Today – the 27th June – marks the anniversary of the Battle of Blackheath of 1497. It is a mostly forgotten battle that comprised a larger rebellion during the reign of Henry VII, and is usually unknown by many locals in Cornwall itself (this statement is based on my own observations of having lived in Cornwall). Furthermore, this element of ignorance can also be observed in academia, particularly in the textbooks issued at A-level study (an area that I know well).
For those not acquainted with this event, the Battle of Blackheath was the culmination in the 1497 Cornish Rebellion. It had started due to tax grievances: Henry VII wanted to take the fight to the Scots for harbouring a pretender to the throne (the infamous Perkin Warbeck), and therefore needed cash to fund an army. However, the Cornish were having none of this and rebelled under the leadership of Michael Joseph (a blacksmith known in Cornish as An Gof) and Michael Flamank (a noted local lawyer). They led a larger number of people (with some estimating 10,000-15,000) from Cornwall across the south of England to camp outside London itself; all to make a point that they were not to be messed with. However, the king responded brutally and the rebellion was defeated, with the ringleaders sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. It is reputed that before his death An Gof declared that the rebels would have ‘a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal’. In this manner Micheal Joseph is portrayed as a Cornish ‘Braveheart’: someone who stood up for the rights of the Cornish despite ultimately having his life ended.
All of this should make for interesting study in history classrooms, however, time and again the textbooks get this rebellion wrong by merging it with another rebellion that occurred later in 1497. This second Cornish uprising was led by the same Perkin Warbeck mentioned earlier; by the autumn of the year he had lost the support of all monarchs and ended up in Cornwall to attempt to stir up the ill-feeling from the earlier rebellion. Warbeck was declared Richard IV at Bodmin and then took a make-shift army to take Exeter; when this failed he fled before being captured by Henry VII (and then ultimately executed in 1499). Just how the textbooks (principally the ones issued by AQA) confuse both of these rebellions is somewhat ludicrous: they have Perkin Warbeck in Scotland at the start of the first rebellion, before he simply appears – as if by magic – a day later in Cornwall (in a time before air-travel), and then he seems to leave the rebels at Exeter whilst they march on to London. The logic of such an order of events does not make any sense, but somehow someone wrote it, someone proof-read it, and then it was published!
I first observed this error back when a trainee teacher in the 2011-12 academic year. I wrote to AQA, who shifted the buck to the publisher; I wrote to the publisher, who shifted the buck again. It annoyed me that this error was being taught across the country, and so I wrote an article based on this annoyance – ‘The Mistaken Case of the 1497 Rebellions’ – that was printed in The Cornish Banner in 2013 (I will upload this article to the blog at some point in the future). And then came the change in the A-level specifications in 2015 and we purchased the new textbook for the new Tudors module, and again an error is apparent regarding the 1497 rebellions. Maybe come the next specification change in the 2020s this error will be finally rectified.
So, today should be a time of remembrance for this rebellion and those that stood up for the rights of the Cornish. These Cornish ‘Bravehearts’ can be found throughout history, and hopefully they will continue to raise their fists at the wrongs brought on the region. I myself will raise a toast to them and continue to stress the actual order of events in my own history classroom in the future.