The Anglo-Cornish War of June-August 1549
Prelude to War
Make no mistake. 1549, the blackest year in Cornish history, should not be minimized as merely a “Prayer Book Rebellion”, as is the trend of mainstream histories. It was nothing less than all-out war, instigated by injustice and fuelled by outrage, but most books say little about it and, sadly, our schoolchildren are told even less.
Only 41 years earlier, King Henry VI’s Charter of Pardon restored the Cornish Stannary Parliament he had suspended in 1497 and granted it powerful rights that remain law to this day. The most significant of these was the right of veto over any Act or Statute of the London-based Parliament. It took just four decades for London to trample all over these rights by forcibly imposing its new State Religion and the English language upon the Cornish people by way of the Act of Uniformity sculpted by the real powers in the realm – Thomas Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to a sickly 10-year old king; and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. After marching upon England twice in 1497, there was only one way that the Cornish were going to react to this.
It is often stated that the Uprising started in the Devon village of Sampford Courtney, but its true origins lay somewhat earlier when, before any Act had been passed, Cranmer sent in the odious William Body to destroy all Catholic idolatry in Cornish churches. Body had got away with this in Ireland – the Cornish were not to be so lenient. On April 5th 1549, Body was enjoying himself by despoiling Helston church when a furious mob dragged him out into the street and knifed him to death. For this, William Kilter and Pasco Trevian, along with St Keverne priest Martin Geoffrey, were hung, drawn and quartered. Others were hung, one on Plymouth Hoe to act as a warning to Devonians against dissention.
The War Begins
The Act of Uniformity was passed at the beginning of June 1549. On June 6th, three days before any reaction in Sampford Courtney, a Cornish army was gathering in the old hill fort of Castle Canyke, Bodmin. The Cornish appointed as their commander the 36-year old Humphrey Arundell of Helland (it is uncertain whether he was knighted but, as the commander of the garrison of St Michael’s Mount, it is likely that he was). His first action was to dispatch a force to take St Michael’s Mount, where Cornish quislings of the gentry class (it was of advantage to their own wealth and standing that they ally themselves with London), in particular Sir William Godolphin, had taken refuge. Arundell’s men knew the weakness of their own stronghold, which was taken in a single day, apparently without casualties on either side save a few injuries. Godolphin was escorted to Dunheved Castle, Launceston, to be imprisoned.
From Castle Canyke, Arundell and fellow commanders such as Nicholas Boyer, Mayor of Bodmin, and John Wynslade of Tregarrick, Pelynt, drew up a list of 8 Articles of Demand to be dispatched to London. These Articles may well have represented the Stannary Parliament’s veto over the Act of Uniformity, as several of the senior Cornish officers must have been Stannators, but the demands were later to be repeated and strengthened outside the walls of Exeter.
The Cornish army – mostly of ordinary people and a few trained soldiers – set off in two groups. The main one headed for Polson Bridge while the other, led by Robert Smyth of St Germans, aimed for Plymouth. Smyth’s contingent captured Trematon Castle, where Sir Richard Grenville had shut himself up, and then took Plymouth without a shot being fired.
Plymouth’s leading citizens had scuttled for refuge on St Nicholas’s Island (now Drake’s Island), leaving the town to the mercy of the advancing army whose only real action was to burn a tower containing the town records.
Sampford Courtenay knew that the Cornish army were approaching. Many West Devon people were Dartmoor tinners whose own Stannary Parliament had been curtailed in 1512. These had far more in common with the Cornish people and were quick to offer considerable support. Village tailor Thomas Underhill forced his own priest to don his vestments and to hold Mass instead of Cranmer’s new service and, in the ensuing argument, another villager was killed.
The Crediton Incident
London had, thus far, not taken the Cornish threat seriously but the fall of Plymouth had caused considerable alarm. Devonian knights Sir Gawen and Sir Peter Carew, uncle and nephew, were immediately sent to parley, meeting Arundell’s army at Crediton. They found the approaches to be barricaded by a rampart thrown across the road between two barns. Sir Peter Carew lost his temper and ordered a charge, which was repulsed by the formidable, armour-piercing longbows that had been famously wielded by the Cornish at Agincourt, among other battles and were now being fired from within the barns. The English force tried another tactic, setting fire to both barns. The archers cleared out and suddenly, the Carews found themselves entering an empty town. Any hope of a negotiated peace was now gone.
