Civil War

The Civil War in Cornwall

An Civil Bresel En Kernow


Battles across Cornwall

Today it is difficult to appreciate that some 350 years ago parts of the tranquil Cornish countryside were the scene of bloody battles echoing to the sound of muskets and the cries of the wounded. Following Edward III's Charter of Creation in 1337 Cornwall was intimately bound to the Crown in the person of the eldest son of the reigning monarch who became the Duke of Cornwall from the moment of his birth. This is one of the reasons why so much of the argument between King Charles I and his Parliament was influenced by the activities and battles fought in Cornwall.

Since its inception Parliament had represented the property owning and merchant classes who were elected by a handful of paid voters. As such it was subservient to the monarch. In those days Cornwall's influence on the affairs of State was considerable. Firstly there was the established link with the crown through the Duchy. Then there were the numerous small boroughs in Cornwall which had the right to send two members to Parliament. With another two members representing the county a total of 44 members for Cornwall sat in Parliament. That was quite out of proportion for the population of the Duchy. Many of these members were men of national stature and able to influence the proceedings.

The availability of valuable Cornish tin was also to be a factor in the dispute. Vital for the manufacture of high quality cannon it was also used as a commodity to trade with other countries.

Certain authority was still vested in the Throne and the monarch worked alongside Parliament in governing the country. This arrangement could easily have led to disputes but Queen Elizabeth and King James had maintained fairly tight control on Parliament during their reigns. However, during that time the elected government was beginning to show signs of unrest, attacking corruption and seeking reforms.

When Charles came to the throne in 1625 he started to exercise his fatal Stuart ideal of divine authority over Parliament. This brought him into immediate conflict. Financial support for the war with Spain meant the levying of additional taxes by the King. Cornwall was rated at £2,000, a considerable sum in those days. Several Cornish gentry were struck off the magistrates' roll or imprisoned for not paying.

Although the clergy in Cornwall were in sympathy with Royalty there had been unrest in Elizabeth's reign. The growth of the Cornish Puritan party with a requirement for a sober way of life imposed by authority had led to a petition to Parliament in 1586. In 1633 many clergy in Cornwall refused to read the Declaration of the Book of Sports in their churches on Sundays. This was an early attempt to impose mass physical recreation on Sundays and was intended to build national character. This was seen as objectionable to the Puritans who wanted the Sabbath kept sacred.

A leading Cornish radical in Parliament was Sir John Eliot who was born at St. Germans in 1592. A short spell in prison had engendered a bitter opposition to the King's method of rule.

The Parliament of 1628 included many who, like Eliot, had suffered at the hands of the King. The Commons proclaimed the Petition of Rights, declaring illegal all taxation imposed and gathered without the consent of Parliament. Charles had to accept this reduction in his fund raising. Eliot then turned his considerable oratorical skill on the King's favourite, the Duke of Buckingham who had been responsible for many of the royal excesses. Buckingham was assassinated shortly afterwards. Parliament then turned its attention to the church and its Roman Catholic Queen. It proposed sweeping reforms, condemning any Popery in religious matters. Charles retaliated by imprisoning nine of those opposed to his policies including Sir John Eliot in the Tower of London. Eliot died there in 1632. When his son asked the King to allow him to return his body to St. Germans for burial Charles replied that he should be buried in the parish where he had died. This became one of the many grudges to be held against the King.

For eleven years from 1629 Charles rules directly with his advisers and without a Parliament. This appeared to be a period of calm during which many Cornish churches were refurbished and enriched. However, there was a growing undercurrent of anger. The King raised money by reviving unused taxes or fabricating new ones. These included the notorious ship-money tax to defend the realm against pirates. The tax was devised in 1634 by Sir William Noy, a Cornishman from near St. Columb Major and intended to protect ports from raids by pirates from Algeria and elsewhere. Very little of the money was used to improve the fleet and in 1636 fifteen fishing boats were captured from Looe and the Helford.

In 1637 Charles tried to impose the Anglican Liturgy, and the English language, upon the Scottish church to replace Presbyterian-ism. The Scots rose against this foolish act and entered into the Solemn League and Covenant to defend Scotland's way of life and worship.

