The Cornish rebellions of 1497

The two rebellions that threatened the walled city of Exeter

The walled city of Exeter

The walled city of Exeter in 1563

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 night.

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.

A tower in Athelstan's defensive wall around Exeter

The first Cornish rebellion of 1497

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 Peasants' 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, p149]

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 an 15,000.

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.

Statue of Michael Joseph and Thomas Flamank in St Keverne

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.

Perkin Warbeck's 1497 rising

The Cornish Rising was Perkin Warbeck's opportunity. [Rowse, p128]

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.

Pekin Warbeck

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]
The assault on Exeter
North Gate, Exeter

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 hurt.
[Ellis, p36]
Chroniclers give more details

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 chroniclers' narratives:

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[3], derived 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 invested 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.
East Gate, Exeter
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 civic pride.

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]
Perkin is captured and taken to Exeter

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]
The king shows clemency

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.
north side of Exeter Cathedral
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, p38]

Those spared shouted "God Save the King!" and threw down their halters.

Rewards and penalties
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 of maintenance, ordering them to be carried in state before the mayor - as they still are.
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.

Tyburn beckons

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 Warbeck:

The oddity of this phantom's crossing the page of Cornish history for ever remains. [Rowse, p135]

Postscript: Perkin Warbeck in literature

1830 edition of Shelley's Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck

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. He 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 contemporaneously:
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. [Kingsford, p217]
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 kingdom 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.
Anglica Historia 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.
Bacon's history of the reign of King Henry VII by Francis Bacon, with notes by Rev. J Rawson Lumby, Cambridge U.P., 1885.
The ancient history and description of the city of Exeter by John Hooker. This book was compiled from the works of Hooker, Richard and Samuel Izacke, and others, and was published in Exeter during 1765.
Chronicles of London edited by C L Kingsford, Oxford, 1905;
Original Letters illustrative of English History with notes and illustrations by Henry Ellis Vol I, London, 1825.
The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Vol III, London, 1830.


The engravings of Exeter gates, wall, and cathedral are reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service Etched on Devon's Memory series which is licensed under this Creative Commons License.