The Defence of Clyst St Mary
Humphrey Arundell now divided his force, sending one party to Clyst St Mary to assist the villagers who had likewise barricaded their village. This included a Breton gunner, John Hammon, and several pieces or artillery seized at Topsham. In Exeter, the Carews heard of the village being garrisoned and tried a second time to sue for peace. Sir Peter Carew was a lucky man as he crossed Clyst bridge – Hammon had him squarely in his sights but was prevented from killing him at the last minute. Nonetheless, and after their actions at Crediton any prospects of parley were long gone. The Cornish refused to talk to the Carews but did agree to hold discussions with Sir Hugh Pollard and others. These might have gone well had not some of the Carews’ men been spotted in the act of breaking the truce by finding a fordable spot where they could have crept round the rear of the Cornish force.
The main Cornish army was now advancing upon Exeter, where they were to besiege the city for 5 weeks. The Carews could see what was coming and knew it was too much for them. Sir Peter Carew then rode to the Somerset town of Hinton St George to find Lord John Russell, the 63-year old President of the Council of the West. This was timely as Russell had just received orders from Seymour to put down the “rebellion”. Russell, though, had only a modest military force and realized that he was not dealing with a mere rumbling of discontent but a considerable and determined Cornish army. In London, the Privy Council resolved to send massive reinforcements, including foreign mercenaries. The news leaked out and sent the Home Counties into a state of panic. Bridges across the Thames were ordered to be destroyed should the Cornish force reach that far, as they had in 1497, and riots broke out in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. What had begun as a manifestation of Cornish fury was now threatening to become a nationwide civil war. Across the Channel, the French reacted with glee and added to the disarray by declaring war on England.
The Siege of Exeter and Articles of Demand
The siege of Exeter had begun. The Cornish commanders unsuccessfully tried to persuade John Blackaller, the city’s pro-Catholic Mayor, to surrender the town but he and his aldermen were far more interested in hanging onto their privileged positions. Faced with an initial force of 2,000 men, they slammed the city gates in their faces and prepared to defend.
It was at this point that the second series of Demands were drafted and sent to London. They included the famous statement that: “we, the Cornishmen, whereof certain of us understand no English, utterly refuse this new English”. Cranmer, of course was to sneer at this, asking how many of them understood the Latin service and therefore missed the point entirely. The Cornish were used to the Latin and well understood the general content. Moreover, Latin was the lingua franca of European religion, allowing people of different nationalities to worship together. In Cornwall, several parts of the service – Gospels, Paternoster, Ave Maria, the Creed and Ten Commandments – were traditionally carried out in Cornish. Under Cranmer’s directive, all this was to go, and English forcibly imposed.
Outside the walls of Exeter, Cornish miners drove a level under the wall near the west gate, intending to place explosives to undermine and collapse the wall. This was only countered when a Devonian miner discovered their scheme. He drove a countershaft and persuaded the citizens to pour as much water down it as possible, work that was considerably aided by a downpour from a sudden thunderstorm. Anyone who showed their faces at garret windows or above battlements were routinely picked off by Cornish archers. The City Corporation tried to organize raiding parties to venture outside but this was stopped after the first of them fared too badly to consider other attempts.
The Cornish, though, were poorly equipped to besiege a walled city. They had no siege engines and no ordinance powerful enough to cause much damage to the city walls. John Hammon suggested that the city could be forced to submit, by shooting fireballs into it. When Arundell pointed out the need for accuracy, Hammon set up a gun on St David’s Hill, singled out a man standing in North Street, a good 400 yards way, and promptly blew him away with one shot. At this point, though, the Cornish priest of St Thomas’s Church on Exe Island, Father Robert Welsh, begged for clemency. Arundell preferred to take Exeter with as little bloodshed as possible and agreed that the city should not be set ablaze. Instead, he opted for more subtle schemes, knowing that he had supporters inside the city. These were persuaded to stir up unrest – a tactic that nearly succeeded, causing a row amongst the City Corporation who only narrowly averted an attempt to take Rougemont Castle by subverting the guard.
