Q: Where did people meet for rallies before Trafalgar Square was invented?
Yes, long before it seemed like a good idea to mill about the West End listening to bands and devising amusing placards, people with grievances to put, with victories to celebrate, with points to make, all assembled at the top of the hill up the road. Some didn’t have that far to go – Wat Tyler and Jack Cade were at least only from Kent. But when starving Cornish peasants wanted to kick up a fuss, they had a bit further to trudge.
It was 1497 and Henry VII was a troubled man. One Perkin Warbeck had his beady eye on Henry’s Crown and the Scottish King James was on his way south to give him a drubbing too. He needed cash and he needed it fast. Who was least likely to moan if he put the taxes up, he wondered?
Ping! What about Cornwall? A nasty, heathernly, grim, storm-swept county, good for nothing much save what could be dug out of the ground. What had those wild, dirty Celts ever done for him? More trouble than they were worth, he figured. In fact – when he came to think of it, they owed him. Besides. They were miles away. Out of sight, out of mind.
What Henry hadn’t counted on, however, was one or two of the Cornish people not being particularly happy about this. They were quite cross, actually. They were already poor – and these new taxes just about did it for them. Henry had also failed to notice that if nothing else, this nation of miners were tough. Very tough.
Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, and Michael Joseph, a farrier from St Keverne (also known as An Gof) were particularly upset, and this unlikely pair of buddies also discovered that between them they were exceptionally good at whipping up a frenzy of discontent among the burly peasants.
Reverend L’Estrange, writing in 1886, makes no secret of his own opinion on the matter. He is completely shocked that anyone would rise up against their sovereign king. “Ambitious agitators have never been wanted to fan popular discontent,” he says dismissively, telling us that Flamank and An Gof “harangued and excited the people” to form a rebellion.
Whether desperate men with a genuine grievance or merely L’Estrange’s “rabble,” the march gained in size and strength as it moved through the county and then through Devon and Somerset. They killed a particularly assiduous tax collector at Taunton, and even gained themselves a leader from the gentry – Lord Audley, who openly joined them at Wells.
I get myself a bit confused here. I mean – these people were on their way to London. Surely Blackheath is overshooting the mark a bit? If I’d trudged all the way from Cornwall (which still takes several hours by car) I wouldn’t want to skirt around the edge. But that’s what they did.
They certainly hoped to get some more support from the traditionally militant men of Kent, though in that they were disappointed – they didn’t gain a single extra body. At this point, quite a few got fed up and sloped off home. But no matter. The rebellion still had six thousand angry rustics and they weren’t going anywhere. They set up camp on Blackheath. For many years afterwards, L’Estrange tells us, there was a mound just south of Greenwich Park where An Gof set up his tent, which, his being a blacksmith, everyone called “The Forge.”
All of London was a-tizz. This mob meant business. They were starving and angry and they were staring straight at the city.
Henry gathered together his army – 8,000-strong and led by proper generals instead of blacksmiths. He surrounded them – The Earl of Essex at the City, The Earl of Oxford behind Blackheath hill so the rebels couldn’t run away, Lord Daubeney to lead the attack, and the King himself ‘in reserve.’ Meanwhile in the City, panic was everywhere. The royal family and all the bishops locked themselves in the Tower. Everyone else locked themselves wherever they could.
The Battle of Deptford Bridge on the banks of the river Ravensbourne, June 17th, 1497, wasn’t clear-cut at first. Daubeney was so sure he was better than the rebels that he rushed straight in and got himself captured. Even L’Estrange admits that “the Cornish men showed a considerable amount of native courage” – but they were starving, ill-armed and had no cavalry.
It was, frankly, a rout. Between two and three thousand men were killed on the battlefield; the rest were surrounded and given to the rank and file soldiers, told they could have them to use for ransom – but the Cornish were so poor, they didn’t raise more than a couple of shillings each.
And the leaders? A characteristically grisly end for each. Lord Audley was dragged through the streets from Newgate to Tower Hill wearing nothing but a ripped paper coat, on which his family coat of arms was painted backwards. Being a toff, he was allowed to be beheaded.
Flamank and An Gof received the full hanged-drawn-and-quartered treatment at Tyburn. Henry had wanted to hang up the various pieces of their bodies in sundry venues in Cornwall as a warning to all “in the old fashion,” but perhaps wisely decided that this might not be the best way of preventing further discontent.
At their execution, An Gof announced they would become figures of history – “a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal”- and let’s face it – he was right. We’re still talking about them on a sunny Friday morning more than 500 years later. In 1997 (sorry Dazza), exactly 500 years since the rebellion, a memorial march – Keskerdh Kernow 500(“Cornwall Marches 500) – took place and a plaque* was placed on the wall of Greenwich Park. Find it just to the right of the Blackheath Gate…
*Stevie moaned that my photo of the plaque was rubbish – and it was a bit pale – so here is his version.