘the folk of these parts: are quite extraordinary, being of a rebellious temper, and obdurate in the face of attempts to teach and correct’. The tinners had a particularly notorious reputation; a century and a half later they could still be regarded as ‘twelve thousand of the roughest and most mutinous men in England’. This underlying distaste for authority was now to be brought to the surface by the king’s attempts to raise funds for a campaign against James IV of Scotland. In January 1497 Parliament approved a new round of taxation which was likely to affect the poorer classes as well as the gentry.

Four Royal Commissioners were appointed to assess the tax in Cornwall, John Arundell, John Trevenor, Thomas Erisey and Richard Flamank, but almost immediately unrest began to surface among the people of the Lizard who, like the tinners, were renowned for their fierce independence. They quickly rallied around the leadership of a St Keverne blacksmith, Michael Joseph Angof (‘the smith’), and the dissent soon spread throughout Cornwall. Support came from all sections of society and all parts of the county as the rebels marched across the Tamar and on to London. By now they had been joined by a Bodmin lawyer, Thomas Flamank, ironically the son of one of the tax assessors, while in Somerset they gained their most prominent recruit, Lord James Audley. It appears that the rebels had hoped to gain the support of the men of Kent who were also known for their rebellious nature but this was not forthcoming and seriously weakened their chances of success. The king, meanwhile, had been caught by surprise but was fortunate in that his newly-assembled Scottish army had not yet been sent north and so its commander, Lord Daubeney, was first ordered to disperse the Cornishmen. By Friday 16 June the rebels, said to have been 15,000 strong, had reached the outskirts of London and had set up camp on Blackheath. The royal forces, however, had been swollen to 25,000 and the outcome of the confrontation was inevitable. On the following day the rebels were surrounded, and ‘being ill-armed and ill-lead [sic], and without horse or artillery, they were with no great difficulty cut in pieces and put to flight’ (Francis Bacon). About 200 were apparently killed and the leaders, Arundell, Flamank and Angof, were sentenced to death, Angof going to the gallows in a blaze of defiance claiming that ‘he should have a name perpetual, and a fame permanent and immortal’. Posterity, in fact, came rather belatedly for the blacksmith and it was not until 1966 that a memorial to him was finally erected in the churchyard of his native St Keverne. The remainder of the rebels were allowed to drift despondently homewards, the king having been persuaded against any large-scale reprisals for fear of provoking further unrest. This was sound advice for, as one contem­porary noted, the Cornish had been ‘little mollified or quieted, and were ready to move again and begin new commotions and conspiracies’.

Henry VII may well have resented his leniency, for within weeks the Cornishmen were taking up arms against him for the second time. They now threw their lot behind Perkin Warbeck, a Flemish imposter who professed to be Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes of the Tower and as such a claimant to the throne. Warbeck had landed at Whitsand Bay near Sennen on 7 September with a force of about 200 from Ireland. His intention was to recruit an army from the disgruntled thousands who had wound their weary way back from Blackheath, and within days 3,000 had joined him at Bodmin where he now proclaimed himself to be Richard IV. Warbeck’s plan was to take Exeter, and by 17 September the rebels, by then 6,000 strong, had assembled at the city gates but, after briefly breaching the walls, they were pushed back and forced to retreat. In the meantime royal reinforcements, again led by Daubeney and aided by Sir Rhys ap Thomas, had arrived on the scene and their presence was enough to dishearten the rebels who began to drift away. On the night of 21 September the imposter himself deserted those who remained, only to be captured on 5 October and held at Exeter. One observer noted that ‘it was necessary to guard him well, in order that the men of Cornwall may not murder him, as they are incensed since they have learned from the King that they have been worshipping a low born foreigner as their sovereign’. In the end Henry VII did the job for them; Warbeck was taken back to London and the Tower, given enough room to attempt an abortive escape and then hanged.

As with the aftermath of the first rebellion the king did not follow a policy of widespread recriminations, although a few of the ringleaders were again executed. As Professor Bindoff wrote, however, ‘the West Country kept its gallows empty at the cost of emptying its pockets’; substantial fines were imposed on the Cornish people for years to come and the county paid heavily for its independent spirit. Cornwall’s rela­tive isolation from the centre of national life had also been abruptly shattered and the process of absorption was to accelerate during the next century as the Reformation, another uprising, and a succession of wars with France and Spain brought this remote corner of Britain firmly into the orbit of English and European affairs.