The Battle of Fenny Bridges
Lord Russell’s initial force had, by July 2nd, reached Honiton. At one point he almost turned back until persuaded otherwise by Sir Peter Carew. Instead, he remained at Honiton to await the promised reinforcements. These were to include 160 Italian arquebusiers and a thousand lanzknechts, German footsoldiers, under the command of Lord William Grey. Sir William Herbert was also bringing a force from Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Russell received final confirmation of this on July 16th. He had initially asked for 10,000 men but was told by London that the combined Cornish and Devonian force was only 7,000, most of whom had no firearms. With the promised reinforcements, Russell would have more than 8,600 men at his disposal, including a cavalry force (which the Cornish lacked) of 850 men, all of them well armed and well trained. That, said London, should more than suffice for the job at hand.
The Cornish leaders got wind of the fact that reinforcements were being sent to Russell after the Italian arquebusiers had arrived. Humphrey Arundell decided to block their approach to Exeter and sent a contingent to draw up lines at Fenny Bridges, on the road between Honiton and Exeter and just two miles from Russell’s encampment. It was the Carews who persuaded Lord Russell to attack, on the grounds that his own men had by far the greater firepower. A first attempt to storm the bridges was repulsed, giving Russell first-hand knowledge of Cornish determination. He altered his tactics, sending the arquebusiers forward to lay down a withering field of fire, while his gunners cannonaded the far end of the bridges. The Cornish fell back, covered by their archers whose accuracy ensured that Sir Gawen Carew took an arrow through the arm.
Russell took advantage, sending his footsoldiers across the bridges to engage the gathered Cornishmen in the river meadow below. For a while, it looked as if his superior ordinance would secure a quick victory then, seemingly out of nowhere, Robert Smyth and 250 men came charging into the fray. It turned into a vicious and bloody battle that only ended when concentrated gunfire caused the Cornish to fall back on the road to Exeter. Russell pursued them but had to give up the chase when news arrived that the Honiton church bells were ringing out. This, he thought, might be an alarm that the countryside behind him was rising up. In fact, the bells were only ringing out in defiance of the new religion, it being July 28th, St James’s Day.
Russell and his army returned to Honiton. On the battlefield at Fenny Bridges, about 300 men from each side lay dead.
The Battle of Woodbury Common
Lord Russell’s reinforcements arrived on August 2nd, with the German lanzknechts arriving the following day. He now had an army of 5000 men and began a march upon Exeter. Instead of taking the heavily barricaded highway, he went westward, across the downs. He found his way barred by 2,000 men at Alphington and sent in Captain Travers to clear the road. In the words of Edward VI’s chronicler, John Hayward, those Cornishmen who were disarmed in this assault were “slain like beasts”. Russell’s advance continued on to Woodbury Common, where he pitched camp at a windmill. Here, Paulo Batista Spinola, the Italian commander, kept his men awake all night, fearing a night attack. This actually occurred at dawn the next day, August 4th, when Cornish forces defending Clyst St Mary came out to confront the vastly bigger force at the windmill. The huge difference in numbers and force of arms did nothing to deter them and the second bloody battle of the war began. There could only be one outcome. Many more Cornishmen died, not that Russell did not suffer his own losses, but, with the previous day’s engagement at Alphington, he now had a large number of prisoners.
to be continued
added 15th August
The Battle of Clyst St Mary
The surviving Cornish fighters retreated into Clyst St Mary to be joined by 6,000 men sent by Humphrey Arundell. Russell waited until the following day, August 5th, to launch his assault upon the village. He chose a three-pronged attack, the central force being led by Sir William Francis. He broke through the barricades in spite of the hail of Cornish armour-piercing arrows and, sensing success, Russell ordered other divisions to follow.
At this point, a ruse turned the assault into a farce. Sir Thomas Pomeroy, a trumpeter, a drummer and a small detachment of men had hidden themselves in a furze-brake and, as the English forces approached, the trumpeter and drummer sounded the charge. This and the sudden appearance of armed men created panic. Russell’s men fled back up the road to the windmill, leaving wagons containing cannon, gunpowder and shot in the road to be gleefully seized by the Cornishmen.
