Post-classical history


September 1497: Cornwall Rises for Richard IV

‘Eight thousand peasants immediately took up arms for him.’

Raimondo de Soncino to the Duke of Milan, Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts… at Milan 1385–16181

In September 1497 Andrea Trevisano, ambassador of Venice, sent a report in which he describes an audience with Henry VII at the royal palace of Woodstock. Leaning against a tall chair, the king wore a violet robe lined with cloth of gold and a jewelled collar, a large diamond and a beautiful pearl in his cap. Flanked by the young Prince Arthur and the Duke of Buckingham, he remained standing while the ambassador presented his credentials. Later, the king gave him a private audience lasting for two hours. In Trevisano’s considered opininion, Henry was ‘gracious, grave and distinguished’.2 Yet despite his apparent serenity, the king must have been a very worried man. He knew that the Yorkists were about to start another rising, and he cannot have forgotten how his own slender chances had been crowned by success in 1485.

‘Perkin Warbeck and his wife were lately set full poorly to sea by the King of Scots,’ Henry informed Sir Gilbert Talbot shortly after this audience, in a letter of 12 September 1497.3 The cause of the White Rose was fading fast when Perkin set sail from Ayr, yet he had not lost heart, convinced that Ireland remained staunchly Yorkist. He had been asked to return there by Sir James of Ormond, a bastard Butler who was currently up in arms against the head of his family, in the hope that the ‘duke’ might make him Earl of Ormond in his cousin’s place.

But on 9 July 1497 Sir James was ambushed and killed near Kilkenny by a kinsman and old enemy, Sir Piers Ruadh Butler. Sir Piers wrote to the earl shortly after that this ‘great and ancient rebel’ had invited ‘Perkin Warbeck to come lately unto this land for the destruction of the subjects and possessions here of our Sovereign Lord’.4 The death of Sir James ended any hope of Irish support for the ‘duke’. Unaware of this disastrous setback, after a voyage lasting a fortnight, round the north coast of Scotland and against contrary winds, Perkin landed in Ireland on 25 July, either in Kerry or in west Cork. In his letter to Sir Gilbert Talbot, King Henry reports him as landing among the ‘wild Irishry’.

Still on board the Cuckoo, Perkin sailed on into the Haven of Cork. Here he learned that his ally Sir James had been killed, while he found a famine-stricken land with both of the FitzGerald earls in a far from welcoming frame of mind. Henry had reappointed Kildare Lord Deputy, as the only man who could rule the country and keep in check its dislike of the Tudor dynasty, while he bought Lord Desmond’s loyalty with customs concessions throughout the south-western ports. In the letter to Talbot, the king says that Perkin ‘would have been taken by our cousins, the Earls of Kildare and Desmond, if he and his said wife had not secretly stolen away’.5

When his ‘two ships and a Breton pinnace’ – in fact the Cuckoo – put into Cork harbour, John Atwater warned him of his danger whereupon he abandoned his little flotilla and fled. Someone revealed that he was making for Cornwall and on 1 August the citizens of Waterford wrote to warn King Henry, their letter reaching him at Woodstock only four days later.

He replied at once, offering a large reward for the fugitive’s capture, but the four big Waterford ships pursuing Perkin failed to catch him. From the Haven of Cork he had gone to an island near Kinsale, guided by the faithful Atwater, who hired a Basque merchant vessel from San Sebastian to take him to safety. Although the Waterford men boarded her shortly afterwards, Perkin managed to evade capture: he hid in a barrel, the crew insisting they had never heard of him, while his enemies did not recognize his wife and friends. What happened next is not entirely clear, but it seems that somehow the Basques brought Perkin back to one or two of his ships that had stolen out from Cork harbour while the Waterford men were busy elsewhere on a false scent.

In his letter to Gilbert Talbot, King Henry explained that Warbeck was still on course for Cornwall, so he had sent Lord Daubeney to organize a reception committee, while Lord Willoughby de Broke had been dispatched ‘with our army on the sea … to take the said Perkin if he return again to the sea’. The king was taking the threat very seriously, adding that he would go there himself if it proved necessary and put down the rebellion, ‘with Our Lord’s mercy’. There is a definite hint of tension. Not only had the Cornish given him a bad fright, but his agents were reporting substantial pockets of Yorkist support all over the West Country.