War had broken out with France in 1511 and west-country ports immediately came under the threat of naval attack. In reality this hardly materialised, although in 1514 the little borough of Marazion near Penzance was burnt in a raid, and a map compiled shortly after­wards showed much of the town in ruins. It was only to be in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s confrontation with the Papacy that the Cornish coast was to be seriously threatened by the might of Catholic France and Spain. In 1534 Parliament passed the Act of Succession sanctioning the annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and declaring the succession to the throne vested in the children of Henry’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn. This was followed by an Act of Supremacy and in 1536 by the Dissolution of the smaller monasteries.

A campaign against the increasingly irrelevant and unholy monas­teries had been imminent for some time and became almost inevitable with the appointment of Thomas Cromwell as Vicar-General. Logically the Cornish should have welcomed this development; a survey of 1535 had valued the Cornish monasteries at £4,083 but most of this income was spent well beyond the Tamar. The revenues came mainly from rents and the unpopular tithes, like the 1/18th of their catch which the fishermen of Golant had to pay to the prior of Tywardreath. By 1536 the dissolution of the larger religious houses was also well on the way but not without some plaintive pleas for special treatment; the prior of Bodmin wrote optimistically to Cromwell ‘trusting you will continue my good lord, as ye have ever done, and remember me and my poor brethren to the king’s commissioners at their coming into Cornwall for our poor living’. The head of Cornwall’s largest priory and favourite destination for pilgrims anxious to see the relics of St Petroc had little grounds for pleading poverty, but his letter may not have been in vain; he received an annual pension of £66 13s. 4d. while the canons were only awarded £5 6s. 8d. The prior of Launceston, though, apparently without any pleading, received the fairly handsome pension of £100, and on the whole the brothers were well taken care of. So also were the king’s agents who supervised the dissolution process, like Dr. Tregonwell who accumulated considerable wealth plus an annual pension of £40.

After the Dissolution most of the church lands eventually passed into the hands of lay landholders, which considerably strengthened the economic position of the Cornish gentry and helped to create the kind of semi-aristocratic class largely absent from Cornish life to date. Bodmin priory, for example, was sold to Thomas Sternhold in 1544, St Germans was leased to John Champernowne for under £7 a year, while the Prideaux family did well out of the Padstow estates. From the Crown’s standpoint, the process not only produced much needed revenue, but created a body of dependant subjects whose loyalty was to be needed in the face of Counter-Reformation sentiment and increas­ing threats from continental Catholic powers. Spanish and French raiders had already penetrated the Fal estuary, prompting Henry VIII to order the construction of castles at Pendennis and St Mawes in 1539 and another, St Catherine’s, at Fowey a year later. The problem was cost, for the process of creating a network of Channel defences was proving expensive and, although peace came temporarily in 1546, excessive taxation only added fuel to the embers of discontent among the ordinary Cornish people who viewed all changes, including religious, with profound scepticism and distaste.

Map of the Cornish Hundreds
The Cornish Hundreds

The anticipated threat to the new religion was in fact to come from home, not abroad. The government had been concerned about the staunchly Catholic south-west for some time and had taken the pre­caution in 1539 of setting up a Council of the West to enforce the changes and to deal with any possible disturbances. Matters came to a head in January 1549 after Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity by which English was to replace Latin in all church services from 9 June onwards. For a simple, traditional people this was all too much and in no time the county was again in a state of uproar. Penryn, in particular, quickly emerged as a hotbed of dissent while rebels from Penwith attacked St Michael’s Mount and laid waste to nearby Marazion causing ‘great decay, ruin and desolution’. Humphry Arundell of Helland emerged as the main leader of what was to be dubbed the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ and the insurgents proceeded to Bodmin where they were joined by the mayor, Nicholas Boyer.