Had the Cornish forces included cavalry, this confusion could have been turned into a victory that might have changed the course of history, but Russell was quick to see the weakness. Reforming his forces, his next assault on Clyst St Mary was merciless. Many houses on either side of the main street were packed with armed men, including the feared archers and Russell ordered these to be set ablaze. The Cornish defenders fled from the flames only to be cut down by volleys of arquebus fire or by the charge of Russell’s own cavalry. Russell, however, lost one of his own officers, Sir William Francis, killed by slingshot fire. The Cornish were determined to fight or die and, eventually, Russell won the day leaving a thousand Cornish dead and many more taken prisoner.
Russell’s advance across a river bridge was blocked by a single gunner, the Breton John Hammon who again demonstrated his accuracy by shooting down a lone man that had been sent onto the bridge to take him out. While this was going on, though, another contingent had forded the river to take out the brave gunner from behind.
Atrocity on Clyst Heath
Russell then pitched camp on Clyst Heath, and it was here that one the worst atrocities in British history was committed. Lord Russell was concerned about the burden of the nine hundred Cornish prisoners he now had, a matter he discussed with Lord William Grey who was in charge of the German mercenary lanzknechts. It was almost certainly Grey who gave the order and the Germans who carried it out. They had done similar things in their own Peasant’s Revolt and, in response to the order, it took them just ten minutes to slit the throats of all 900 prisoners, a number that derives, not from any Cornish source, but from John Hayward, Edward VI’s own chronicler. This kind of callous and murderous streak seemed to run in Grey’s family. His eldest son, Lord Arthur Grey, Governor of Ireland, was to carry out a similar massacre of 600 unarmed men at Smerwick in 1580.
The Battle of Clyst Heath
The moment this news broke, 2,000 enraged Cornishmen made for Clyst Heath, some getting there before dawn to place their ordinance on the lower western slopes. Others soon arrived to position themselves around the heath where Russell and Grey lay encamped, dreading the lash-back they knew was coming. At dawn, they found themselves under fire as the Cornish guns opened up. There was no expanse of open ground where Russell could deploy his cavalry, so he opted for his favourite three-pronged approach while the Royal Engineers cut their way through the hedges to the Topsham road to for the cavalry to round the Cornish forces and attack them from behind – another of Russell’s preferred tactics.
The Battle of Clyst Heath, August 6th 1549 was the bloodiest yet in this Anglo-Cornish war. Outmanoeuvred, outgunned, outflanked and outnumbered, the Cornish fought like men possessed, burning with fury born of the previous evening’s massacre. Several times, Russell called on them to surrender but had the offer thrown back in his teeth. Lord Grey was later to comment that he had never seen the like, nor taken part in such a murderous fray. As he had led the charge against the Scots in the Battle of Musselburgh, this was a telling statement.
The battle lasted the entire day, the Cornish fighting to the last man and taking a huge number of Russell’s soldiers with them. Appalled by the carnage of his victory, Lord Russell took his troops down river to Topsham while at Exeter, those Cornishmen still encamped around the city walls finally lifted their 5-week siege and marched away. Refusing to lower themselves to the depths to which the English army had sunk, they preferred to maintain honour and released all their own prisoners unharmed.
The Relief of Exeter
Lord Russell pressed on to the relief of Exeter, a city running close to starvation. Sir William Herbert and his 1,000 Welsh soldiers loyal to the Tudor dynasty arrived the same day, having missed out on the fighting so far, and were set to looting as much food from the surrounding countryside as they could. Scouring the city for dissidents, Russell exercised as much severity as he could, even hanging Father Robert Welsh – the man who had saved the city from being set ablaze – from his own church tower.
Meanwhile, in London, a proclamation had been issued allowing the lands of those involved in the uprising to be confiscated. Unknown to Arundell himself, all his own estates were (illegally) transferred to Sir Gawen Carew. Sir Peter Carew found himself rewarded with all of John Wynslade’s Devon estates. The lands of many others were illicitly taken and passed to those members of the Cornish gentry who had chosen to side with Cranmer and the Lord Protector and, to this day, several large landowners in Cornwall have more than questionable claims to the legitimacy of their ownerships.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, wielding power on behalf of the boy king Edward VI, congratulated Russell on relieving Exeter and carrying out so many executions and also issued an order for leaders of the uprising – Arundell, Wynslade and Underhill – to be apprehended and brought to London to be dealt with in a way that would shock everyone into compliance with the Act of Uniformity. There was, however, one problem to be overcome – those leaders were still on the loose. But, with this order came another – genocide. Russell was to send forces into Cornwall and he: “shall not suffer those rebels to breathe”.
