In fifteenth century England many of the most prestigious cities in the kingdom were
completely enclosed by fortified walls, with access controlled by heavily guarded gatehouses.
The cathedral city of Exeter was one, having been fortified since Roman times. The crumbling
remains of the Roman walls and earthworks were replaced by the Saxon King Athelstan in about
920AD with thick walls of hewn stone, incorporating defensive towers. Some time later, access
to and from the city was restricted to the four gates at each point of the compass.
Well maintained city walls were a striking visual manifestation of a city's importance and
prosperity. They also provided peace of mind to the inhabitants in what was a lawless age.
Apart from the threat of invasion by foreign raiders and local rebellions, undefended towns
were vulnerable to attack by robbers and outlaws entering from outside, particularly at
A walled city was a prime target for a rebel army; its conquest would give the victors a
strategic regional stronghold, or at the very least a refuge of last resort should they be
routed in subsequent hostilities.
The year 1497 was a tumultuous one for Exeter which faced sieges and incursions from
Cornish rebel armies on two separate occasions.
It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the old maxim that in this world nothing can be
said to be certain, except death and taxes. In extreme circumstances these certainties
sometimes collide: on several occasions when taxes were imposed disproportionately on the
poor of England they rose up, risking death through civil insurrection. So it was in the
Revolt of 1381, precipitated by heavy-handed attempts to enforce a deeply unpopular
universal poll tax, and again in Cornwall in June of 1497 in the reign of King Henry VII.
Historically taxes have been exacted for one purpose only: to finance wars, and 1497 was
no exception. Henry VII was keen to top up his war chest to support intended incursions into
Scotland in response to raids on northern England in the autumn of 1496 by James IV with the
support of Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne. He asked parliament to sanction
subsidies in addition to the traditional fifteenths and
tenths. These were deemed unjust and excessive, especially in areas remote from Scotland.
The Cornish tin miners were incensed by Henry VII's decision to impose these new taxes and
suspend the Stannary Parliament in 1496. The privileges of the Stannary Parliament
(covering the stannaries of Dartmoor in Devon in addition to the Cornish stannaries) had been given
to Cornwall by Edward III when he created the Duchy of Cornwall in 1337. The parliament's
jurisdiction covered all civil matters, but not criminal offences relating
to land, life or limb.
The first stirrings of dissent arose in the parish of St Keverne in the Lizard peninsula
under the forceful leadership of one Michael Joseph, a blacksmith (an Gof in
Cornish). This followed resentment against the actions of Sir John Oby, provost of Glasney
College in Penryn, the tax collector for that area.
As support for a rebellion against these taxes grew, a second leader emerged: Thomas
Flamank, a persuasive lawyer from Bodmin who was the son and heir of Richard Flamank, one
of the commissioners for the collection of the subsidy. Thomas argued that the extra monies
should be raised by a scutage levy on the nobility of
the northernmost counties. His anger was vented at Cardinal Morton and Sir Reginald Bray
who were the king's counsellors held responsible for these measures, rather than at the
king himself, and he urged his followers to march peacefully to London to petition against
these unfair subsidies.
The people upon these seditious instigations did arm, most of them with bows and arrows,
and bills, and such
other weapons of rude and country people, and forthwith under the command of their leaders,
which in such cases is ever at pleasure, marched out of Cornwall through Devonshire unto
Taunton in Somersetshire, without any slaughter, violence or spoil of the country. [Bacon,
In June of 1497 a rudimentarily armed band of several thousand men assembled at Bodmin.
Under the leadership of Joseph and Flamank they marched towards Launceston and the Devon
border on route to Exeter, hoping to file peacefully through the city to elicit support for
their cause. On arrival at the city gate they were denied entry and threatened to start a
siege. The mayor John Atwill was completely unprepared for a rising from the west. Lacking
a militia to defend his city, he turned to the only rapid response force available at the
time: Edward Courtenay, the earl of Devon, and the other loyal supporters of the crown
among the local nobility.
