In Search of An Gof, part three: The Two An Gofs

Reading time: 25 minutes

Statues of Michael Joseph An Gof and Thomas Flamank, St Keverne, by Terry Coventry. Unveiled 1997

…should have a name perpetual, and a fame permanent and immortal. (From Cornwall – A History, by Philip Payton, Cornwall Editions 2004, p110.)

An Gof plaque, Blackheath Common. From Wikimedia

…needed a smith in Cornwall today, an An Gof to deal with the problems in Cornwall of its railways, its roads, and its mines. (From The Cornish Guardian, October 27, 1966, p1.)

The An Gof and Flamank plaque, St Keverne church. Erected by Mebyon Kernow, 1966. 1966 was the inaugural year of the annual An Gof memorial ceremony

1997 saw a great deal of An Gof and perhaps his apogee as a Cornish martyr. The statue of Michael Joseph and Flamank was unveiled, to mark the 500th anniversary of the rebellion, in St Keverne. There was also a much publicised march from St Keverne to Blackheath, with 30-40 people completing the 360-mile retracing of the Cornish rebels’ steps. This time, though, there was no hurdle to drag these “rebels” to Tyburn, but a genuine sense, or hope, that something had been achieved for Cornish self-determination:

…if as a result of all the publicity and the political will of the county’s MPs Cornwall does have a brighter future, then the efforts of An Gof, Flamank and their followers all those centuries ago will have been worthwhile. (From the West Briton, June 26, 1997, p23.)

Another reporter commented that 

As An Gof, Flamank and their colleagues showed in 1497, a powerful – but peaceful – voice or gesture is sometimes needed to get the people who matter to sit up and take notice. (From the West Briton, May 29, 1997, p23.)

It might be argued that An Gof has become less an historical figure than a symbol, a figure of hope to be conjured up in times of hardship, by Cornish nationalists and those with a vested interest in the independence of Cornwall, to return from a kind of Cornish Valhalla and free his people from the English yoke.

As Payton makes clear, though, even before the rebels left Cornwall, many other leaders had emerged (Cornwall – A History, p107). And, outside of Cornwall, the rebellion is interpreted very differently by historians. Writes Mark Stoyle:

The rebel force lost its exclusively Cornish nature once it had moved into England…for the Cornishmen were quickly joined by a rag-tag band of followers whose motives were as disparate as their geographical origins (“Cornish Rebellions, 1497-1648”, History Today, May 1997, p25).

men of Cornwall…began to get completely out of hand, threatening the authors of this great oppression with death, and daring to seek them out for punishment (from Payton, Cornwall – A History, p108-9).

they are not historically the best of inspirations for present-day challenge to the English Government…(October 27, 1966, p13).

This whole project…glorifies rebellion and all that goes with it. It smacks of self-gratification and is an act of vandalism to our village square. It is sacrilegious to the church and all it represents.

The other An Gof

Giew Mine, Cripplesease, nr Ludgvan, 1986. By John Luxton

The instability inherent in myth, and particularly here the unifying/democratic/peaceful/martyr myth of An Gof, has of course led to his name and reputation being hijacked by those who further destabilise the An Gof beloved of many Cornish nationalists.

Take a look at the above image, a crude piece of graffiti. This is the An Gof which rejects everything the other An Gof is supposed to represent. You might say that, yes, it’s a piece of vandalism – exactly the same charge levelled at the proposed location of the An Gof statue back in 1996.

The An Gof of the graffiti represents extremism, rebellion, violence, destruction and, in the faceless, random manner in which it operates, anarchy. In fact, this myth of An Gof springs from those aspects of the historical Michael Joseph that his eulogisers would rather have us forget – the “traitor”, rather than the “martyr”. It presents an extreme version of Cornish nationalism totally at odds with those of the democratic political parties in Cornwall. And if, as we have seen, An Gof is the champion of many democratic Cornish nationalists, any stain on his reputation, and therefore on the cause of Cornish nationalism, must be rebutted.

It happened in 1980: the alleged bombing of St Austell courthouse by a man using his name was a “slur on An Gof”, said the Mebyon Kernow chairman (West Briton, December 11, 1980, p1).

It happened in 1981, when the same party condemned An Gof’s claim that it had burned down a hair salon: they “are anti-Cornish vandals, not nationalists” (West Briton, January 15, 1981, p2).

And again in 1984: Mebyon Kernow and the Cornish Nationalist Party both stated they were helping the police in their efforts to stamp out the “idiot” An Gof movement (West Briton, February 23, 1984, p1).

Thanks for reading

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