The Cornish are Revolting – Part 2: Still doing it!

Part 2 – Still doing it!     by Chris Dunkerley –

You will excuse me if after the last section I become a little less light-hearted as we travel forward in time and I present to you even more facts.

We have read in Part 1 that the June 1497 Uprising was crushed, but there was still unrest in Cornwall so that when Perkin Warbeck (who tenuously lay claim to the throne on the Yorkist side) landed in Penwith we Cornish used this opportunity to rise again. On 17th September, 1497 the Cornish force was at Exeter but failed to take it, with Henry’s army arriving, they pressed on to Taunton which had received An Gov’s force  so well.  Alas the Kings army defeated them there and although Henry pardoned many this time he imposed heavy fines on the craftsmen and landed people, and many old Cornish families lost their land.

52 years later in January 1549 the Act of Uniformity was passed. This was the epitome of the `Tudor centrist revolution in government’, an instrument which abolished the diversity of religious practices that had existed up to then and dictated one form of worship that was to be enacted throughout the realm. Moreover, there was to be a Book of Common Prayer, with services in English to which all must conform. The special treatment Cornwall had received as “not a part of England” was not followed and not only was Cornwall to be subject to this dictate but the English language was to be imposed upon a population that was only partly English-speaking and which, in the west, still contained a great many monoglot Cornish-speakers. The Cornish were outraged.

There were disturbances at Penryn and Marazion, and at Bodmin the insurgents rallied around Henry Bray the mayor, two local leaders of the Catholic gentry, and many other worthy leaders.  Those Cornish gentry who opposed the rebellion sought refuge in the castles of St Michael’s Mount and Trematon, while the rebels themselves crossed from Cornwall into Devon and laid siege to Exeter. The Cornish had by now drawn up a petition to the King, declaring that the new Service was: ‘. . . like a Christmas game. . . we will have our old service of Mattins, Mass,Evensong and Procession in Latin as it was before. And so we the Cornish men (whereof certain of us understand no English) utterly refuse this new English’.

Archbishop Cranmer is said to have retorted that there were more people in Cornwall who understood English rather than Latin, but he was missing the point, for Latin was familiar (if not often understood) all across Cornwall for many, may centuries, whereas English was not. Moreover, as Carew noted, the Creed, the Commandments and other elements had been said in Cornish since time immemorial, something that the Act of Uniformity was specifically designed to eradicate.

At Fenny Bridges towards Honiton in Devon battle was joined. It was noted that `The fight for the time was very sharp and cruel, for the Cornishmen were very lusty and fresh and fully bent to fight out the matter’. However, they were pushed back. On August 5th in the principal engagement – of what has been called by some the Prayer Book Rebellion, by others the 2nd Anglo-Cornish war – the rebels were forced to retreat. The Cornish force had at least 2,000 fully armed and trained troops and they took up new positions at Sampford Courtenay in Devon north of Dartmoor.

Arundell’s forces re-grouped with the main contingent of 6,000 at Clyst St Mary, but on 5 August were attacked by a central force led by Sir William Francis. After a ferocious battle Russell’s troops gained the advantage leaving a thousand Cornish and Devonians dead and many more taken prisoner.

Russell pitched camp on Clyst Heath and it was here that 900 bound and gagged prisoners had their throats slit in 10 minutes by German mercenaries according to the chronicler John Hayward.

When news of the atrocity reached Arundell’s forces a new attack took place early on 6 August. Lord Grey was later to comment that he had never seen the like, nor taken part in such a murderous fray.

After another disastrous battle on August 7th the Cornish forces fled in the direction of Launceston, including Humphry Arundell who was captured and, with other rebel leaders, hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Tradition is a wonderful thing.  In contrast to Blackheath in 1497, there were several thousand Cornish casualties in the engagements of 1549, and this time the aftermath was equally bloody. The clergy implicated in the Prayer Book rebellion were singled out for particular attention.

