The day the Cornish invaded Guildford

In general, Guildford has had a blessedly peaceful history. It has the good fortune to be situated in a long settled part of England and shelters behind the joint protection of London and the Southern Coastal defences. Aside from the massacre of Alfred Atheling’s followers in 1036 and the far from spectacular capture of the Castle by forces supporting the Dauphin of France in 1216, Surrey’s county town has been a comparative stranger to strife and bloodshed (if one also discounts the 19th century Guy riots and the modern day lager-riots).

Guildford Castle

And yet nearly 500 years ago, in an almost forgotten episode in the Town’s history, Guildford was occupied by an army of perhaps as many as 15000 insurgents, en route to an attack on the capital. The authorities in London, shaken at the arrival of such a force and far from confident of success, sent out a probing force to engage the rebels. The two sides clashed just outside Guildford and the Town thus saw its first military action since high medieval times. Thankfully, despite subsequent Civil and World Wars, it has remained undisturbed ever since. However, the origins of this last, mini ‘Battle of Guildford’ lie a long way from the Town or even Surrey itself ….

In 1497, Cornwall was very far from assimilated into the unitary nation state of England. It was a Celtic land and retained its own culture and language (the latter only finally expiring in the 18th century and presently being revived). It was an isolated peninsula, cut off in the east from England proper by the wide valley of the Tamar and extensive moors on either side. To the north and west and south was the sea. Prior to the ‘discovery’ of America, a man looking west from Cornwall would envisage only the immense ocean, extending without limit. Cornwall was on the edge of the known world.


This isolation had led to the Cornish keeping largely to themselves, outside of the political life of England but, in 1485, with the victory of the Welshman Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth, the kindred Celtic peoples, (or more particularly their upper classes) including the Cornish, who had aided his victory, were encouraged into the mainstream life of the nation.

Battle of Bosworth 1485

Henry, now Henry VII, rewarded his followers with titles and patronage. An unprecedented Welsh and Cornish presence developed at court. Celtic poets speculated whether their race’s long subjugation was coming to an end.

King Henry VII

In politics however, gratitude and loyalty are transitory things, particularly so in the minds of rulers contemplating the ruled. Henry had become King of England and King of England first and foremost. Other considerations were secondary and earlier allegiances could be jettisoned. Accordingly, a mere twelve years after Bosworth, Cornwall found itself with good reason to rise against him.

Memorial to the Cornish rebels of 1497

The primary cause was heavy taxation, levied to fund a war against the Scots. The Cornish could not see that this was any concern of theirs. Not without some logic, the broad sweep of Cornish society felt that the Scots were a matter for the English alone – and the northern English at that. Natural leaders came spontaneously forth to give voice to this opinion. One such was Joseph Smith (known as An Gof = the Smith), a blacksmith from St Keverne, on the Lizard peninsula of the extreme west.

The Lizard Peninsula

It seems that the idea of a march against London was his, conceived whilst leading a march of protesters to Bodmin in May 1497. There he encountered one Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer (and son of one of the principal tax-gatherers), who argued that such taxation was unlawful and that responsibility for it – and thus their grievance – lay with the most intimate of the King’s councillors, Cardinal Morton and Sir Reginald Bray, rather than the King himself. He further proposed that no harm was intended to any man by their actions and so, in the words of one chronicler (Francis Bacon – source for all quotes unless otherwise stated), somehow persuaded the Cornishmen that:

he could tell how to make rebellion and never break the peace.

Alas, the Tudor King was to take a very different view.

Armed with righteous indignation and ‘bows and arrows and bills and such other weapons of rude and country people’, an army perhaps 15,000 strong marched into Devon, attracting considerable support in terms of provisions and recruits as they went. Aside from one isolated incident at Taunton, where a tax commissioner was murdered, their march was ‘without any slaughter, violence or spoil of the country’ – a fact that gives some credence to their initial, limited aims.

The Cornish rebellion of 1497

From Taunton, they moved on to Wells, where they were joined by their most eminent recruit, James Touchet, the seventh Baron Audley, a member of the old nobility and an accomplished soldier. Known to be a malcontent, dissatisfied with the recognition afforded him by Henry VII, Touchet must nevertheless have been singularly reckless to throw in his lot with such a desperate venture.

Despite this welcome and prestigious acquisition of support, ‘An Gof’, the humble blacksmith remained in command of the army. Audley joined Flamank as joint ‘political’ leader of the expedition.

Memorial to the leaders of the 1497 Cornish rebellion.

