The patriotic song, Trelawny, has become the national anthem of Cornwall, sung at Cornish rugby union matches and other gatherings, such as Murdoch Day and St Piran’s Day celebrations. The first verse and chorus are taught in some local schools and it has become famous after being sung in the recent film, Fisherman’s Friends.
Rousing lyrics tell the historic tale of how the Cornish bishop, Jonathan Trelawny, was imprisoned by Parliament in 1688, during a time of great political unrest. The song referred to the support he had from fellow Royalists in his native Cornwall.
They were urged to march on the Tower of London, where Trelawny was imprisoned, to release him. The true story behind the song Trelawny is a fascinating one, dating back to the time of the English Civil War.
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From knighthood to jail
Born in 1650 at Trelawne, in the parish of Pelynt, Trelawny was ordained in 1673 and was a staunch Royalist. The Cornish were loyal to the Crown throughout the war, which had begun in 1642. Many had died in battle for the Royalist cause.
Trelawny and his brother, Charles, a major in the army, had quelled the rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth. King James II knighted Trelawny in gratitude for suppressing the uprising and appointed him the Bishop of Bristol.
However, Trelawny had a difference of opinion with the king in 1688: the Church of England decreed a Declaration of Indulgence towards Catholics was to be read out in all churches, and Trelawny was one of seven bishops who objected to this.
They told the king that although they were loyal to him, they couldn’t agree to allow Catholics the freedom to worship. All seven bishops were charged with seditious libel and sent to jail in the Tower of London. The move led to fury in Cornwall.
Military uprising threat
The men who had been loyal to King James and the Crown were outraged that a son of Cornwall should be imprisoned in this way and it looked likely that there would be a call to arms. However, when Trelawny went to trial, he was acquitted and there were mass celebrations from Cornwall to London.
By way of recompense, King James backed down and made Trelawny the Bishop of Exeter to try and regain his allegiance. It was an uneasy alliance after Trelawny’s arrest – and when James was deposed in the revolution of 1688, the bishop declared his allegiance to his successor, the Duke of Orange, who became William III of England.
The exact origins of the song Trelawny (also known as The Song of the Western Men) are largely unknown. It was believed to have started out as a poem or ballad, which was rewritten and set to music in 1824 by Robert Stephen Hawker.
The song begins with the veiled threat that the Cornish men would rebel against King James if he didn’t release Trelawny from the Tower of London. The first verse opens: “With a good sword and a trusty shield, a faithful heart and true, King James’s men shall understand what Cornish men can do.”
The lyrics suggested thousands of men would join the uprising, depending on the King’s decision on Trelawny’s fate. The chorus asks: “Shall Trelawny live, or shall Trelawny die? Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men will know the reason why!”
Historians have suggested that so many Cornish men had died in the Civil War fighting for the Crown that they would have struggled to amass an army of 20,000 men if there had been another call to arms. Despite being willing to join any uprising against the king’s treatment of the bishops, this may have proved difficult.
Thousands of military men had been killed in the Civil War, leaving the armed forces sadly depleted afterwards. However, this didn’t affect their spirit and the second verse of the song declared, “We’ll set Trelawny free!”
Anticipating their arrival at the Tower of London, the song describes what they would say to the guards keeping the Cornishman prisoner: “Come forth, come forth, ye cowards all, here are better men than you!”
The incident was written about and turned into a song because it showed the indomitable Cornish spirit. Cornish folk were prepared to go into battle for their beliefs, despite their dwindling numbers.
Based on an old poem or ballad dating from the time of the civil unrest in the 17th century, the lyrics were updated and set to music by Hawker, an Anglican priest and poet. He was born in the clergy house of Charles Church in Plymouth and was reputedly an eccentric in adulthood.
Despite winning the Newdigate Prize for poetry, Hawker was not well-known, until Charles Dickens publicly recognised his talent in writing The Song of the Western Men. The lyrics were first published in September 1826 in The Royal Devonport Telegraph and Plymouth Chronicle.
The song became the official anthem of Cornwall in 1881, at the laying of the foundation stone of the Cathedral at Truro. Performing the ceremony, Canon Clement Harvey, the Rector of Truro, described the song as “the national anthem of our dear Cornwall”.
It came to prominence thanks to the 2019 film, Fisherman’s Friends – the biographical comedy drama based on a true story. It told the tale of a group of fishermen from Port Isaac, who formed a band called Fisherman’s Friends in 1995.
They entertained the local community, singing traditional sea shanties at live gigs around Port Talbot. Then, a London music executive went to Port Talbot on a stag weekend in 2010 and saw the Fisherman’s Friends playing live. He recognised their commercial value, and to their amazement, they were offered a £1 million record deal by Universal Music.
In the film, the band was asked to sing the national anthem on breakfast TV, but instead, they sang the Cornish anthem, Trelawny. The song has become very important to Cornish people today and is recognised as Cornwall’s national anthem.
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