The Exeter historian John Hooker, writing 70-80 years after these events, records that the
mayor received a lukewarm response, with most of the local gentry unwilling to provide
assistance at such short notice, though there is evidence that the earl himself was up for
it: the Receivers' Accounts for Exeter in 1497 included an entry for the costs of
"men riding with the earl of Devon against Michael Joseph and his fellow rebels".
The rebel leaders had no wish to remain at Exeter for too long, so a compromise was agreed
upon without bloodshed or a prolonged siege. Flamank and Joseph together with their
attendants would pass through the city while the rest of the army marched round the walls
to meet with them at the East Gate. In Hooker's account the small group passed through the
city peacefully apart from shouting angry threats at the mayor as they passed him standing
outside the Guildhall.
The rebel army marched on to Taunton, where, in the only violent incident of their long
journey, they exacted brutal revenge on Sir John Oby who was slaughtered and his body
dismembered. They had been gaining supporters along the way, and at Wells they were greatly
encouraged when a disaffected nobleman, Lord Audley, joined the throng, becoming their third
leader. By the time they reached the outskirts of London their numbers had swollen to as many
They had hoped to enlist the support of the men of Kent, known for their strong tradition
of engagement in popular risings, but this was not to be. They set up camp at Blackheath to
the south-west of the capital where on June 17th they were engaged by the King's army under
Lord Daubeney. The rebels were poorly armed, lacking horse or artillery, and were by now
surrounded on all sides. They were no match for the regular forces and as many as 200 were
slain before the remainder dispersed. Flamank and Audley were captured on the battlefield,
while Joseph took sanctuary in a church before finally surrendering.
On June 26th the three rebel leaders were condemned to death for treason; next day Joseph
and Flamank were drawn through the streets from the Tower to Tyburn to be hanged. These two
traitors were subjected to the cruelest sanctionable punishment: a short drop to avoid
immediate death, followed by disembowelling and quartering. Audley, being of noble blood,
faced the lesser punishment of beheading. The heads of all three were displayed on
pike-staffs on London Bridge in keeping with the prevailing custom. Joseph was defiant to
the end, declaring that "he should have a name perpetual and a fame permanent and
immortal". An Gof's martyrdom still resonates with Cornish nationalists. On the
500th anniversary of the rebellion in 1997 a statue of Joseph and Flamank was unveiled in
St Keverne, and a march to London retracing the journey of the rebel army was organised
under the banner Keskerdh Kernow 500.
The Cornish Rising was Perkin Warbeck's opportunity. [Rowse,
The shadow of Perkin Warbeck hung over the first Cornish rebellion of 1497. The tax
raising measures of Henry VII that provoked it were a direct response to King James IV of
Scotland's belligerent actions in pursuit of Warbeck's agenda to challenge the legitimacy of
the English monarch. Perkin Warbeck, whose real identity was Piers Osbeck from Tournai in the
Netherlands, first came to public notice in Ireland in 1491 at the age of 17. Perhaps because
of his fine clothes and courtly manner he was able to pass himself off as Richard, Duke of
York, one of the two "Princes in the Tower" allegedly murdered by Richard III in 1483.
He was received with open arms in Scotland in 1495, where King James IV recognised the
young pretender's Yorkist credentials and offered him the hand of his cousin Lady Katherine
Gordon in marriage. In 1497 news reached Warbeck of the Cornish rising, and by this time
his presence on Scottish soil was becoming an embarrassment to James, so he was happy to
assist Warbeck in his plans to capitalize on the discontent of the Cornish.
Despite the rebels' crushing defeat on Blackheath common, the English monarch had decided
against making the long westward journey to reassert the loyalty of his Cornish subjects,
fearing it might provoke further anger. This provided Warbeck with a chance to foment
further rebellion in the county. Early in June 1497 he set sail from Scotland in a small
vessel called the The Cuckoo provided by the Scottish king, accompanied by his
wife and about 30 men. They broke the journey for a month in Ireland, arriving in Cork in
late July. Bolstered by some reinforcements, they set out on the last leg of the voyage to
Cornwall in three boats, landing in Whitesand Bay near Land's End on September 7th with a
couple of hundred men in all. This despite the loyal Mayor of Waterford having informed
King Henry of Warbeck's intentions, whereupon the king ordered the mayor to send ships to
intercept their vessels to no avail.
