The Seventeenth Century. Civil War and Restoration

The Seventeenth Century. Civil War and Restoration

Cornwall played a significant role in the constitutional squabbles of the 17th century, when the issue of ‘King or Parliament’ divided the nation to such a degree that it took a civil war to resolve it. The county, after all, sent 44 M.P.s to Parliament, or 39 more than today, and so it enjoyed a political influence out of all proportion to its size and popu­lation. As it transpired, the allegiance of the Cornish was to lie with the Crown, but this was far from obvious during the early years of Charles I’s reign when discontent manifested itself in 1626 over the Forced Loan, when the hard-pressed inhabitants were obliged to provide £2,000 for the king. Prominent among national figures opposed both to the level of early Stuart taxation and to the influence of the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, was the Cornishman Sir John Eliot who was accordingly despatched to the Tower where he died in November 1632. His death fuelled the dissident temperament of a people who had already shown themselves to be no respecters of authority. The mood was strengthened as a result of the economic dislocation caused by Turkish pirates in the Channel, about whom the Crown appeared to be doing very little. When the famous Long Parliament met in 1640 Cornish members shared the rising Puritan sentiment of the day and their frus­tration over the king’s reluctance to recognise the power of Parliament was aggravated by yet more taxation and especially the unpopular poll tax. When, during the early months of 1642, the possibility of corn-promise vanished, however, deep-rooted monarchist sentiment, natural conservatism, and a complex web of family ties and traditions prevented many from deserting Charles when he raised his standard at Nottingham in August. Leading families like the Arundells, Vyvyans, Godolphins and Killigrews rallied to his cause and overshadowed the Cornish Parlia­mentarians, who included in their ranks Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock, Edmund Prideaux and John St Aubyn. Smaller men, in turn, tended to follow their gentry landlords, and within a few weeks the county had divided into opposing camps, anxiously awaiting news of national developments.

The Civil War in Cornwall, showing the main Royalist centres and dates of principal engagements
The Civil War in Cornwall, showing the main Royalist centres and dates of principal engagements

At the end of September a Royalist force under the command of Sir Ralph Hopton crossed the Tamar and proceeded to recruit additional supporters. By the end of the following month Launceston castle had been taken for the king and Hopton had secured control of virtually the whole county. Most of the leading Parliamentarians had fled to Plymouth, a stronghold of their cause, and were encouraged by news that a Parliamentarian force under Colonel Ruthin had reached Cornwall. Any sense of relief proved short-lived, however, when Ruthin’s army was routed at Liskeard in January 1643 and 1,250 prisoners were taken. A second defeat followed at Saltash, and Plymouth itself was now put under siege, although on 23 April another Parliamentary force, this time led by General James Chudleigh, crossed Poulston Bridge and marched on Launceston. After a long battle in which the advantage continually changed hands, Chucileigh was forced to order a general retreat and another and more decisive Royalist victory at Stratton effectively ended the war in Cornwall, though not the role of the Cornish in the wider conflict. At the end of July the country’s second city, Bristol, fell to the king’s supporters, but Cornish losses in the fighting were so severe, particularly among the leaders, that a separate Cornish army now ceased to exist and its remnants were drafted into other units. The death of the popular Royalist commander Sir Bevil Grenville, ‘the most generally loved man in Cornwall’, accord­ing to Clarendon, at the battle of Lansdown had been a particularly bitter blow. At home, meanwhile, life began to revert to normal, although committed Parliament men like Lord Robartes and Nicholas Boscawen had their estates confiscated by the loyalist sheriff, Francis Bassett, who was also left with the onerous burden of raising revenue for the king’s cause as well as meeting the cost of defending the coast and paying for the new gun platforms on St Michael’s Mount.

In the spring of the following year, however, the tide again turned and the Royalists began to experience a succession of reverses in the west. The 1644 campaigns are well documented, and the graphic accounts of contemporary diarists provide a full record of the main events. In July a Parliamentarian force under the Earl of Essex crossed the Tamar and took Bodmin, while at Lostwithiel they desecrated St Bartholomew’s church and gutted the range of administrative build­ings known as the ‘Duchy Parliament’. The king was not slow to retaliate, and his loyal servant Sir Richard Grenville was ordered to raise a force and take action. Essex and his men were warned that ‘they were entering a county exceedingly affectionate to His Majesty’, and by August his force of 7,000 had become surrounded outside Fowey. Disaster, though, nearly hit the king on the 17th when a bullet fired at him while he was viewing the town from across the river narrowly missed, killing ‘a poor fisherman’ instead. The Parliamentarian cavalry, meanwhile, under the command of Sir William Balfour, attempted to break through the king’s line but were defeated on the 31st, and Essex ignominiously escaped in a fishing boat to Plymouth. The survivors duly surrendered, and Charles turned his attention to the possibility of a full scale attack on the city which stubbornly held out for Parliament under the charge of Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock. After much thought, though, this was considered foolhardy, and it was decided to concentrate on a policy of blockade which left Plymouth as an enclave of opposition and a focal point for future resistance. It may, in fact, have been just as well that the town was not in a stronger position for a contemporary noted that its inhabitants were ‘eager to be avenged on the cursed Cornish who are as very heathen as the ignorant Welsh’.