It was there that they drew up their staunchly conservative petition to the king, saying ‘we will not receyve the new servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have our olde service of mattens, Masse, evensong and procession in Latten as it was before, and so we Cornysshe men, where of certen of us understand no English, utterly refuse thys newe Englysh’. Even fewer, of course, would have understood Latin either but the familiarity of the traditional service and usages was the cherished issue at stake. Inevitably, their demands were rejected and the rebels, now 2,000 strong, marched to Exeter and surrounded the city on 2 July. At the end of the month, though, the siege was partially lifted and a large contingent of rebels proceeded to Honiton only to be defeated by a royal force under Lord Grey. Far from abandoning their cause, however, the Cornish staged a rearguard action at Sampford Courtenay but all to no avail. The leaders were executed and many priests sympathetic to the rebellion were deprived of their livings while some, like the curate of Pillaton, were publicly executed. Other lay leaders suffered the confiscation of their property on the orders of Lord Russell, overall commander of the royal forces, Who was duly rewarded with the earldom of Bedford for his troubles. The wrath of the authorities was also felt in a less predictable manner; all church bells save the smallest in each tower were ordered to be taken down, although fortunately for posterity the directive was not enforced and only the bell clappers were actually removed. For the moment, at least, the Cornish could no longer be summoned by chimes into rebellion.

After the 1549 uprising Protestantism proceeded at full speed, altars were removed, a second Prayer Book issued in 1542 and another Act of Uniformity passed to enforce it. All this had considerable effect on the course of Cornish history; the intimate connection with Catholic Brittany was severed, while the absence of a Cornish translation of the new service accelerated the decline of the language which lost substan­tial ground throughout the following century. Literature in Cornish also suffered with the suppression of Glasney college at Penryn which had been an important cultural bastion of the old language. While Catholicism was subsequently restored under Queen Mary in 1553, her brief five-year reign was not enough to ensure any lasting reversals and the lengthy rule of her successor Elizabeth I saw to it that the old Catholic days were gone for good. This is not to say, of course, that individual adherance to the old faith did not continue and for some of these recusants, as they were now styled, life proved to be difficult and for a minority, impossible. The staunchly Catholic Arundells of Lanherne rejected the new religion, and in 1584 Sir John Arundell was despatched to the Tower where he died six years later. Another recusant, Cuthbert Mayne, was hanged in the market place at Launces­ton, dismembered, and then his still quivering heart was cut out and held up to the assembled masses. If that was not enough, his severed head was displayed on the castle gate and quarters of his body sent to four other towns for display as a lesson to others. Even for those fortunate enough to avoid prison and keep their heads, the payment of annual fines for recusancy kept them impoverished for decades to come. At the village level, however, it would be wrong to exaggerate the immediate effects of the Reformation in Cornwall and some of the religious changes were slow to permeate local life. Many Catholic prac­tices continued to be observed; and in 1584 the vicar of Kilkhampton claimed not even to know that a new Prayer Book existed, and Mass was still being celebrated in some parish churches as late as 1590. Deprived of local leaders and spiritual direction, though, the old faith steadily faded away and by the end of the century the Church of England in Cornwall had gained a firm hold.

In 1584, after a F61tg period of deteriorating relations, war had broken out with Catholic Spain. The vulnerability of the south-west prompted extra provision to be made for coastal defence, and Sir Francis Godolphin and Sir William Mohun were appointed deputy-lieutenants to make the necessary preparations for King Philip’s anticipated invasion. Ordnance was sent down to St Michael’s Mount and a force of 5,000 assembled in readiness. At Plymouth, meanwhile, Francis Drake gathered a fleet to defend the western approaches, and after several false alarms the Spanish Armada of 130 ships was finally spotted off the Lizard on 7 July 1588. Its defeat and subsequent flight entered the folklore of English history, but few believed that

A Spanish galleon Spanish pride and determination would be satisfied without a second attempt. The next decade, in fact, was dominated by rumours of further armadas, and even more defensive work along the south-western coastline was required, including the fortification of the Isles of Scilly. Eventually, on 23 July 1595, a small force of 200 Spaniards landed in Mount’s Bay at Mousehole and proceeded to fulfil an old Cornish prophecy that strangers would one day ‘burn Paul, Penzance and Newlyn’. After this early success, however, the intruders eventually fled at the sight of English men-of-war despatched by Drake from Plymouth, and Spanish attention was fortunately diverted towards supporting the Irish in their latest rebellion against the Crown. At long last the threat of attack on Cornwall was lifted and the accession of James I in 1603 finally brought peace and respite not only from war but from the heavy burden of taxation which had accompanied it.