They marched eastwards through Cornwall after leaving Katherine in the safe hands of the
priests on St Michael's Mount. On reaching Bodmin Perkin proclaimed himself King Richard IV
and within a few days his army had swollen to more than 3000. They were drawn mainly from
the lower orders, though there is evidence that a significant number of the lesser gentry
and the yeoman class of the county joined the rebels [Rowse, p130].
Warbeck was advised by a council of three who decided on an immediate assault on Exeter.
There was no better way to raise the spirits of a rebel army than the adrenaline rush from
the conquest and plunder of a prosperous town, with the prospect of disaffected locals
joining the mayhem then rallying to your cause.
His council advised him by all means to make himself master of some good walled town; as
well to make his men find the sweetness of rich spoils, and to allure him to all loose and
lost people, by like hopes of booty; as to be a sure retreat to his forces, in case they
should have any ill day, or unlucky chance in the field. Wherefore they took heart to them,
and went on, and besieged the city of Exeter, the principal town for strength and wealth in
those parts. [Bacon, p164]
First-hand accounts of Perkin Warbeck's attempt to besiege the city come from two letters
sent by the earl of Devon to Henry VII who was at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The first of
these is lost but its contents were conveyed to the Bishop of Bath and Wells by the king; it
reported that Perkin's army assembled to the north of Exeter at 1pm on Sunday September 17th.
He then called in vain on the earl to surrender the city, and the siege began with attempts
to breach the North Gate and the East Gate. The earl's letter went on to say that the city
was so well defended that Perkin lost 'above three or four hundred men of his company' and
the rebels were repelled. The earl's second letter tells of another assault on both these
gates the next day, again without success, and that after being fired on by the guns of the
defenders, Perkin pleaded to be allowed to assemble his followers without hindrance before
departing peacefully. The earl acceded to this and they duly departed for Cullompton.
This is the relevant section of the earl's second letter to the king dispatched from Exeter
on September 18th:
It may like your Grace to understand further, that this morninge, of new, the said Perkin
and his company made fresh assaults upon the said two gates; and especially at the North
gate, which was againe well and truly defended, and put Perkin from his purpose there; and
your said Citty surely keped and shall bee to the behoofe of your Grace: in soe much as when Perkin and his company had well
assaid and felt our Gunns, they were faine to desyre us to have lycence to geder theire company togeder, and soe to depart and leave your
Citty, and to put us to noe more trouble; which because wee bee not able to recounter them, and that our company were weary and some
hurt, therefore it was granted unto them that they should depart, and not to approch the
Citty in noe wyse. And soe the said Perkin and his company bee departed from us this day
about eleven of the Clocke in the forenoone, and bee twelve were out of sight, and which
way they would hould I cannot yet acertayne your
Grace; But as it was said amongst them they would to Columpton this night, and thanked bee
God there is none of your true subjects about this busines slayne, but diverse bee
The earl of Devon's letters confirm the chronology of the siege but there is no mention of
the rebel tactics and how these were countered. It was left to various chroniclers to furnish
an embroidered version of events including the attempts to burn the gates and scale the
walls. Among these was the Italian historian Polydore Vergil writing some fifteen years later
who describes how the defenders used fire to fight fire, a recurrent theme in the
Since he lacked artillery to batter down its walls, he only sought to smash its gates open,
and with great vigour he began to pound them with stones, pry at them with steel, heap them
with wood, and set them afire. At first, the townsmen, seeing the walls surrounded by the
the enemy at one point, and a fire to be started at another, were afraid. But they
immediately let down messengers from the walls during the night, who were to inform the
king. Then they courageously decided to fight fire with fire and, since the bars of the
gates were already shattered, they added their own wood to the fire, so that the flames
raging on either side would both prevent the enemy from coming within and their own
citizens from leaving. And meanwhile they themselves dug ditches inside in front of the
entry bays and made earthworks. Thus all of the besiegers' efforts around the gates came to
naught, and fire rescued the citizenry from fire. Then Peter, of necessity breaking off the
fight at the gates, attacked the city at various points where it seemed weaker, and,
bringing up ladders, frequently tried to take the walls, suffering great losses. Meanwhile
he hoped that the burghers would be overwhelmed either by fear or want of provisions, could
be impelled to surrender.
