Reading time: 25 minutes
Michael Joseph An Gof, beetle-browed, muscled, intent, one leg flexed defiantly upon the symbol of his profession. His left arm raised aloft, either in a form of greeting, salute, or of beckoning: gather here. Beside him, with his hand upon Michael Joseph’s shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie, is Thomas Flamank. Less developed physically than his vigorous companion, Flamank nevertheless carries an air of authority in his clothing and the scroll he carries: he is a lawyer, a literate man, an individual of substance.
All this is evident to us, as viewers. What we are also supposed to see, or sense, is the myth of An Gof and Flamank in their statues. As Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies: “the reader lives the myth as a story at once true and unreal”, myths correspond to “the interests of a definite society” (Vintage, 2009, p153). What are we, as readers/viewers, supposed to make of the myth inherent in the statues of Michael Joseph and Thomas Flamank, and , furthermore, in whose interest has this myth been created?
In short, we are meant to appreciate that, in Michael Joseph and Thomas Flamank, are the first flowerings of Cornish nationalism and independence, a nationalism and independence that continues to this day. This Cornish self-determination is defined against a government that cares little or nothing for the people of Cornwall: in 1497, it was opposition to the taxes of Henry VII to fund war with Scotland; nowadays it is defined, by one commentator at least, as an objection to the Tory administration seeing Cornwall as little more than a “playground” for the wealthy. This sense of nationalism and independence, however, is presented to us in a peaceful, democratic form. Joseph, the blacksmith, and Flamank, the lawyer, cross boundaries of class in a stand of equality, united against English interests. Neither are armed; indeed, Joseph isn’t even brandishing that other symbol of his trade – a hammer. The only “weapon” on view is the scroll in Flamank’s hand, representing the petition objecting to the taxes that he and An Gof, at the head of the force who marched to London in 1497, were to present to the King.
We are supposed to recall their desire to “right a lot of wrongs” for the Cornish people, not just in 1497, but for all time, as is made clear when a speaker at the An Gof Ceremony of 2020 invokes Michael Joseph’s supposed last words, made shortly before his and Flamank’s execution. He
…should have a name perpetual, and a fame permanent and immortal. (From Cornwall – A History, by Philip Payton, Cornwall Editions 2004, p110.)
The keepers of this myth of An Gof and Flamank are, obviously, Cornwall’s various nationalist groups. For example, the plaque at Blackheath Common remembering the Cornish army’s billeting there in 1497 prior to the battle of Deptford Bridge, is sponsored by the Cornish Gorsedd.
Another plaque, erected for Flamank and Joseph in 1966 at St Keverne church, was endorsed by Mebyon Kernow. Referencing this recently unveiled plaque and taking the theme of Cornish self-help, the Chairman of Cornwall Council, Alderman K. G. Foster, said in a speech that the Cornish
…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 spirit of An Gof was, as we saw in my previous post, also invoked in 1990 by the Celtic League. To object to paying the unpopular Poll Tax of the time was something that Michael Joseph would have favoured, and, therefore, something for the Cornish to unite themselves behind.
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 was even argued that “another An Gof march” was needed regarding the travails of the Cornwall Development Agency (West Briton, July 31, 1997, p32).
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.
The difficulty inherent with myths, however, is that they are unstable. Remarks Barthes in Mythologies again: every object can be “open to appropriation”, for “there is no law…which forbids talking about things” (p132-3). One of the difficulties with the myth of An Gof is that, although the 1497 rebellion originated in St Keverne and acquired legal polish when Flamank joined its ranks in Bodmin, the man the rebels eventually named as their commander (or at the very least, military commander) was James Tuchet, 7th Baron of Audley, a noble “malcontent” from Somerset, writes Philip Payton in Cornwall – A History (p108). Like Michael Joseph and Flamank, he was executed after the Battle of Deptford Bridge, but is seldom if ever recalled as the leader. An Gof, on the other hand, is recalled by Cornwall Forever! as the man who “led an army to London”; he, along with Flamank, “emerged as leaders”, so much so that the rebellion of 1497 is “usually known as” the An Gof rebellion, according to Penwith Local History.
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).
