The Cornish Are Revolting – Part 1: Uninvited Guests

by Chris Dunkerley –

A somewhat tongue in cheek look at our kith & kin … or as that is middle English, better in Cornish, our ‘teylu ha hendasow’.

You know however that Cornish people haven’t always been quiet Methodist tee-totallers – in fact I doubt very much if they ever really were deep down. Sure the religious faith was real enough but that independent streak was just lying dormant. Even here in Australia Oswald Pryor’s cartoons show humour of a decidedly defiant bent among our forebears.

My hypothesis, however ‘tongue in cheek’ is that the Cornish have been, indeed so many of us in the Cornish world today, probably still are  – to not put too fine a point on it – Revolting!

To test this hypothesis I will touch lightly on several points in Cornish history. Our story begins a long way back.  The Romans when extending their domain over Cornwall were sensible enough to leave the Cornish, especially the Tinners, to get on with their lives.

Even incursions by wild Irish along the north coast, after the Romans had left due to the bad weather and visitors expected at home, were assimilated well enough so that even now Guinness has to be imported. Anyway they and the Welsh set up Oratories and preached, or moved on to Brittany.

However at this time, about 700 AD there was a new mob on the block.  This lot  were called Saxons [or in Cornish Sawson (down the ages a.k.a  “The English” or “they lot upcountry”)].  This lot seemed to subscribe to the theory we have heard of as ‘Terra Nullius’ or to give it the more technical term – “What’s yours is mine, .. push off.”

The Cornish, who had only just realised they were Cornish after 3/4 of their Kingdom of Dumnonia had been hacked off by their terribly rough neighbours, decided that really the Saxon’s table manners had not improved since those days when Romano-Briton King Vortigern hosted a party in Kent and the Saxon guests had shown themselves altogether too handy with knives.

The west Saxon King Ine came for a picnic much to the consternation of Cornish King Geraint and some of his party stayed over in the lands between the Tamar and the Lynher Rivers.

Well, the Cornish thought this a bit of bad form and by 722AD they had had enough and trounced a Saxon army at Hehil in east Devon. After that they allied themselves with some relatively more civilised Danish Viking friends.

The Wessex Kings (like Egbert (with a name like that I’d be bad mannered too) … and Athelstan) attacked again in 753AD, 815, 838, and finally in 936.

Uninvited guest Athelstan, after annexing the living room and outside loo, and kettling the family in the kitchen, then drew the line at the Tamar and said “That’s your bit for ever and a day, and this is my bit!”

The Cornish in the kitchen may have been inclined to agree except the next aside was “Oh, by the way after I’ve massacred the Mercians, nobbled the Northumbrians, and wacked the Hwicca I’ll be back for the rest!”

It was poetic justice then that the Normans (even more civilised Vikings) said “that’s enough of that then” at Hastings in 1066. To the Cornish the

Normans, especially their Breton allies in Cornwall, had much better table manners.

It was unfortunate however that rubbing shoulders with their Saxon villeins affected the Normans too for when in 1113 Norman churchmen visited Bodmin Priory they had the audacity to suggest that King Arthur may, in fact, be dead!   A right punch up ensued, but the Cornish seem to have won and thus given Hollywood film-makers a guaranteed cash flow stream in the 21st C.

The revolting nature of the Cornish monks so impressed the Kings that in 1337 King Edward III established the Duchy of Cornwall  to show his good will to the Cornish (not to mention guarantee a nice little earner for his royal person and his son). This move was to be decisive in future relations between us, the Cornish, and the Crown.

It was perhaps surprising when in 1497 after a hundred years or so of family bickering a Welsh-Norman family got their hands on the Crown and immediately picked up some pretty tacky table manners.

The Cornish were puzzled by this and really thought that their King Tudor or Henry 7th needed a severe talking too. They said rude things about him in miracle plays, in Cornish so he couldn’t tell.

He had already put red tape around the Stannary system and tried to suspend Cornwall’s Stannary Parliament.  Now he wanted to levy heavy taxes so he could gate crash a Scottish party in the north.

Bodmin Lawyer Thomas Flamank took a good look at his law books and shaking a finger at Henry said “Nyns yu herwyth lagha” !

Oh yes, we still spoke Cornish then – it translates to something like – “tha’ baint legal”.

These were just fine words! Truly!

That is until Michael Joseph – An Gov, the village Smithy from St. Keverne on the Lizard Peninsular led a popular revolt in that area and took many men with him to the Flamank’s Bodmin.  Here with many yeoman, lesser gentry, and tinners the group swelled.

Cornwall had seen decades of unrest during the English War of the Roses and in 1492 a band of 200 had attacked the Priory at Bodmin over tin-rights so the mood was dark.  12 years before Henry Tudor had won at Bosworth Field with Welsh and Cornish Long Bowmen at his side and

maybe some of these weren’t impressed with his actions as King (certainly the 300 Cornish archers were the Uprising’s main strike force).

The object of Keskerdh Kernow 500, the 320 mile march to London which was held in 1997 to raise money for Cornish charities whilst commemorating this uprising of  515 years ago in 1497 when the Cornish rose up against the cruel taxes levied by King Henry VII.

It was not an army of professional soldiers but a group of ordinary men who, under the leadership of Michael Joseph, the village smithy known thus as ‘An Gof’ were determined to voice their opposition to King Henry VII.

Their aim was to march all the way to London in the hope they would gather support as they went. At Bodmin they were joined by Thomas Flamank, a lawyer, along with other leaders and followers. From Bodmin they were now a force to be reckoned with.

Their table manners were notable as they did not pillage or loot along the way as was usual but relied on supporters. As they approached London their numbers had swollen due to supporters who joined them along the way.

They brushed aside the light opposition they encountered but were not joined by the equally independent Men of Kent as they had hoped.

Nearing London the Cornish Archers won a skirmish over superior numbers at Depford bridge. Some 10,000 mainly lightly armed or unarmed men are reputed to have arrived at Blackheath near London.

They were no match for the King’s men, mostly mercenaries, who had been assembled and armed for battle against the Scots, but who unfortunately were yet to leave for Scotland.

Many slipped away during the night but it was the core 6,000 Cornish who arose to face the King and ask him the reason why!

In the bloody final battle that followed, the Cornish supporters fought valiantly but after many Cornish lay dead the leaders gave the order to surrender.

The two Cornish leaders, Michael Joseph An Gof, and Thomas Flamank were taken prisoner and later hanged, drawn and quartered with their heads being stuck on stakes on London Bridge.

As he was dragged through the streets of London to his execution An Gof is said to have stated in his native Cornish tongue;

Yma hanow nefra a-bys dhym ha bry a-sef ha pres a-vew

“I have a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal”.

It has taken 515 years for that to be fully true, but surely the imagery of the great Trelawney song was and is that of An Gof and his thousands of Cornish bold centuries before!

Henry’s manners, being Welsh & Norman, were perhaps a bit better and after that obligatory hanging, drawing, and quartering he let most of the Cornish return home.

To be continued …. Part 2

Sources and further reading:

“Cornwall”  by Dr Philip Payton

“Cornwall in Uproar” by David Mudd

“The Revolt of the Peasantry” by Julian Cornwall

“History of Cornwall” Vol. II by Davies Gilbert

“History of Cornwall” by Thurstan Peter

“The History of Cornwall” by Richard Polwhele (Vol 3)