The Yorkist ships had landed five days earlier, on 7 September, at Whitesand Bay, just a mile away from Land’s End. Perkin went ashore with about 300 supporters. One report says they were of various nationalities, with eighty ‘savage Irishmen’, although it is likely that most were English. Writing to the Bishop of Bath and Wells on 20 September Henry admitted that ‘our commons of Cornwall take his part’, but claimed that two days earlier they had included ‘not one gentleman’.6 This was not strictly true, however. Humphrey Calwodely of Helland, John Nankevell of St Columb and Walter Tripcony of St Columb, later charged with having invited Perkin to Cornwall, were all gentlemen.

Within a week Warbeck had gathered an army of 3,000 men in an encampment at Castle Kynnock, not far from Bodmin. They were angry there had been no reduction of the tax that had provoked the recent revolt and eager to avenge the defeat at Blackheath where a large number of them must have fought. Few were well armed, however: Vergil says the majority only had swords, by which he presumably means the long Cornish knife.8 They had had no military training and, save for the three gentlemen mentioned, were without local leaders. Communication must have been a problem, too, since a large number can only have spoken Cornish.

Had Perkin come to Cornwall in June, he might have had a chance of success. Now, he was too late. Afterwards, he admitted that when he landed he knew his cause was doomed, but had been unable to escape from his supporters. Foreign observers agreed. On 16 September the Milanese envoy in London reported:

everyone is certain that this means the final annihilation of the Cornishmen and the end of the Duke … Everything is in the King’s favour, especially his bottomless treasury, while the lords of the kingdom, well aware how shrewd he is, are either frightened or genuinely fond of him, so that it is unlikely that even a single nobleman will join the Duke.9

Even so, there was uneasiness in the city, where sinister rumours were circulating. The same letter reports, ‘In London they say the Duke of York is coming nearer and nearer and is flying three standards, one with a little boy coming out of a womb, the second with a little boy coming out of a wolf’s mouth and the third with a red lion on it.’ These were all symbols of a rightful heir returned from the dead.

Moreover, Perkin recovered his nerve when the Cornishmen acclaimed him as king. The sheriff of the county attempted to attack the camp at Castle Kynnock, but his troops deserted and joined the rebels, who now numbered 8,000. When the Earl of Devon arrived with a small force of West Country gentlemen, he was horrified to find himself confronted by a large army and hastily withdrew to Exeter.

Perkin then issued a proclamation so eloquently phrased that it showed he must have possessed at least one extremely able adviser. ‘Richard by the grace of God King of England’ explained how ‘We in our tender age escaped by God’s great might out of the Tower of London and were secretly conveyed over the seas’, and that in his absence Henry, grandson of ‘Owen Tydder of low birth in the country of Wales’ seized the throne. Henry had spread lies that Richard was an impostor, ‘giving us nicknames’, and tried to turn his supporters against him, ‘some of them to murder our person’ and others to desert, notably Robert Clifford. However, with the aid of our dearest cousin, the King of Scots, we have now ‘entered into this our realm of England’.

The proclamation listed all the Yorkist leaders who had lost their lives or been hunted down, ‘some of which nobles are now in the sanctuary’. It complained of the Earl of Warwick’s imprisonment and of Plantagenet princesses being forced to marry Tudor kinsmen of ‘low degree’, of ‘caitiffs and villains’ being made ministers. Above all, ‘our great enemy’ had levied unbearably heavy taxes, impoverishing the entire realm with ‘daily pillaging of the people … unlawful impositions and grievous exactions’. Those who fight for the cause of King Richard IV would be richly rewarded.10

Perkin’s council – John Heron, Edward Skelton, Nicholas Astley, William Lounde – urged him to seize Exeter. Although he had no guns, he had a large army and the city’s capture would attract recruits from all over the West Country. Leaving his wife at the little hamlet of St Buryan, he invaded England for the third time.

Arriving at Exeter at 1 p.m. on Sunday 17 September, the Cornishmen tried to storm the city at the north and east gates. However, the city was ready, reinforced by the Earl of Devonshire and local gentry, Courtenays, Edgecumbes, Carews and Fulfords, who knew that if they held out for only a few days, they could count on being relieved by a royal army. Undaunted, the besiegers attempted to climb the wall with scaling ladders, besides setting one of the gates on fire. Two hundred of them were killed by gunners and archers shooting from the wall, before the attack was called off for the night.