The Battle of Sampford Courtenay
Humphrey Arundell had received heartening news in the form of a promise from Winchester; that 1,000 men plus three cannons to be stolen from Selsey church, would join with the Cornish forces, defeat Russell and march upon London. With the arrival of this news, Arundell decided to regroup his forces at Sampford Courtenay.
What Arundell did not know was that a traitor stood close to his side – his own secretary John Kessell, who had been covertly supplying intelligence of Arundell’s movements and plans to Russell from the outset. It was he who informed Lord Russell that his own master had remustered the Cornish troops.
This took Russell by surprise, having laboured under the impression that the Cornish had been defeated already. The news also interrupted his plans to send 1,000 men into Cornwall by ship to cut off his enemy’s retreat but, by now, his own forces had been again strengthened by the arrival of a force under Provost Marshal Sir Anthony Kingston. He now had an army of more than 8,000, vastly outnumbering what remained of his opposition, but the threat of those few being reinforced from Hampshire forced his hand.
Russell moved his forces out on August 16th, camping overnight at Crediton. Next morning, scouts from both sides bumped into each other, resulting in a skirmish and the capture of a Cornish captain named Maunder, a signatory of the Articles of Demand.
The main force of the Cornish army had dug in on high ground just outside Sampford Courtenay, while a detachment led by Humphrey Arundell waited in the village itself. He knew that this was to be their last stand. Just as in 1497, when the men of Kent had falsely promised to support Cornwall, so the Winchester promise had turned out to be completely hollow. The Cornish and their Devonian allies were on their own against Russell’s huge army. The choice was simple – cut and run, or stand and fight. The Cornish did what all Celts do when their backs are against the wall. They chose to fight.
Again, Lord Russell opted for a three-pronged approach. Heavy divisions led by Lord Grey and Sir William Herbert stormed the Cornish encampment, while Russell himself would follow behind. This was not as simple as Russell had envisaged: the Cornish camp being more strongly manned than he had thought. A vicious gun battle, lasting a good hour, gave time for Russell’s two other divisions to make their move. One consisted of the Italian arquebusiers under Spinola, the other being the German lanzknechts. With almost the entire English force ranged against them, the Cornish withdrew into the village where they came under heavy bombardment.
Russell was still some way behind his main force and, at this point, Humphrey Arundell chose to use one of Russell’s favourite ploys against him, leading a detachment to attack the English forces from behind. This created so much chaos and confusion as to cause Russell to later write that it: “wrought so much fear in the hearts of our men as we wished our own power a great deal more, not without good cause”, even though he vastly outnumbered his Cornish enemy. Once again, the battle might have been won for the Cornish had they possessed a cavalry.
The fight, which lasted over an hour and saw the death of Thomas Underhill, only ended when Sir William Herbert’s Tudor-loyal Welshmen decided to join forces with Lord Grey’s detachment, and pressed Arundell back to the village.
Again, Russell deployed his three-pronged attack: Herbert and Kingston on the left; Grey taking the center, and Russell himself leading the assault from the right, each of them releasing withering gunfire. Contemporary Exeter historian John Hooker wrote that the Cornish would not give in until most of their number had been slain or captured. In the end, it was might, not right, that won the day for Lord John Russell, who reported that his army had killed between five and six hundred. His pursuit of the Cornish retreat killed a further seven hundred (figures that were unforgivably reduced by arch-Royalist and Anglican A.L. Rowse to just five or six, and seven in his shamefully slanted version of history).
The Devonian men made a vain attempt to find safety in Somerset but, one by one, they were caught and mostly hanged, drawn and quartered by troops led by Sir Peter Carew and Sir Hugh Paulet. The Cornishmen headed for home but tried one final time to stand against Russell at Okehampton. Again, Russell planned an attack but hesitated after the opposition he had thus far received. Instead, he and his troops sat their horses all night, fearing a surprise assault that never materialised. In the morning, he received news from the traitor, Kessell, that the Cornish forces had been decimated and moved into the town, only to find that the Cornishmen were now back across the Tamar.
