In medieval Europe, taxes raised by kings were seen as something exceptional, and even borderline criminal. Usually, new taxes could be levied only with the consent of super majorities in the many assemblies representing different areas of a kingdom. Representation was not, of course, of the modern kind, as these assemblies were not the result of elections nor the embodiment of popular sovereignty. Even when assemblies were no more than meetings of local noblemen, they took sincerely and gravely their duty to represent the commoners, not because they considered them equal to themselves, but precisely because they did not. In other words, as Susan Reynolds has convincingly shown, the fact that medieval people had a different conception of representation from the one that we take for granted today does not mean that they did not have legitimate and genuine representation at all. Such chronological snobbery and modernist attitudes should be abandoned by any serious student of the past. So effective were the medieval institutions representing subjects and communities that they often limited the power of the state and prevented the formation of standing armies and standing navies, even in areas where military assets and skills were among the best in the entire continent. For centuries, the aristocracy in Genoa refused to let the republic monopolise violence. And for centuries, in the composite Crown of Aragon, local cortes (courts) and figures such as the disputats prevented the arbitrary raising of royal taxes.
For England, the 1215 Magna Carta is the most famous example of how rights claims were effectively made and resulted in constitutional arrangements that, although based on hierarchy rather than equality, guaranteed liberties to each part of the kingdom, thereby limiting royal powers. Yet the Magna Carta could also be deceiving. Besides the Magna Carta’s exceptional context and comprehensiveness, medieval communities limited the power of the crown on a more regular basis with an intricate network of local parliaments, urban privileges, plural jurisdictions, less famous charters of rights, and more generally with the daily self-governance of villages and manors. This medieval tradition of liberties (rather than abstract liberty) was for a long time an effective obstacle to political centralization and militarization. To make a long story short, the king had two options if he wished to raise an army: pay for it with revenues from his family lands or call the representatives of his kingdom(s) to ask them to agree to pay new taxes. In medieval France, even after the king had received such permission, taxation was looked at with suspicion, to the point that most churchmen and lawyers believed that it was a duty of the king to cancel in his will the exceptional taxes that he had raised during his reign, and in some cases even to return the funds that had not been spent. Incredibly to modern ears, some French kings such as Philip VI of Valois obliged.
This historical background is pivotal if we wish to appreciate the reasons animating the many rebellions that punctuate the history of late medieval Europe. As states in various areas of the continent embarked (at different times and in different ways) on a process of centralization and territorialization from the fourteenth century, communities very often took up arms against forms of taxation that were deemed illegitimate, unheard of, and unacceptable. Here, I will sketch the history of one of the lesser known of such uprisings: the Cornish rebellion of 1497. The advantage of looking at this rebellion, rather than the more famous 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in the same kingdom, is that national taxation was here undeniably the cause of the events.
In 1485, after putting an end to the dynastic conflict known as the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII became the first Tudor king of England. Securing a peaceful succession for his son Arthur was surely among the main objectives of Henry’s reign, at least at the beginning. But the will to expand royal prerogatives and to increase his personal and dynastic prestige through warfare soon brought the first Tudor monarch to test the limits of the kingdom’s customary law and the crown’s powers concerning taxation. According to Anthony Fletcher and Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The first Tudor, his formative years spent in Brittany and France, was unfamiliar with the careful compromises and structures of consent on which English government rested.” “Unfamiliar,” or rather impatient. As early as 1489, Henry had levied taxes to fund his military adventure on the Continent, where he wished to support Brittany against the French crown. This levy had caused vociferous popular protests in the North, and even a rebellion during which the Earl of Northumberland (the noble charged with the collection of the subsidy in Yorkshire) was assassinated. Only when the king sent a large army north did the protesters disperse.