During these decades of unrest and external threats Cornish society and economic life had still managed to develop. The three principal industries of agriculture, tin and fishing all experienced steady growth characterised by the introduction of new ideas and technology. The fishing communities were transformed by the advent of seine fishing, which saw the formation of local syndicates owning several boats which shared a single large net. This innovation brought about a marked increase in catches and in the export of pilchards, or fumadoes as they were known locally, to Ireland and the Mediterranean. Throughout the whole of the Tudor period tin ranked alongside wool and lead as a major national export and in Cornwall the development of the industry accelerated through the enterprise of local landholders such as the Godolphins, whose speculations created great personal wealth. The 16th century saw the transition from tin-streaming to mining proper, with the necessary expertise imported in the shape of German engineers renowned for their technical superiority. Copper was also becoming an increasingly important commodity, and close links were forged with South Wales where the ore was sent for smelting. In the past, periods of mining expansion had often proved detrimental to farming since, as Richard Carew put it in his famous Survey Of Cornwall of 1602, ‘the Cornish people gave themselves principally, and in a manner wholly, to the seeking of tin and neglected husbandry’. This was not to be the case now, however, for agriculture experienced a general improvement during the late 16th century, and Carew points out that wheat was the main crop with rye grown on the poorer soils, although barley was becoming increasingly popular everywhere. He also adds the qualifica­tion that West Cornwall was generally less advanced than the East where profits were higher and the demand for land much more intense.

This expansion of the economy and the rise in exports stimulated the growth of the Cornish merchant fleet which had reached 68 ships by 1582. The general increase in wealth also produced a corresponding increase in the number of continental vessels visiting Cornish ports with their cargoes of linen, cloths, salt and wine destined for the tables of the prospering gentry who, like the Edgecumbes at Cotehele, the Arundells at Trerice and the Killigrews at Arwenack, were channelling their wealth into new and impressive manor houses. The expansion of the economy also contributed to a new phase of urban growth which was reflected in the large number of charters granted to Cornish towns and in the substantial increase in borough representation in Parliament. By 1584 no less than 21 communities had been elevated to the status of two-member boroughs which meant that the county, also with its standard quota of two shire members, sent no less than 44 M.P.s to London, only one less than the whole of Scotland! While the largest town, Bodmin with about 2,000 inhabitants, clearly warranted separate representation, many of the other parliamentary boroughs, like Mitchell and St Mawes, were mere villages with no such justifiable claim. Perhaps the increasing importance of Cornwall’s ports, reflected during the previous continental wars, as well as the growth in commerce, were the factors behind this clearly excessive spate of incorporation.

Beyond the towns, work and leisure among the country folk were both becoming more diverse. The expansion of mining and fishing widened the county’s economic base and enabled farmers and their labourers to diversify their interests and lessen their dependence on a single enterprise. Carew noted that all this was reflected in improvements to the housing stock with the introduction of plaster and glass, and he gives an overall impression that the standard of living for all classes was steadily advancing. His Survey provides a fascinating insight, too, into the rural culture of 16th-century Cornwall, with comments on the state of the language as well as detailed descriptions of sports and local customs. A major annual event was the local feast day when parish saints were revered in an atmosphere of general revelry which also accompanied the midsummer eve bonfires lit along the length and breadth of the county. The distinctive local version of Celtic wrestling was also popular, and the Cornish were noted too for their skill in archery, a characteristic which they shared with the Welsh. The game of hurling, or ‘soule’ as it was then known, was widely played, though often chaotically, as the sport involved teams of up to forty a side whose object was to reach a fixed destination with a large wooden ball in an atmosphere of frenzied excitement in which virtually anything appears to have been allowed. On a more sedate level, Carew also noted the Cornish attachment to miracle plays which attracted ‘country people from all sides, many miles off, to hear and see it, for they have therein devils and devices to delight as well the eye as the ear’. These plays combined religion with a populist tone and the performances were great open-air events, often held over several days, with side shows and other entertainers adding variety to the occasion. Special amphitheatres were built for the purpose, and several of these plen-an-gwary or ‘playing places’ still remain, like the one in the centre of St Just. The most important of the miracle plays was the 15th-century trilogy the Ordinalia, although others have survived, including Gwyreans an Bys (‘the Creation of the World’) and Beunans Meriasek  (‘Life of St Meriasek’). As the titles suggest, these plays were performed in Cornish, although the texts which have come down to us reflect the increasing use of English loan-words at a time when the native language was rapidly beginning to lose ground. While many factors contributed to the irreversible decline of Cornish, the upheaval and dislocation caused by Charles I’s clash with Parliament and the Civil War which followed played an important part.