Recent research has allowed me the opportunity to delve back into the events of the Cornish rebellions of 1497. I’ve posted about these uprisings previously on the blog, including one focusing on Michael Joseph (the Cornish Braveheart), as well as an article on how on how a considerable number of textbooks have mixed up the two rebellions. For this post, I thought I would focus on the manner in which the Cornish rebels have been portrayed, particularly in the difference in perspective from Polydore Vergil and other accounts.

Why did the Cornish rebel in 1497? The relationship between the Cornish and the Tudor regime was a tense one, leading to the suspension of the Stannary Parliament in 1496; the Cornish were aggrieved at the loss of this institution, particularly due to the importance of tin to the economy. Then, in early 1497, the people of the kingdom were taxed in order for Henry to pay to go to war with Scotland. This led to protests in Cornwall, which eventually coalesced into a rebellion under the leadership of a blacksmith (Michael Joseph, aka An Gof) and a lawyer Michael Flamank. They agreed to march to London to present their grievances directly to the king, however, it ended in bloodshed at the Battle of Blackheath; the rebels were crushed, and the leaders were executed.

Then, later in 1497, the great pretender Perkin Warbeck arrived in Cornwall. Warbeck had been all over Europe finding – and then losing – support in various royal courts. He claimed to be Richard Duke of York, the younger son of Edward IV, and the Cornish embraced him and declared him Richard IV. The rebels attempted to take Exeter, and after failing to do so continued on to Taunton; at this point, Warbeck fled in the middle of the night, and the Cornish surrendered when the royal army arrived.

This post will focus on Polydore Vergil’s description of the first rebellion. He describes the Cornish as pillaging and ravaging the countryside during their progress across the south of the kingdom. Furthermore, he also refers to the Cornish in the following negative terms:

  • ‘madmen’
  • a ‘mob of paupers’
  • a ‘band of roiling dregs’
  • ‘wretched Cornishmen’

Modern historians do not agree with Vergil’s interpretation. In his history book of Cornwall, Philip Payton stresses that the rebels were able to resist ‘the temptation to loot and slaughter’. This is not simply a modern development, as a similar view can be found in Sir Francis Bacon’s history of Henry VII from the early seventeenth century; he notes that the rebels ‘behaved themselves quietly and modestly by the way as they went’ through the country.

The comments of Payton and Bacon make sense when we consider the purpose of this rebellion. The Cornish did not have the intention of toppling Henry VII from the throne or in creating as much destruction as possible. They came to London to voice their suffering, not to loot or slaughter.

Vergil’s account makes sense when we consider the time in which it was written. He was writing in the early sixteenth century during the time of the Tudor regime; as such, he was influenced to highlight the successes of the Tudors and to villainise their opponents. Richard III is belittled and established as the villain, and Henry Tudor is portrayed as the hero to bring stability back to the kingdom. Similarly, the Cornish are horrible rebels who opposed good king Henry, and therefore they were given a dramatic portrayal to equal this status.

I don’t believe that there is anything particularly wrong with an historian believing a specific interpretation, however, Vergil’s history is scattered with errors and exaggerations. The influence of the Tudor court appears to have been too great, something that Sir Francis Bacon didn’t suffer when writing his book a century later. In summary, Vergil’s portrayals of the Cornish rebels of 1497 offers an interesting snapshot into the limitations of his accounts, but they should be used with caution.