And Shall Trelawny Die? Hopefully…

OK, it’s that time of year again. That time when good Cornish men and women full of hope and passion dust off their black and gold rugby jerseys, pick up the black and white flags from wherever they got dumped after St Piran’s Day on March 5th, check the calendar to make sure that nothing’s been planned that might interfere with the long trip to Twickenham, and descend upon Redruth and Camborne to cheer on fifteen strong Cornish lads in their efforts to smash up the English opposition.

Oh yes, and sing a song lauding efforts to support a fanatical zealot, hoping to lift his imprisonment for attempting to continue to squash religious minorities.

That’s right Bishop (and Sir) Jonathan Trelawny: I’m looking at you.

Ask most Cornish people to name a famous Cornish person, and you can be sure that Trelawny will be one of the first names that is mentioned. Sometimes the only name. Or sometimes he is mentioned somewhere between Richard Trevithick and Philip Schofield, although he has far less in common with pioneering steam locomotion and far more with being locked up in a broom cupboard with small furry squeaky rodents.

The unofficial Cornish national anthem, “Trelawny” – or to give it it’s real name “The Song of the Western Men” – is what gives Trelawny the massive PR boost needed to rise above the centuries of Cornish also-rans. Here, according to the song, is a man so wonderful he’s worth 20,000 brave Cornish souls marching 300 miles for to go and rescue.

Only they didn’t.

After Trelawny and six other bishops, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, stood up to King James II over his Declaration of Indulgence and were sent to the Tower of London for seditious libel, they were released after a week once their trial found them not guilty. Job done. No need to march.

So what’s this Declaration of Indulgence thingy that Trelawny is famous for standing up against (albeit not on his own)? Must have been really evil for us to still sing songs about him, right?


The Declaration of Indulgence which Trelawny stood against was a royal proclamation which lifted penal laws forcing compliance to the Church of England, allowing greater religious freedoms in England, Scotland and Ireland.

This was important to James II as a Catholic who was looking to forge stronger ties with France and elevate more Catholics (who only made up 2% of the English population at this time), but clearly anaethema to Anglican bishops keen to protect their power from an increasingly emboldened absolutist monarch.

In the context of the time the stand that Trelawny took is more understandable. Europe had been constantly racked by religious wars, purges and other horrors and, having now secured England as a land with a dominant, stable majority religion, few in the Church or Parliment wanted that position usurped by a Catholic monarch.

Trelawny was another powerful person protecting vested interests. Not exactly the kind of cause that finds itself a popular rallying point for today’s common man.

Judging by modern standards Trelawny was a man who stood against religious tolerance; against a decree allowing people to worship as they liked and where they liked. “Trelawny” is hence essentially a sectarian song, celebrating a Protestant stand against Catholics, in a time when sectarian chanting at sporting events can land clubs in very hot water indeed.

As for Trelawny’s legacy? His actions were just a tiny part in the downward spiral of James’s II three-year reign towards William of Orange’s Dutch coup d’etat of England in 1688, the last time the country was successfully invaded… although it was spun by both the English and Dutch 17th century PR merchants as the “Glorious Revolution” rather than an invasion.

Whilst five of his seven comrades against the Declaration of Indulgence stood against William’s coronation too – and the religious reforms that he brought with him instead, albeit it not for Catholics – Trelawny threw his lot wholly in with the new king and was twice rewarded with increasingly powerful bishoprics. Choosing which religious reformist king to stand up to and which to go along with clearly brought dividends…

Ultimately, if a film was made about the period, Trelawny’s place in the end credits would probably be somewhere between “Dejected Whig No. 3” and “French Ambassador’s Courier”.

So where are the real Cornish heroes and heroines? The ones worthy of immortalising in song and stone? No, I don’t mean Merlin having his head carved into the rock at Tintagel, I mean REAL Cornish people who made a REAL difference on the world stage.

I intend to find some of them on this blog, share some of their accomplishments with you, and hopefully by the end of it Trelawny might be a distant memory… or at least when we sing “Song of the Western Men” we’ll know to sing “Here’s twenty-thousand Cornish men” with a lot more noise and passion than the proceeding part of the chorus.

“Song of the Western Men” Lyrics

A good sword and a trusty hand!
A merry heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads 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 their Captain brave and bold:
A merry wight was he:
Though London Tower were Michael’s hold,
We’ll set Trelawny free!
‘We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land:
The Severn is no stay:
With “one and all,” and hand in hand;
And who shall bid us nay?

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

And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here’s men as good as you.
‘Trelawny he’s in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why

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