[Vergil, ChXXVI, p38]
The most substantial account of these events appears in the Gleanings
largely from the manuscripts of the 16th century Exeter historian John Hooker note1
So sudden and unexpected was the appearance of the rebel hosts, that the city was
before the news of the
rising could be spread abroad in the country districts, so that men had to be let down with
ropes from the walls to summon the followers of the gentry to their assistance; but the
Earl of Devon, the Courtenays, Croker and Fulford hurried up in hot haste and had already,
by some means, gained entrance to the city without waiting for their tenantry. note2
Unprepared, with but scanty means of defence, without soldiers and with nothing to rely on
but their own strong arms and resolute hearts, the faithful citizens refused all the
overtures of the impostor. They closed their gates, manned the walls, and prepared to
defend their city to the last. Perkin knew that every hour was of consequence to him and
his army, for the Royal forces were on the march, and before long all the country would be
up, so that unless he gained some speedy and substantial advantage his cause was lost. He
decided at once to try to take the city by storm. The first assault was directed upon the
North Gate, which was burned down, and the assailants passed through. The defenders in that
steep and narrow way would have a great advantage over the attacking party, and although
the citizens were few in number they succeeded in routing their opponents, and drove them
back beyond the walls.
Foiled in the first attempt the rebels brought all their strength to bear against the East
Gate, which they broke down, and in great numbers forced their way through. A desperate
hand to hand encounter took place within the gate, and for a time it seemed as though the
stubborn spirit of the defenders would have to yield to the superior numbers of the lusty
Cornishmen, for they had made good their way as far as Castle Street. Earl Devon staying at
the house of the Black Friars, situate where Bedford Circus now is, heard the sounds of
conflict, and with his gallant son, Sir William Courtenay, and such few others as were
about him, ran forth to the fray; passing up Bampfylde street, then known as Raden lane,
the Earl was wounded in the arm by an arrow, but nothing daunted (all the more eagerly,
Hooker says) he pressed forward and fell upon the left flank of the enemy with all the
strength of his little band. For a time the battle was "verie hote and fierie," but at
length, the courage and spirit of the citizens prevailed, the rebels were beaten, and
forced back to their own lines.
No attempt was made to restore the gates. Just within the opening huge bonfires were kept
alive, so that the movements of the enemy might be observed by night, and behind these
stood the surest rampart that could be found, the unyielding bodies of the brave defenders.
Next day a fresh attempt was made upon the North Gate, but by this time guns had been
mounted and brought to bear upon the besiegers; no sooner had fire been opened upon them,
than Perkin saw that his case was hopeless, and gave up the struggle, asking as a favour
that he might be allowed to depart without molestation. With diminished numbers, he reached
Cullompton that same night, and thence proceeded to Taunton, when he found that the
desertions from his standard had become so numerous, that he fled from Taunton on the
following Thursday (21st), and took refuge in the sanctuary of Beaulieu Abbey, in the New
Forest. [Gleanings, p29-30]
Undoubtedly the rebels suffered many more casualties than the better armed defenders,
though the earl's estimate of enemy losses on the first day may be overblown. It does seem
likely that the East Gate was breached: the Receiver's Accounts for 1497 include numerous
entries for the cost of materials and labour incurred for its repair note3. But, having been beaten back and fired on by
artillery for the first time on the second day of the siege, Perkin and his followers
realised the game was up. They were left with no choice but to depart quietly with their
hopes dashed and their morale shattered.
As for the citizens of Exeter and its defenders, this victory was a lasting source of
Early Tudor Exeter was a successful city, entering the most prosperous period of its trade
and industry and reaching its peak in the national ranking of English towns. Its
achievement in September 1497 complemented these other successes. [Orme, p21]
When Perkin's army found out that he had fled most of them dispersed. Meanwhile the king
and his forces were on route from Woodstock to Taunton, arriving on October 4th to be joined
by his chamberlain Lord Daubeney and his militia. Perkin was soon traced to Beaulieu by a
unit of Henry's troops, and the pretender decided to throw himself at the king's mercy. He
was taken to Taunton and accompanied the king as a prisoner on the triumphal march to Exeter
where the monarch was welcomed with jubilation.