In 1497 Henry VII once again demanded a subsidy to pay for an army with which he hoped to invade Scotland. This time, resistance came from Cornwall, the breathtakingly beautiful but relatively poor and isolated region of the Southwest that had retained a significant degree of autonomy from the crown throughout the medieval period. Since 1201, the Cornish communities had also been granted a peculiar charter of liberties by King John, who gave them the right to mine tin independent of the authority of the high sheriff of Devon. Moreover, tin miners were given the status of freemen, beyond the jurisdiction of the lords of their manors. In 1305, this charter was confirmed and expanded by Edward I with the creation of the Cornish Stannary Parliament, which was very different from a modern elected body in regular session. The Stannary Parliament was rather a group of twenty-four men representing the tin miners of Cornwall, legislating matters affecting tin mining and guarantying that tin miners would be exempted from taxes and dues. The Stannary Parliament also offered an independent jurisdiction to miners, who could appeal to their own stannary courts concerning all causes except those involving treason, land, or violent crimes. In other words, the charters granted to Cornwall were a typical embodiment of the principles of composite government, polycentric politics, and plurality of jurisdictions characterising Latin Christendom.
But Henry showed himself unwilling to respect the traditional freedoms of his Cornish subjects. In 1496 he decided to impose new rules on the local tin mining industry without seeking approval from the Stannary Parliament. The king even suspended the local parliament, and on the following year he instructed four local tax farmers to gather a large subsidy for his war with the Scots. Surely, the king had the right (and, more importantly, the duty) to defend the kingdom. Yet although a true emergency could justify the raising of exceptional taxes at the national level, skirmishes along the Scottish border were clearly not an emergency for southern England. More importantly, to the Cornish people Henry’s general attitude and increasingly regular demands were concerning. Michael Joseph, a tin miner from St. Keverne, and Thomas Flamank, a gentleman from Bodmin who was trained in the law, voiced their discontent and invited their Cornish countrymen to organize an armed expedition to London to complain directly to the king and let him know that what his advisers were suggesting was contrary to customary practice, Cornish charters, and justice. It is indeed fascinating to note how from the very start the 1497 Cornish rebellion involved all sectors of late medieval society, from miners and peasants to clergymen and gentlemen. And when they reached Wells, the Cornish rebels were able to convince even a disaffected nobleman, John Touchet Baron Audley, to join their leadership. The anger at a national subsidy that with the first Tudor was becoming the norm rather than an exception was uniting men not only from different social groups, but from different regions of the kingdom, as witnessed by the many fines imposed far from Cornwall in the aftermath of the events.
From Cornwall and Somerset the Cornish rebels marched through southern England unopposed. First, they headed for Kent, where they unsuccessfully tried to get more military support, before turning towards London. On June 17, 1497, at the Battle of Deptford Bridge, the Cornish forces met with the royal army, which had been prepared to engage the Scots but had delayed its voyage north precisely to deal with this internal threat. Notwithstanding the skills of its archers, the Cornish army, lacking cavalry and thinned by desertions, was outmanoeuvred by the English forces. When the royal posse of knights ripped through the Cornish infantry, the battle was over. The three leaders of the rebellion were all captured and sentenced to death, and their heads were displayed on London Bridge. A few months later, Cornwall would again rise against Henry. This time the main factor in the rebellion would be the arrival of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne, but, even so, it is hard to imagine that the issue of taxation and the expropriations ordered by Henry as punishment for the Cornish march were not in the minds of many. At any rate, the first rebellion of 1497 remains more representative than the second one, which was even less successful.
In conclusion, the 1497 Cornish march across southern England is a forgotten episode in the long history of resistance that different regions of Europe tried to put up against late medieval and early modern processes of state centralization and territorialization. The Cornish defeat symbolises the broader defeat of that decentralized and jurisdictionally plural governance characterizing the political life of Latin Christendom that has recently been discussed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Yet this story remains interesting for at least a couple of reasons: it opens a window precisely on the conception of representation and rights in medieval Europe—a conception very different from ours, and yet hardly unsophisticated or ineffective. The Cornish rebels also remind us of the long history of armed resistance to taxation without representation in Western civilization—a history that stretches back to the medieval period.