Thus the Church of England had replaced the Church of Rome as the main faith of Cornwall. So it was that two hundred years later the violence would be against those who, it was thought, were trying to threaten the Church of England – the Wesleys. For the famous brothers, the violent years were those of 1743 and 1744. On 22 July, 1743, an army of rebels broke into a prayer meeting at Morvah. The mob warned Charles Wesley’s followers that they would be murdered if they did not abandon their gathering. They broke the brackets holding lamps, smashed the windows, tore away the shutters, wrecked the benches and were only brought to a halt by the sturdiness of the stone walls.

`Several times they lifted up their hands and clubs to strike me; but a stronger arm restrained them,’ Wesley recorded. `They beat and dragged the women about, particularly one of a great age, and trampled on them without mercy. The longer they stayed, the more they raged, the more power I found from above. The ruffians fell to quarrelling among themselves and broke their leader’s head, and drove one another out of the room.’ It later transpired that the mob had been led by the town clerk of St Ives, and that the mayor’s son was another of the rabble. This was all the more amazing in that the mayor, who had seen the riot, advised the Wesleyans to sue their attackers. But, as Wesley pointed out, such attacks and assaults might threaten the body, but the spirit would remain undiminished. It was, however, a miracle that more serious destruction had not occurred.

Two nights later, at Towednack, Wesley and his followers were again the target of a gang of ruffians who had been mobilised by the local clergy and rehearsed into sloganising that the evangelists had made a disturbance on the Sabbath-day; had lured established churchgoers from their place of worship; and had violated the day with their infamous mischief. The hooligans advanced under the cover of sticks and stones and, encircling the group of followers, outnumbered them and beat them without mercy and with no respect for age, sex or condition. The refusal of Wesley’s followers to fight back shamed the attackers and, after a few minutes, they pulled off their hats, hid their faces and slunk away.

Let’s not kid ourselves that in the last centuries we have been any less revolting.  In Cornwall in the late 1800’s the state of mining was such that the new unionism had hard ground to grow on, but in Australia at Burra the Cornish miners took less placidly to cuts in wages when their living conditions included living in the river bank. A large strike took place there and later on when the Cornish went to Broken Hill the largely Cornish or Cornish-Australian workforce saw very large strikes.  The Labour movement and Labor Party in South Australia was born out of Cornish Methodist miners.

In Cornwall itself there have been more uprisings and riots:  The 50 years of Food Riots between 1793 and 1847; The Falmouth Packet Mutiny of 1810, the 1912 Riot in the Clay China Districts over unionism, hours, and wages;  In 1896 the Newlyn Fishing Riots over English east coast boats fishing their waters on the Sabbath.

July 2013 marked the centenary of that three-month strike action of 1913, dubbed the Cornish clay strike, which witnessed 5,000 miners members of the “Workers Union” hold out for a pay rise the odd mob attack on St. Hilary Church in 1932.

On June 21st 1997 a new Cornish “army”, who walked the same route as the 1497 uprising, from the village of St Keverne in Cornwall to London, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary, arrived to the accompaniment of a Cornish piper.  A memorial plaque, was placed on the wall of Greenwich Park, will be unveiled by Lord St Levan, President of Keskerdh Kernow, while the evening saw a concert at Blackheath Concert Halls with music, song and dance.

“Blackheath – the replay!” saw Cornwall pitted against Kent in an amicable, we hope, rugby match during the afternoon.  That month of peaceful commemoration and perhaps in a way ‘protest’ at the state of Cornwall in recent times, galvanised many in Cornwall and entranced the media.  It was been a truly historic event.

Quoting Edward Rowe, aka ‘Kernow King’, from his item in the Guardian newspaper of Monday 30th April, and alluding to the 1497 Cornish Uprising march, against the King’s Taxes among other grievances:

“On 29 April 2012, an uprising against the so-called “pasty tax” resulted in more than 700 people congregating in Falmouth to march from The Moor through the town to the gathering point on the harbour called Events Square.

In a freezing cold wind and rain that was whipping in over the sea, the proud marchers wore black and gold and their chants echoed through the historical port. All who attended hoped their voices would be heard in Westminster.

The march was of course in protest against this unworkable tax (the argument rages on about whether it applies to cold pasties and whether bakers can sell them cooled), but as with any Cornish event, it was a celebration.”

Equally truly it can be said, the Cornish are still revolting!

Chris Dunkerley       9 November, 2012

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)

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