Russell followed, determined to obey his orders to capture Arundell and Wynslade. Arundell had taken refuge in Launceston where he was again betrayed by Kestell and taken in the streets of the town after a terrific struggle that saw English soldiers lose their lives. The capture of other Cornish leaders soon followed. Arundell, Wynslade, Thomas Holmes of Blisland and John Bury were taken, first to Rougemont Castle where they joined others, such as Henry Bray, mayor of Bodmin, then to the Tower of London and finally executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on January 27th, 1550.
Aftermath: The Death Squads
Cornwall was defeated. The death toll on their own side – now numbering 4,000, including the callously murdered prisoners on Clyst Heath – shocked and appalled the population who could now only look on with a burning but impotent loathing. They faced an awful future. Their rights had been torn up before their eyes; a death blow had been dealt to their language and identity; and thousands of families, deprived of a breadwinner, could only look forward to misery and starvation. Worse was to come. Lord Russell had yet to carry out his final order.
Not even the most Anglophilic historian has a good word to say about Provost Marshal Sir Anthony Kingston. Cruel, inhumane, a man divested of common humanity – these are just a few historical descriptions of a man who would have been equally at home carrying out the worst excesses of Nazi Germany. This was the man sent by Russell into Cornwall to carry out the dirty work of the State. Throughout the length and breadth of the Duchy, Kingston’s death squads did their worst: hangings, beatings, forced evictions, burnings, many perpetrated with the variety of sick humour for which Kingston was renowned. How many died at the hands of Kingston and his thugs will never be known; several historians have estimated a thousand or more.
In all, then, the Anglo-Cornish War of June-August 1549 and its sickening aftermath cost the lives of more than 5,000 Cornish people – approximately 10 per cent of the Duchy’s entire population. Such a proportion labels this episode to be one of the worst acts of genocide in the history of the world. No one had yet conquered and subjugated the Cornish: not the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons or the Normans. In 1549, it finally happened, with Cornwall’s people being terrorized into an enforced English state religion, an English state language and enforced English overlordship. The Duchy’s rights of autonomy became ignored and trampled into the dust and have continued to be denied ever since, even though those rights remain intact at law to this day. No longer were State documents to bear the previously common distinction: “Anglia et Cornubia”. Cornwall, up until then consistently shown as a separate nation, was no longer shown as such on maps. Even what had always been The British Sea became The English Channel overnight as the juggernaut of English nationalism and assimiliation rolled over the island’s truly indigenous people.
2006: The Attitude Remains
Today, methods may have altered but the attitude remains. In 1999, it amused “English” Heritage, at Restormel Castle to portray the Cornish uprising as “wicked Cornish rebels against a good English king”, making sure the truth remained hidden while also calling the police in an attempt to suppress a legitimate Cornish protest. To this day, the same organization refuses to acknowledge the five battle sites or enter them on the Catalogue of British Battlefields -even though they rank among the biggest and bloodiest battles ever fought on Britain’s soil – and then turned a blind eye to the construction of a supermarket on the very site where 1,000 Cornish fighters died and 900 prisoners were callously murdered by what “English” Heritage are pleased to portray as “the colourful lanzknechts”. Also in 1999, many of Cornwall’s most respected people gathered at the site of the Battle of Fenny Bridges to unveil a memorial, only to find they were being covertly filmed by Special Branch officers.
For those who choose to parade England’s St George’s Flag on Cornish soil, the above account explains its true symbolism in Cornish eyes and why it causes so much offence.
And what of the architects of genocide? Lord Russell went on to become one of the biggest landowners in England and one of Britain’s richest men. Thomas Seymour was arrested on charges of insurrection and thrown into the Tower in October 1549, knowledge of which must have boosted the morale of the Cornish leaders who were also languishing there. Seymour was later set free but re-arrested for treason in 1552. He finally met the axeman on Tower Hill. Archbishop Cranmer fared little better. Charged with heresy and treason in 1553, he was burnt at the stake. In 1556, Sir Anthony Kingston was implicated in the plot to overthrow the Catholic Queen Mary and her Spanish husband Philip. When summoned to answer charges, Kingston took his own life.
mys Gorefen 2006