After issuing a declaration of grievances, the army left Wells and marched to Winchester via Bristol and Salisbury in a remarkable unopposed progress right across the south of England. At this point, having come so far, there seems to have been some questioning of what exactly should be done. The King had shown no sign of willingness to concede the issue and, far from home, there must have come to the leadership the belated cold realisation that only force of arms would resolve the matter one way or the other. Flamank conceived the idea of trying to broaden the rising; to force the monarch into concessions by mobilising wider support for the Cornishmen. He proposed that they should head for Kent, ‘the classic soil of protests’, the home of the Peasant’s revolt of 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion, to rally the volatile men of Kent to their banner. It was a subtle and ambitious strategy – but sadly misinformed. Although the Scottish War was as remote a project to the Kentishmen as to the Cornish, they not only declined to offer their support but went so far as to offer resistance under their Earl. Sadly disillusioned, the Cornish army retreated and some of the fainter hearts (and wiser heads) quietly stole away back to their homes. The remainder, ‘the sturdier sort and those that were most engaged’ were only strengthened in resolve and, emboldened by what they had already achieved, let go the pretence of acting against the King’s ministers alone. They were prepared to give battle against the King himself.

Cornish rebels of 1497 marching on London

By Tuesday 13/6/1497 the Cornish army arrived at Guildford. The neglected condition of the Castle and town defences would not have encouraged any such gesture. In addition, it is stated that the gentry of the Home Counties and their armed retainers had already retired to London to join the King’s forces.

Although shocked by the scale of the revolt and the speed of its approach, Henry VII had not been idle. The army of 8000 men assembled for Scotland under the command of Giles, Lord Daubeney, Henry’s chief general and Lord Chamberlain was recalled. Then, by a curious paradox, the Earl of Surrey (the very area under occupation), was sent north to conduct a defensive, holding operation against the Scots until such time as the King had quelled his domestic difficulties. The Royal family (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) moved to the Tower of London for safety whilst in the rest of the City there was a feeling akin to panic. It is said there was a general cry of ‘Every man to harness ! To harness !’ and a rush of armed citizenry to the walls and gates. Then, the same day that the Cornish arrived at Guildford, Daubeney and his men took up position upon Hounslow Heath and were cheered by the arrival of food and wine dispatched by the Lord Mayor of London. London’s courage and confidence was somewhat restored.

Not before time, the Crown decided to take the offensive and test the strength and resolve of the rebel forces. Lord Daubeney sent out a force of 500 mounted spearmen and they clashed with the Cornish at ‘Gill Down’ outside Guildford on Wednesday 14/6/1497. It isn’t clear whether this was a planned attack or an accidental brush with the Cornish outlying positions and the outcome of the skirmish is similarly opaque. Depending on which account one credits, Daubeney’s men were either repulsed with substantial losses or else inflicted respectable damage before retiring with two prisoners to present to the Lord Chancellor for interrogation. As an aside, one wonders if (as was quite possible) these two were monoglot Cornish speakers. If so, they would have been of limited help to their questioners !

After this initial encounter of arms, the rebellion moved to a swift conclusion. The Cornish army left Guildford and moved via Banstead and Chussex Plain to Blackheath where they pitched their final camp, looking down from the hill onto the Thames and City of London. It was Friday June the 16th, they had come very far and, that evening, standing before the capital city and the army of the Crown waiting there to meet them, the magnitude of their undertaking seemed to dawn on them. The ‘Great Chronicle of London’ states that the Cornish spent the night in ‘great agony and variance; for some of them were minded to have come to the king and to have yielded them and put them fully in his mercy and grace’. However – ‘the Smith was of contrary mind’. Somehow ‘An Gof’ held his army together but even so, in the quiet of the night, many rebels deserted and by morning only there only 9-10,000 rebel stalwarts in arms were left.

Battle of Blackheath

Henry VII, as meticulous and cautious as ever, had mustered an army of some 25,000 men: healthy odds against the residue of the rebels, who in addition lacked the supporting cavalry and artillery arms essential to the professional forces of the time. After carefully spreading rumours that he would attack on the following Monday, Henry moved against the Cornish at dawn on his ‘lucky day’ – Saturday (17/6/1497). The Royal forces were divided into three ‘battles’, two under Lords Oxford, Essex and Suffolk, to wheel round the right flank and rear of enemy whilst the third waited in reserve. When the Cornish were duly surrounded, Lord Daubeney and the third ‘battle’ were ordered into frontal attack.