In 1640 a Parliament was called and sided with the Scots by refusing to provide supplies for the King. Soon that Parliament was dissolved and later in the year the 'long' Parliament was convened on a wave of opposition to the King's policies. It's Cornish members hoped for a compromise with the Royalists but this was not to be. A series of Acts reduced the monarchy to financial dependence on Parliament. Two of the King's closest advisers were executed on the block and the system of church government by the bishops was abolished in an attack led by Francis Dous of St. Dominick. A list of grudges against the King, known as the Grand Remonstration, declared no confidence in Charles. A Militia Bill deprived the King of his command of the armed forces.

This was all too much for Charles. Royalist support had gathered around the King and Charles went to the Commons in January 1642 with a troop to arrest Pym and four other members of Parliament. But word of this move had gone ahead of the King and the five fled. When they returned it was with trained military men. It was now the King's turn to flee. He set up Court in York and in August 1642 raised his standard at Nottingham. The Civil War had begun.

In Cornwall there was general dislike of the King's policies which had led to the running down of the coastal defences at a time when there were pirates active in the Channel. The impressment of miners and peasants for the Scots war, unpopular taxes and falling trade contributed to the general depression. Nevertheless, there was a strong allegiance to the position of the King and the Church of which he was the head. This led to very divided opinions and a lot of confusion.

At the start of the war most of Cornwall, led by the great Cornish families, was Royalist. The Grenvilles of Stowe House, near Morwenstow led the Royalists. Two grandsons of the famous Sir Richard Grenville who had fought the Spaniards in the 'Revenge' in 1591, played a leading role for the King. Sir Bevil Grenville, who was adored by his contemporaries and staff, led the Royalist camp. Those who followed included the Governor of the important Pendennis Castle; Sir Nicholas Slanning; John Trevanion of Caerhays; Sir John Arundell of Trerice; Sir Henry Killigrew of Falmouth; John Trelawny of Trelawne; Jonathan Rashleigh of Menabilly; Sir Richard Vyvyan of Trelowarren; Sir Francis Basset of Tehidy; the Sir Francis Godolphin of Godolphin House; the Kendalls of Pelyn; the Lowers of St. Winnow and many others.

The Parliamentarians were represented by the Rouses of Halton, the Bullers of Morval; William Coryton of St. Mellion; Sir Alexander Carew of Antony; Nicholas Boscawen of Tregothnan and Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock.

Many still couldn't make up their minds and some families were split, favouring both sides. Neighbouring counties of Devon, Somerset and Dorset moved to the Parliamentarian side with Plymouth.

Both sides were poorly armed. During the period of relative calm there had been little call for the apparatus of war. Uniforms were virtually non-existent, the Royalist Cavaliers wearing coloured sashes to distinguish them from their opponents. Whilst there was an assortment of muskets on both sides it was the pike, about 18 feet long, which was the main weapon on both sides. Cornish foot soldiers were highly praised for their performance but grew uneasy as they marched away from Cornwall. Lack of information, people with strange accents, or language, and a shortage of provisions when all troops had to live off the land meant that their confidence was undermined.

Sir Richard Vyvyan was commissioned to mint silver and gold coins for the King's cause from plate donated by supporters. For this purpose a Mint was set up in Truro. The towns of Cornwall were soon held by opposing sides. Bodmin, Truro, Pendennis Castle overlooking Falmouth harbour and St. Michael's Mount were held for the King whilst the two important border towns of Launceston and Plymouth, just in Devon, declared for the Parliamentarians. Saltash, an ancient town on the Cornish side of the Tamar from Plymouth was to change hands eight times in three years.

The Battle of Braddock Down
In January 1643 the Parliamentarians considered that the war could be won if the Royalist grip on Cornwall was broken. Parliamentarian forces from Plymouth took up position near the little church at Braddock about seven miles from Liskeard. Royalist Cavalier units camped nearby and next morning marched out to find the Parliamentarian forces in strength about noon. The much smaller Royalist army had two light cannon which they concealed in the gorse. At two o'clock Grenville attacked the larger army, charging down the slope and firing off the cannon he routed the Parliamentarian who fled, dropping their muskets. Grenville's forces killed some 200 of their opponents and took many prisoners. The remainder headed back towards Saltash where they were attacked again with many being killed in their rush to get down to the river Tamar and across to Plymouth.