Not once in Stoyle’s article does he mention Cornwall’s most famous rebel. In fact the above quote leads us to ask another question: just how democratic and peaceful was the nature of the original march on London? After all, it ended up with a pitched battle being fought, the rebels were definitely armed with cannon, and a detachment of Cornish archers initially put the Royal army to flight. Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian (so hardly neutral), has it that the
…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).
More recently, and closer to home, the issue of the suitability of An Gof as a proto-democratic symbol and martyr has been raised. In 1966, commenting on the Mebyon Kernow-endorsed plaque to Joseph and Flamank recently erected in St Keverne, the West Briton remarked that, as the rebellions of 1497 (yes, there were two) were largely “abortive”,
…they are not historically the best of inspirations for present-day challenge to the English Government…(October 27, 1966, p13).
Even the proposed erecting of the statues of Michael Joseph and Flamank in the 1990s generated controversy. “An Gof statue divides village” screamed page 6 of the West Briton of May 30, 1996. After a stormy public meeting, Cornwall Council announced it would be objecting to proposed plans to erect the statues in St Keverne village square, outside the church. Due to “public opinion”, an alternative site would be sought. Although An Gof supporters stated that he was “a man who has been revered in Cornwall for 500 years”, a man “who laid down his life for St Keverne”, who “attempted to do something for the suffering of his people”, the naysayers held sway. They claimed the idea of the statue was “politically motivated”, with its possible proximity to St Keverne’s war memorial “offensive to those who served the crown”. An Gof was a rebel, and executed as a traitor, after all:
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 nimbys’ victory was pyrrhic, of course. The statue of Michael Joseph and Flamank was finally erected on the side of the main road into St Keverne. A spokesman for the Trust that had commissioned the work was pleased with the result, and stressed that the villagers were “enthusiastic”, even those originally against it. He also took pains to point out that his organisation was “non-political”. Even so, at the traditional An Gof and Flamank remembrance service that year, a wreath was laid at the foot of the statue, with the proceedings being conducted by a member of Mebyon Kernow. An Gof and his myth were being appropriated once more. (From the West Briton, June 19, 1997, p6.)
The other An Gof
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).
Maybe it even happened on a much lesser scale in 2021, when my Facebook post asking for any information on An Gof with a view to writing about it was called a “deliberate” smear on pro-Cornish interests.
Another response to my request was from a prominent member of Mebyon Kernow: “only the first was a real event”. I took this to mean that only the 1980 bombing actually happened, and was the only event undeniably the work of An Gof. The other events on my list either didn’t happen (and weren’t worth bothering with), or were the work of copycat hoaxers using the An Gof name as cover. But this is precisely the point: of course all the other events covered in this study were imitations. In 1980, a person or persons unknown decided that one symbol of Cornish independence – Stannary Parliament – had failed to gain recognition for Cornish rights. They decided to commandeer for themselves another, more hostile symbol – An Gof – and resort to open violence and lawbreaking to achieve their ends. Quite simply, this An Gof concluded that democracy, or government, had failed. The next step for them was to attempt to overthrow the government, or at least make the gesture.
What happened was a complete inversion of the concept of Holyer An Gof, or Follower of The Smith, which was of course the bardic name of Len Truran, a key figure in democratic Cornish nationalism. (The Cornish Gorsedd honour Holyer An Gof as the title of one of their awards.) All the An Gofs that followed “An Gof 1980” took the first’s lead, for better or worse: the communication to local newspapers, the scare tactics, the arson and vandalism (or claims to such), the vague but emphatic statements of intent (which, my contact Kirsty said, amounted to little more than “English – out”), but above all, the name. To associate the name An Gof with such activities was to denigrate the cause of democratic Cornish nationalism, to equate, in some eyes, as Kirsty observed, Cornish nationalists with such groups as the IRA or the ETA. For example the Guardian in 2007 reported that Mebyon Kernow had spurned “bingo-hall arson for the ballot box”, a clear collation of an An Gof-related event (they falsely claimed to have burnt down a Redruth bingo-hall) with a democratic political party, which is as unfair as it is misleading. Kirsty reckoned a “credible political party” is needed for Cornwall, but how can any pro-Cornish democratic movement be taken seriously when there’s the danger of it being tarnished by a spurious association with An Gof?
Read the final post in this series here: Conclusion: An Gof Today?
Thanks for reading