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History of a county: Cornwall

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 History lesson about Cornwall, written by the great Cornish historian Craig Weatherhill. Provides the information that mainstream history neglects to mention, after all it was just a minor scrapple.


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.


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