The opposing forces met near Braddock Church, the Royalists being commanded by Sir Bevil Grenville and Ralph Hopton (both subsequently Knighted) marching from Boconnoc Park where they had bivouacked overnight. In a short time the Parliament forces were routed. A more important clash took place the following year when the King's cause was beginning to wane. Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock (a sour Puritan) had indicated to the Earl of Essex, then commander-in-chief of the Parliament Army, that the Cornish were ready to surrender. Essex marched into the west, to be met by a strong force under Richard Grenville and Lord Goring and found he was pursued from the east by no less a person than the King with an a army of several thousands. The King made his headquarters at Boconnoc and the unfortunate Roundheads were gradually squeezed into Lostwithiel and Fowey, to their ultimate surrender at Castle Dore.

The Battle of Stratton
Parliamentary troops under the Earl of Stamford marched through Launceston into Cornwall with 1,400 horse and dragoons, 5,400 foot and 13 guns. Cornish giant, Anthony Payne, was enlisted as a bodyguard to the Royalist Sir Bevil Grenville before the battle. They took up position on high ground near Stratton on 15th May 1643. Units of Royalist troops established their positions around the hill and a bloody battle continued all day. The Royalists were almost out of powder and so decided to advance without firing a shot. The sight of so much cold steel coming towards them made the Parliamentarian flee, leaving behind 300 killed, 1,700 prisoners, the 13 cannon and baggage containing 5,000 and all their orders.

With Cornwall secure in Royalist hands the Cornish troops marched on through Devon to Bath in Somerset. The Battle for Lansdown Hill and nearby Marshfield turned badly against the Royalists and Grenville fell, mortally wounded. The Cornish, in grief and rage, swarmed all over the Parliamentarian defences but their losses were appalling.

In 1644 Sir Francis Godolphin secured and held The Isles of Scilly for the Royalists and raised a regiment of which his brother, William, took command. In consequence, he was disbarred from sitting in Parliament.

In May 1644 some 300 Parliamentarians attacked and captured the fort at Mount Edgcumbe, then went on to attack the House and take Maker Church (used as a signal tower), and a battery of six guns at Cawsand. After this the raiders withdrew to Plymouth with captured guns.

The Royalists were elated by their success over apparently superior odds. Fighting now moved to Devon and the King ordered his Cornish troops to march into Somerset and join him there. On the way they ran into a small Parliamentarian ambush in the dark. The hidden soldiers surprised the Royalist and made so much noise that the Cornish men were completely disorientated. A violent thunderstorm then broke which shook the superstitious Cornish so much that they dropped their arms and fled to Bridestowe.

Siege of Plymouth
Sir Richard Grenville arrived in Plymouth in March 1644 to maintain a blockade, but it resulted in a stalemate as the inhabitants obtained enough provisions to survive. Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in command of the Roundhead army of 8000 men and forced Grenville to retreat to Cornwall across the River Tamar at Horsebridge near Callington.

Whilst battles raged on throughout the length and breath of England Cornwall remained fairly solidly Royalist, raising money for the cause, exporting tin and attacking ships in the Channel. Where Parliamentarians existed in Cornwall many of the peasants, who were not disposed to having invaders from across the Tamar in their midst, starved them of intelligence and provisions. In August 1644 Parliamentarian forces marched from Bodmin to Lostwithiel and onto the port of Fowey in order to communicate with the fleet. The Royalist troops moved in and by 11th August the Parliamentarian forces were boxed in around Lostwithiel.

News of the Parliamentarian plight reached London and a force of 2,000 horse and dragoon were dispatched to assist them. But by 27th August they had got no further than Farnham. Meanwhile the Parliamentarians lived in hope and refused two offers of surrender. They securely held the town of Lostwithiel and had holed up in the roofless Restormel Castle to the north.

The Battle of Lostwithiel
On the 11th August 1644 the Royalists secured Respryn Bridge and so controlled both sides of Fowey. On the following day they took Lanhydrock and tightened their grip on the Parliamentarians. Continued attacks strengthened the Royalist position around Lostwithiel and the Parliamentarian reinforcements were beaten at Bridgwater. Fowey was re-taken by the Royalists and on the 21st August they took Restormel Castle. The Parliamentarians were still firmly established in Lostwithiel but lacked the fresh food which was available to the Royalists. Their time in Lostwithiel saw the vandalism of Duchy Palace, Jonathan Rashleigh's Menabilly House and the destruction of all the constitutional Charters and Stannary records placed in the church at Luxulyan for safety.