‘And upon the Monday following he and his people made a new assault upon the said city, where again they were put off to their more damage. Albeit that they fired the gates: at which second assault the Earl of Devonshire was hurt in the arm with an arrow,’ says a London chronicler.11 What he does not tell us is that the Cornishmen succeeded in breaking down the east gate, apparently before dawn when the defenders were asleep, presumably with a battering ram, and then occupied the High Street. Beating back two savage attacks, Lord Devon eventually drove them out of the city, although there had been moments when he and his men came within an inch of being overwhelmed.

Both sides were exhausted and the earl negotiated a truce. The Cornishmen agreed to raise the siege and leave, while Devon promised not to pursue them.12 They then began to panic. Perkin’s council tried frantically to reassure them, saying it had a papal bull proving he was the Duke of York, that ‘some lords of the realm’ were about to join the rising and that money was being minted in the name of ‘King Richard’ which would shortly be handed out. Some of the Cornishmen were already drifting away when an advance party from Daubeney arrived, promising a pardon to anyone who laid down his arms.13 Shortly after midnight on 21 September, Perkin himself fled with sixty mounted followers. When the remaining Cornishmen awoke, they found their leaders had deserted them and before dawn they too ran away. The Yorkist rebellion was over.

Guessing that the Earl of Devon had seized the vessels left behind in Cornwall, the fugitive horsemen rode towards the north Somerset coast, hoping to find a ship. Then they scattered. One group, led by the priest William Lounde, headed for London, to take sanctuary at Westminster Abbey or at the church of St Martin, which still provided immunity from arrest.

Perkin made for Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest, which was near the Solent where a boat might be found to take them to France. His companions, Heron, Astley and Skelton, were friends of the abbot, who may have had Yorkist sympathies since the abbey owned manors in Berkshire – White Rose country. When they arrived, they were received in the lay brothers’ refectory. Perkin concealed his identity, but the abbot guessed who he was and sent a message to the king at Woodstock. Within a short time the abbey was ringed by hundreds of armed men despatched by Daubeney, while a ballinger (an oared sailing barge) patrolled the Solent in case the fugitives tried to escape by sea. There was not much chance of this, however, as they had only ‘ten crowns’ left between them.

Unlike Culham, the abbey’s sanctuary rights had a sound legal base and needed to be respected. Accordingly, Henry sent Roger Machado, Richmond Herald, to negotiate Perkin’s surrender. John Heron, the former London merchant, was spokesman for the fugitives and it was agreed that he should go to the king and seek terms – if unsuccessful, he would be allowed to return to sanctuary in the abbey. Accordingly, Heron went to Taunton and, after informing Henry – untruthfully – that he had always believed Perkin to be the son of Edward IV, was sent back to Beaulieu to tell his leader he would be spared if he presented himself to the king.

Dressed in cloth of gold, Perkin emerged from sanctuary and was taken to Taunton by Richmond, escorted by a small guard. ‘The young man is not too handsome, indeed his left eye lacks lustre, but he is intelligent and well spoken,’ the herald told the Milanese ambassador. Kneeling before the king, Perkin begged for mercy. He was told to get up. ‘We hear you call yourself Richard, King Edward’s son,’ said Henry. ‘Several people in this room were the king’s courtiers, so look round and see if you recognise any of them.’ Perkin replied that he knew none of them and was not the Duke of York. He explained that he had been persuaded by some Englishmen and Irishmen to impersonate him, and had learned English for the purpose, adding that for the last two years he had wanted to give up playing the part, but had been unable to find an opportunity.14

Heron, Astley and Skelton were summarily packed off under guard. The last two were eventually pardoned, but John Heron remained in prison after it was discovered he had lied about believing Perkin to be the duke – he had always known that he was an impostor. The king then marched to Exeter, taking Perkin with him, where he was kept under strong guard, partly for his own protection. The Cornishmen wanted to murder the ‘low born foreigner’ who had tricked them into risking their lives.

King Henry stayed at Exeter for a month, in order to punish what he called, in a letter of 17 October to the citizens of Waterford, ‘this great rebellion’. He says that captured rebels are appearing before him everyday, in their shirts and with halters round their necks, begging for mercy.15 Many of those who had taken a leading part in the rising were hanged, drawn and quartered on scaffolds erected outside the city walls. Others filled the prisons and lock-ups of every town in the West Country.

