Cornish National Anthem

Cornish National Anthem

In the recent film ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ there is a scene where the group were asked to sing the National Anthem live on a morning TV programme. However, the anthem they sung was not the one what was expected but the Cornish anthem Trelawny.

And shall Trelawny live?

Or shall Trelawny die?

Here’s twenty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why!

But are there still 20,000 Cornishmen who even know who Trelawny was and why he might die?

Jonathan Trelawny (1650 – 1721) was born at Trelawne in the Cornish parish of Pelynt, educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford and ordained in 1673. He was a staunch royalist and in 1685, with his brother, Major General Charles Trelawny, he helped to put down the rebellion in the west led by the Duke of Monmouth, who wanted to overthrow the Catholic King James II. In gratitude for his services the king knighted him and appointed him Bishop of Bristol.

Charles II had adopted a pragmatic policy towards Catholics but his successor James challenged the Church of England with two Declarations of Indulgence towards Catholics, the second in 1688, was decreed to be read out in every church. Seven bishops, including Trelawny, petitioned the King saying that although they were loyal to the King they could not agree to allow Catholics freedom of worship even within the privacy of their homes.  

The seven were charged with seditious libel and imprisoned in the Tower of London for three weeks before being tried and acquitted. This led to great celebrations in London and elsewhere, with bells being rung in his home parish of Pelynt. 

In recompense King James offered Trelawny the bishopric of Exeter but this did not stop Trelawny welcoming the Duke of Orange who, on becoming King William III confirmed the appointment.  In 1707 Trelawny became the Bishop of Winchester and died in 1721, in Chelsea;his body being brought back for burial in Pelynt. 

But why was his stand against King James cause for celebration and remembered in a song that has become the Cornish ‘National’ Anthem?

The Cornish had been loyal to the Crown during the Civil War with many dying for the Royalist cause. There probably were not 20,000 men left in Cornwall capable of fighting for Trelawny had there been another call to arms. 

The Cornish had previously risen in revolt in 1549 over the introduction of the prayer book in English – a foreign language! They liked their Latin liturgy and saw no reason to change – a change being imposed from far away London.  

In 1479 the Cornish had also risen up against the raising of taxes by Henry VII to pay for his war with Scotland that overturned their rights granted by Edward I to the Cornish Stannary Parliament. This revolt was known as Rebellyans Kernow or An Gof Rebellion.

Like the Prayer Book Rebellion it too was put down by force but the Trelawny incident was resolved without bloodshed so perhaps that is why it is still remembered in song. 

When Trelawny was imprisoned in the Tower, did the Cornish really ask “the reason why” or perhaps these words are an echo of a much older popular ballad, possibly from the time of the An Gof Rebellion of 1497.

In the nineteenth century, the poet R.S. Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, published anonymously The Song of the Western Men, based on the Trelawny incident. The poem was later set to music and Trelawny, as it is now known, has since become the Cornish national anthem.

To learn more about the An Gof Rebellion and to join in with Cornish songs such as Trelawny be sure to get a ticket to the 2019 LitFest’s Saturday night’s event – 06 July at the Acorn – tickets on sale soon.

With a good sword and a trusty shield
A faithful heart and true
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish men can do
And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why.

And shall Trelawny live?
Or shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

Out spake the captain brave and bold
A merry wight was he
If London’s Tower were Michael’s hold
We’ll set Trelawny free
We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land
The Severn is no stay
Then “One and All” and hand in hand
And who shall bid us nay.

And when we came to London wall
A pleasant sight to view
Come forth, come forth, ye cowards all
Here are better men than you
Trelawny, he’s in keep in hold
Trelawny he may die
But twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why.