At the bridge at Deptford Strand, the rebels had placed a body of archers (utilising arrows a full yard long, ‘so strong and mighty a bow the Cornishmen were said to draw’) to block the passage of the river. Here Daubeney had a hot time of it before his spearmen eventually captured the crossing with some losses (a mere 8 men or as many as 300 depending on one’s source). The ‘Great Chronicle of London’ says that these were the only casualties suffered by the Royal forces that day but, in view of the severity of the later fighting, this seems most improbable.

Through ill-advice or inexperience, the Cornish had neglected to provide support for the men at Deptford Strand bridge and the main array stood well back into the heath, near to the top of the hill. This was a sad mistake since a reserve force charging down from the high ground might have held the bridge bottleneck and made the day a far more equal contest. As it was, Lord Daubeney and his troops poured across in strength and engaged the enemy with great vigour. Daubeney himself was so carried away that he became isolated from his men and was captured. Astoundingly enough, the Cornish simply released him and he soon returned to the fray. It would appear at this late stage, the rebels’ hearts were no longer in the battle and they were already contemplating its aftermath and the King’s revenge. Why else free their opponent’s commander ?

The two other Royal divisions attacked the Cornish precisely as planned and, as Bacon succinctly put it:

being ill-armed and ill-led, and without horse or artillery, they were with no great difficulty cut in pieces and put to flight

Estimates of the Cornish dead range from 200 to 2000; certainly they were severe and the Royal forces showed none of the casual attitude latterly manifested by the rebels. A general slaughter of the broken army was well under way when ‘An Gof’ gave the order for surrender. He fled forthwith but only got as far as Greenwich before being captured. The less enterprising Baron Audley and Thomas Flamank were taken on the field of battle.

At 2:00 in the afternoon, Henry VII returned to the City in triumph, knighting deserving parties on the way, to accept the acclamation of the Mayor and attend a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s.

The epilogue to the rebellion was predictable although moderate by contemporary standards. Henry was a calculating rather than merciful man but the effect on his policy decisions was nevertheless the same: he preferred to extract money rather than blood from all but the most implacable of his enemies. Again, in the words of Bacon:

The less blood he drew, the more he took of treasure

In due course, severe monetary penalties, eagerly, even excessively, extracted by Crown agents, pauperised sections of Cornwall for years to come. Prisoners were sold into slavery and estates were seized and handed to more loyal subjects. For the ring-leaders however, in the context of 15th century statecraft, there could be no mercy.

After condemnation in the White Hall at Westminster, ‘An Gof’ was dragged to Tyburn on a hurdle on Tuesday 27th June and there hung drawn and quartered. He met his end with characteristic bravery, beforehand defiantly declaring:

He should have a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal.

And so he has, in the minds of the Cornish at least. His fine words are inscribed on the plaque raised in his honour by Mebyon Kernow (the Cornish cultural/ nationalist movement) and unveiled by the chairman of Cornwall County Council at St Keverne churchyard in 1966.

Memorial to the Cornish rebels of 1497

Thomas Flamank met the same fate but for Baron Audley propriety demanded a slightly more refined demise. He was taken from Newgate to Tower Hill, dressed in mock-armour made of paper, all torn to symbolise his treachery, and there he was beheaded, as was thought to befit a delinquent member of the nobility, on 28 June 1497.

In deference to Cornwall’s still restive state, the body parts of the executed rebel leaders were not dispatched to their native lands for display as was originally intended. Instead, Henry made the prudent decision to exhibit the heads on London Bridge. The other grisly remnants were distributed elsewhere in the capital save that, once again, class distinctions dictated that Baron Audley’s torso be ‘decently’ buried in the Blackfriars Church within Ludgate.

The rank and file rebels were either pardoned or sold. There must also have been a sizeable flow of escapees making their stealthy way across country back to their homes and comparative safety. Some, however, had not learned their lesson and still had rebellious spirit enough to immediately join the cause of the pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck, who had opportunistically made his appearance in Cornwall in September 1497 and proclaimed himself ‘Richard IV’ at Bodmin. Around 6000 Cornishmen rallied to him and made an unsuccessful attack on Exeter. Lord Daubeney and his army, following up the victory at Blackheath, eventually entered Cornwall and Warbeck fled before him. The Cornish were left to the King’s mercy and the financial depredations mentioned above could then proceed unopposed.

And that was the end of the matter – as well as the end of a chapter in Cornish and indeed British life. The Cornishmen’s undoubted bravery and sturdy provincial spirit had not availed them against the power at the disposal of the developing English nation-state. The era of independent, anarchic regionalism, in England at least, was rapidly drawing to a close.

Cornish celebrating St Piran’s Day

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