The king was especially pleased when Perkin’s wife Katherine was brought to him from St Buryan. She was dressed in black, perhaps in mourning for the death of their child of whom nothing more is known. Reassured to learn that she was not pregnant – he did not want Perkin to have an heir – he gave her rich clothes and a retinue of ladies, sending her with an escort to the queen at their palace of Sheen.

In his Life and Deeds of Henry VII Bernard André, the blind poet laureate, describes a meeting between his patron and the couple that took place in the West Country before her departure for London. After Henry had told Perkin he would spare his life, Katherine entered the room, looking particularly beautiful (‘egregia forma’). Calling her ‘illustrious lady’, the king expressed his pity at her being placed in such a wretched situation by so worthless a creature (‘istius nebulonis’), but promised that his queen would look after her. Weeping, Katherine reproached Perkin for dragging her down, declaring that her only hope lay in the king.16 André adds that Henry complimented Katherine on her noble birth and dignity, telling her she was worthy of a man of high rank. He seems to have been smitten by her. Writing in the 1540s, Edward Hall says delightfully that the king ‘began then a little to fantasy her person’,17 while nearer the time Polydore Vergil records how ‘when the king saw the woman’s beauty, he at once decided she was a captive worthy of a great general’.18

Despite having at last captured the ‘White Rose’ and routed the Cornishmen, Henry VII still did not feel safe. As Vergil tells us, the king knew that ‘the population of all the neighbouring counties had been only too willing to feed and shelter the Cornishmen, not only when they were waging war on him, but when they had been beaten and become fugitives trying to get back to their homes.’19 These non-Cornish neighbours can only have acted in such a way out of hatred for the Tudors or from Yorkist sentiment.

In September 1498 the king appointed a commission to levy fines on everyone in Devon and Cornwall involved in favouring or helping the Cornish rebels. A second commission was appointed for Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset in March 1500, followed by another for these counties in August 1500. Over 4,500 people were fined which indicates the extent of the unrest. They included the abbots of Ford and Muchelney – two more cases of senior churchmen who remained loyal to the House of York. In Devon and Somerset the goods and pos sessions of whole districts were seized, reducing their populations to indigence, the fine rolls being endorsed by the king himself. His motive in establishing the commissions is often attributed purely to love of money.20Yet if greed played a part, insecurity is likely to have been the main reason: men ground down into poverty were less likely to buy weapons and revolt. Another factor was his obsession with identifying Yorkists.

Henry left Exeter only when he was sure there would be no more danger from the West Country, returning to London at the end of November. He brought Perkin with him. Writing in September 1497 of the king’s reaction to the news that the ‘White Rose’ was besieging Exeter, Bacon comments that Henry had been overjoyed at the chance of laying hands on him. Now he would be ‘cured of those privy stitches, which he had long had about his heart, and at some times broken his sleeps, in the midst of all his felicity’.21However, King Henry was wrong. Despite capturing Perkin, he would continue to suffer from sleepless nights.

11. September 1497: Cornwall Rises for Richard IV

1. CSP Milan, op. cit., vol. I, 327.

2. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. I, 754.

3. A.F. Pollard (ed.), The Reign of Henry VII from Contemporary Sources, 3 vols, London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1913, vol. 1, pp. 162–3.

4. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. II, p. xli–xlii.

5. Pollard, Reign of Henry VII, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 163.

6. Ibid., p. 168.

7. Rot. Parl., op. cit., vol. VI, p. 545.

8. Vergil, op. cit., p. 106.

9. CSP Milan, op. cit., vol. I, 325.

10. Pollard, Reign of Henry VII, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 150.

11. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 217.

12. A.L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall, London, Macmillan, 1969, p. 131

13. CSP Milan, op. cit., vol. I, 327.

14. Ibid., 329.

15. Pollard, Reign of Henry VII, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 173.

16. B. André, in Memorials, pp. 73–5.

17. Hall, op. cit., p. 485.

18. Vergil, op. cit., p.108.

19. Vergil, op. cit., p. 109.

20. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 335–7.

21. Bacon, op. cit., p. 151.

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