In the aftermath of this rebellion Henry VII had decided to come in person to show
gratitude to those who had defended the loyal city, and to supervise the restoration of
order in the West Country. He remained for nearly a month and the city did its very best to
entertain him. He lodged at the house of the cathedral treasurer that used to stand between
the north tower of the cathedral and the street that now runs down to Southernhay.
Perkin's wife Katherine was fetched from St Michael's Mount. The king took a shine to her,
and she was accepted into his court under the wing of the queen and eventually remarried.
While she was in Exeter, Perkin was humiliated by being forced to repeat his confession in
front of her which included these words:
I am not indeed the man I said I was, viz., the son of Edward, nor am I worthy to be of a
lineage so illustrious and exalted. [Gleanings, p39]
Those remaining in the city who had taken part in the rebellion had been rounded up and
were paraded each day in the cathedral close past the king's residence with halters around
their necks (symbolizing the hangman's noose) in a mass plea for the king's mercy. Eight
trees were felled and a large new window was opened for the king to get a good view of the
proceedings. When the appointed day came, the king proclaimed that he would punish the
ring-leaders (by execution) but spare the lives of the majority.
A new window was opened in the Treasurer's house, and the trees felled in front, that the
King might the better view this singular spectacle. This went on day after day until the
proper time having arrived, a few of those present being "chief stirrers and doers" were
set aside, and Henry thus addressed them, the mob being on all sides :- "Oh Cornishmen!
with feelings sad and hurt we lament the injury done to us by your base and malicious
conduct, which we now are about to punish, but unwillingly, as God is our witness. But
since our laws must be obeyed as a terror to the wicked and an example to the good, it is
right that you who showed yourselves openly so willing to do evil and who without any fear
of God or of ourselves, granted helping arms to this most shallow of men - desisting not
even when admonished from us - should suffer the penalty which you deserve. To these others
who forsook our cause partly through ignorance and partly through your wiles, we grant them
their lives." These words having been spoken, the people standing around, with one accord,
set up a loud shout, and again and again thanked the King for his clemency. [Gleanings,
Those spared shouted "God Save the King!" and threw down their halters.
The king had good reason to be satisfied with his stay in the west. He had surmounted in
this year 1497 the very crisis of his reign: henceforth he was secure to rule as he willed.
In recognition of the fidelity of the citizens of Exeter, he presented to them his sword
and his cap
, ordering them to be carried in state before the mayor - as they
It was a characteristic of Henry that while sparing of bloodshed, he should have determined
to make his western subjects pay for their pleasures in rebelling, and turn their
disobedience to his own financial profit. [Rowse, p136]
Commissioners were appointed to impose hefty fines on those wealthy individuals and
boroughs in the West Country that were deemed to have given succour to the rebels in each
of the two risings, if only by giving them hospitality during their onward marches.
Eventually Perkin was taken to London and paraded through the streets before being held at
court from where he escaped but was soon recaptured. He was then made to suffer further
humiliation in the pillory at Westminster before being transferred to the Tower. Perhaps with
some encouragement, he escaped once more, this time in the company of his fellow prisoner the
earl of Warwick, the last of the Plantagenets. This give the king his opportunity to be rid
of them both. They were recaptured and tried for treason before being executed at Tyburn in
the same barbaric manner as Joseph and Flamank were for their role in instigating the first
Cornish rebellion of 1497. The esteemed Cornish historian A L Rowse said of Perkin
The oddity of this phantom's crossing the page of Cornish history for ever remains. [Rowse,
The romantic figure of the youthful and handsome Perkin Warbeck has been celebrated in
several plays and historical novels. Perhaps the best known of these is The Fortunes of
Perkin Warbeck - A Romance by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein.