The Parliamentarian Army commanded by the Earl of Essex, used the site of Castle Dore near Golant as a camp. King Charles I and his army surrounded Castle Dore, but Essex and Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock had slipped away to Plymouth in a fishing boat. The line up of troops was formidable. The Parliamentarian still had 10,000 and the Royalists 17,000. One evening two deserters brought news that the Parliamentarian cavalry were to break out that night and head for the coast. The Royalists reacted quickly, putting all troops on full alert and pulling down bridges over the Tamar. Despite all these precautions the Parliamentarian cavalry managed to escape, ferried men and horses across the Tamar and reached Plymouth with the loss of only about 100 men.

The Royalists were very dispirited and blamed each other. Had the Parliamentarian infantry left with the horse units it was likely they would also have escaped. They moved out of Lostwithiel towards Fowey. With the Royalists hard on their heels they made a stand at Golant. A bloody battle ensued in which the advantages swung one way and the other. In the end the remainder of the Parliamentarian were forced to surrender. They subsequently suffered badly at the hands of the locals and the Royalists. It has been reckoned that of the 6,000 troops who surrendered only 1,000 were able to find their way home, the remainder dying of their untreated wounds, hunger and disease.

In 1645 Sir Thomas Fairfax is chosen to command the New Model Army. The Royalist army is also re-organised and a succession of command changes and squabbling ensues. Prince Charles becomes the Commander-in-Chief. Cornish Royalist leader Sir Richard Grenville, 1st Baronet made Launceston his base and he stationed Cornish troops along the River Tamar and issued them with instructions to keep "all foreign troops out of Cornwall". Prince Charles spent a great part of the autumn and winter in Cornwall, principally at Launceston and Truro.

In 1646 the Parliamentarian forces were re-grouped by Oliver Cromwell as the New Model Army, a trained, disciplined force of men, the like of which had never been seen in Britain before. This army, known as Roundheads because of the style of their helmets won battle after battle. The New Model Army lead by General Fairfax arrived in Cornwall on the 24th February 1646 and was involved in several skirmishes with the disillusioned Royalists. General Fairfax enters Launceston on 25th February and Bodmin on 2nd March. Oliver Cromwell came with 500 Dragoons and 1000 horsemen to take and hold the bridge at Wadebridge. Sir Ralph Hopton's Royalist troops camped for two nights within the rings of Castle an Dinas near St. Columb Major. Here they held a Council of War where it was decided that they would surrender to the Parliamentarians. Only Hopton and Major-General Webb voted against. During March the Royalists asked for terms and named Tresillian bridge, east of Truro as a meeting place. Terms were agreed and the surrender of the Royalist forces to the Parliamentarians took place in Cornwall on the 15th March 1646, an event which is commemorated on a plaque nearby. Next day St. Mawes Castle surrendered. St. Michael's Mount surrendered on the 13th April but Pendennis castle held out until the 17th August when sickness and the lack of food forced the Royalists to give up. Over 900 officers and men marched out of the small castle with colours flying and beating drums. The musketeers had bullets in their mouths with matches burning at both ends.

So ended the Civil War in 1646. Cornwall, in particular Pendennis castle, had been the last place to hold out for the Royalists against the Parliamentarians.

The Gear Rout was a Cornish insurrection of 1648 following the end of the First English Civil War. The killing of 70 Cornish Royalists in Penzance on 16th May 1648 prompted a failed rebellion by some 500 Cornish rebels who fought against the Parliamentarian forces of Sir Hardress Waller at a site near the Helford River.

Conditions deteriorated after the war and plague spread from Pendennis to west Cornwall. St. Ives was isolated but some 500 people died.

In June 1651 Admiral Blake captured the Isles of Scilly, the last outpost of the Royalist navy, for which he received Parliament's thanks.

By this time King Charles was being held by the Scots but, being king of Scotland he formed another army. This was far from being the end of the story. After the war there was the reckoning. Heavy fines were levied on the surviving Royalists and their estates leaving many in Cornwall impoverished. There was the Cornish insurrection and the Second Civil War of 1648. The execution of Charles in 1649 which left England as a Commonwealth. The return of his son, Charles II in 1660 and the Resurrection of the monarchy. There are still many signs of the war still to be seen in Cornwall including the plaques awarded to the Cornish churches by Charles II for supporting his father. The execution of Cornish Parliamentarian leaders, including John Carew, who had signed Charles death warrant.

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