In March 1645 Charles I sent his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, into the west as leader of the royal forces, but on a national level the tide was turning against the Crown. Determined to add a professional touch to their fighting the Parliamentarians had formed the New Model Army, and throughout July Fairfax and his troops advanced steadily westwards, seizing a vital Royalist arsenal at Bridgwater which included 44 barrels of gunpowder, and at the same time striking an important psychological blow. The surrender of Bristol on 10 September dealt the king’s cause a crushing blow and, with Exeter also threatened, Sir Richard Grenville wrote that ‘His Majesty hath no entire county in obedience but poor Cornwall’. Cornwall, though, was exhausted by a succession of financial levies and a continuous drain on manpower, and the hopelessness of the Royalist cause was further underlined when an extra 3,000 Parliamentarian recruits arrived at Totnes on 24 January. By 2 March Fairfax was at Bodmin and the Prince of Wales and his retinue were forced to flee, first to the Scillies and then to Jersey. On the mainland, meanwhile, the Royalist forces began to disintegrate despite the unswerving loyalty of Sir Ralph Hopton, but even he was forced to recognise the inevitable and surrendered on 12 March. Sir John Arundell held out in Pendennis Castle until August but his was a last defiant gesture among a people who had grown weary of war.

For the next 14 years the rule of Parliament was administered in Cornwall by the County Committee, which took on a wide range of responsibilities including the confiscation of the estates of the Royalist ‘malignants’. Fighting briefly broke out again in May 1648 when Royalist rebels rose up at Penzance and Helston but after about seventy were killed they were soon beaten and their towns, we are told, were then ‘exquisitely plundered’ by Roundhead troops. The execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 finally broke the resistance of the Cornish and in May 1651 the last Royalist outpost, the Isles of Scilly, were captured from Sir John Grenville by Admiral Blake.

On 16 December 1653 Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector and arrangements were made to elect a new Parliament in which Cornwall’s representation was reduced, temporarily as it turned out, from 44 members to twelve. Royalists, in the meantime, continued to hope that the exiled Charles II would regain the throne and in 1654 the ‘Sealed Knot’ was formed to co-ordinate Cavalier activities and make preparations for a future uprising. Cornwall’s representative was Grenville but the government was wise to his leanings and influence, and took the precaution of locking him up in Plymouth gaol. At the end of 1655 the country was put under the control of the military and Major General John Desborough was made responsible for the six western counties. This proved to be an unpopular move and only served to fuel Royalist sentiment, which received a mighty boost in September 1658 with the death of Cromwell. Throughout the following year the possibility of restoring the monarchy became increasingly advocated as national sentiment swung towards the exiled Charles II. In May 1660 the king triumphantly returned amid popular rejoicing but pressing affairs of state did not prevent him from remembering his Cornish followers. Grenville was rewarded with the impressively sounding titles of Earl of Bath, Viscount Lansdowne and Baron of Bideford and Kilkhampton, while the borough of Penzance, which had staged a last defiant revolt in 1648, was elevated to the status of a Coinage Town. Others attempted to seek favour, like the men of Fowey who peti¬tioned the king and reminded him of their devotion to the loyalist cause, wisely refraining from reference to one of their own, Hugh Peters, who had signed the famous death warrant which had sent his father to meet the executioner’s axe. Peters, in fact, met a similar fate, as did two other leading Cornish republicans, John Carew and Gregory Clement, who were tried and executed in October 1660. At the administrative level, meanwhile, the institution of the Duchy, which had been abolished during Cromwell’s Protectorate, was re-established and the Crown reasserted its traditional control over the increasingly lucrative tin trade.

With the king and Duchy restored Cornwall returned to normality, although decades of constitutional and political debate had made little impact on a population which had shown little sympathy or even understanding of the wider issues at stake. Religious life, however, had been greatly stimulated by the ferment of new ideas and Puritanism, the desire for simplicity of worship, had been gaining ground among the Cornish since the 1640s. The impact on the clergy, too, had been small, and during the Interregnum scores of priests had to be ejected from their livings for refusing to submit to the rule of Parliament and the newly-imposed Covenant. While many were later reinstated, the lack of sufficient Parliamentarian clergy to fill the vacant posts in the short term had undermined the authority of the established church and helped to create a climate in which the dissenting sects began to make an impression on the ordinary people. The Quakers were the first to emerge in Cornwall, many suffering physical beatings for their beliefs, while the Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists also built up a following. Religious passion also came to be aroused over the plight of Bishop Jonathan Trelawny, sent to the Tower by James II for protesting against the 1687 Declaration of Indulgence which granted toleration to Catholics. His plight gave birth to a threatened march to London, immortalised in the Song of the Western Men and the words ‘And shall Trelawny die? Here’s 20,000 Cornishmen will know the reason why’. In the light of the experiences of 1497 and 1549 it is probably fortunate that the expedition never materialised; James’ successor, William of Orange, had the bishop released and elevated to the See of Exeter. Protestantism in England was now triumphant, although in Cornwall the religious debate was to take on a new . form half a century later with the appearance of Wesleyan Methodism.