The author takes Perkin's claim to be Prince Richard, Duke of York, at face value and names
her tragic hero accordingly. Justifiably for a work of fiction, there are some historical
inaccuracies. In this extract the siege of Exeter is extended into a third day and the size
of the rebel army is exaggerated somewhat. The courageous efforts of the rebels are
highlighted in contrast to the chroniclers who lionized the citizens for their valiant
defence of Exeter.
We return to this Prince, whose lofty spirit was sustained by an aim, an object dearer than
a kingdom in his eyes note4
arrived before Exeter at the head of seven thousand men. All the discontented in Cornwall
and Devonshire joined him. Some of these were younger brothers; some men-at-arms who
repined at peace; chiefly they were needy, oppressed men, roused by a sense of wrong, as
destitute, but not so hardy as the kerns
of Ireland. Still they were many, they were
valiant; Exeter was ungarrisoned, unprepared for defence, and there was a possibility that
by sudden assault, he might possess himself of the town. With this intent he did not allow
his troops time to repose, but at once set on for the attack, endeavouring to scale the
lofty walls; unaided by any fitting machinery, scarcely possessed of a single scaling
ladder, he was driven back with loss.
Foiled but not vanquished, for his heart was set upon this prize, for three days, though
unpossessed of artillery or any warlike engine, he exerted his utmost force to win the
city; he contrived rude machinery to cast stones, he planted the ladders himself, he
multiplied himself to appear everywhere, flattering, encouraging, leading his troops again
and again to the assault. When they found the walls impregnable, he made an attempt on the
gates: with fascines and hewed trees he
set one of them on fire; his men shouted as they heard the stout oak crackle, and saw it
split and crumble, offering a large opening; but the citizens, made desperate, fearful of
the ravages this untamed multitude might commit, were true to themselves; they resisted
fire by fire, keeping up a fierce blaze within, till with piles of brick and rubbish they
had blocked the passage. Richard saw his last hope fail, "This is not the work of the
burghers," he cried, "a soldier's skill is here.".
Hooker's fullest account is in his Annals of Exeter for 1497. He was born after
these events so his sources were secondary; the reference to Earl Courtenay being wounded
in the arm by an arrow first appeared in the Chronicles of London written
And vpon the Monday folowyng he and his people made a new assawte vpon the said Citie,
where agayn they wer put of to their more Damage. Albeit that they fired the Gates; at
which said Second assawte the Erle of Devenshire was hurt in the arme with an arowe.
The earl was on the scene early enough to refuse in person Perkin's demand that the city
surrender, perhaps because he had followed the progress of the rebel army towards Exeter:
The earl of Devon seems to have tried to make a stand west of Exeter, but his strength was
insufficient and he fell back upon the city. [Orme, p11]
Unlike in the earlier Flamank and Joseph rebellion, other prominent knights of Devon an
Cornwall loyal to the king came to the defence of the city; Sir William Courtenay, son of
the earl, Sir Thomas Fulford, Sir Piers Edgecombe, Henry's chief Cornish supporter, Sir
Edmond Carew, and Sir John Croker were among the other noblemen joining the fray,
presumably accompanied by their men-at-arms and other attendants.
The expenses for repairs to the East Gate are listed in the Gleanings[3,p31-32].
The description of one item reads:
To the East-gate of the City of Exeter. - For divers expenses and other repairs done by
Henry (Grympston), and renewing that which was destroyed by assault in the rebellion of
Perkin Warbeck and others against our Lord the King.
Clearly Warbeck's overarching aim was to overthrow King Henry VII and be crowned Richard IV
in his place. It's not clear to me why this aim is said by Shelley to be dearer than a
when it would give him a kingdom if realised. [return]
The Cap and the Sword: Exeter and the rebellions of 1497 by Nicholas Orme, Exeter
City Council, 1997.
Tudor Cornwall: Portrait of a Society by A L Rowse, London, 1941.
by Polydore Vergil (1555 version in Latin with English translation edited
by Dana F. Sutton); published online by the Philological Museum of the University of
Birmingham. Chapter XXVI - Henry VII. Vergil's original manuscript was written in 1512-13.
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