The Battle of Cornwall

Carlos de Amésquita, the Basque Naval Hero who twisted England’s Tail at the ‘Battle of Cornwall’

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By the early 1590’s, the war* between Spain and England had settled into an uneasy stalemate.

* The purpose of the 1585 – 1604 Spanish war against England was to restore the Catholic faith in England. Only 46 years before the Mount’s Bay raid and the ‘Battle of Cornwall’, the Cornish, and many people in Devon, had risen in rebellion against the English government’s enforced replacement by a Protestant service in English of their traditional Catholic Mass and church customs. This rebellion, known as the Prayer Book Rebellion, was very nearly successful. The leaders of the English government forces who put down this rebellion were Lord Russell, and Sir Peter Carew and his Uncle Sir Gawen Carew. Afterwards all three were rewarded with huge grants of land in Cornwall and Devon by a grateful English protestant government inner-circle, lands which had just been confiscated from the Monastries and from those who had sided with the rebels. Sir Peter Carew received all John Winslade’s estates in Cornwall and Devon, and Sir Gawen Carew received all Humphry Arundell’s lands (Arundell had been one of the biggest landowners in Cornwall after the Duke of Cornwall).

However, this stalemate culminated in an amphibious operation by the Spanish at Mount’s Bay in Celtic-Cornwall (located in the far south-west of England) during July-August 1595 ... this amphibious ‘commando’ raid became known as the ‘Battle of Cornwall’.

Control of local defence efforts in the County of Cornwall lay in the hands of the Deputy Lieutenants** of Cornwall, Sir William Mohun and Sir Francis Godolphin. In 1588, at any rate in theory, Cornwall had claimed to be able to furnish for its own defence 5,560 men; including 1,395 shot, 633 corselets, 1,956 bills and halberds, 1,528 bows, 4 lances, and 96 light-horse, and the totals were probably roughly similar seven years later.

** In Britain, a Deputy Lieutenant is one of several deputies to the Lord Lieutenant of a County. (The title Lord Lieutenant is given to the British monarch’s personal representatives in the Great Britain, usually in a county or similar circumscription, with varying tasks throughout history. Usually a retired local notable, senior military officer, lord or business person is given the post honorarily.)

Sir Francis Godolphin

Sir Francis was one of the leading citizens of Cornwall, described as one “whose zeal in religion, uprightness in justice, providence in government, and plentiful housekeeping, have won him a very great and reverent reputation in his country”. (The Survey of Cornwall, 1602, quoted in Burke’s Extinct Peerage). Sir Francis represented Cornwall in the Parliament of 1588-9 and Lostwithiel in that of 1593; he was also twice High Sheriff of Cornwall (1580 and 1604), Custos rotulorum* for a number of years, and Vice-Warden of the Stannaries** from 1584 to 1603. He married Margaret Killigrew, daughter of Sir John Killigrew of Arwennack and accused pirate Elizabeth Trewinnard; and two of his sons, Sir William (his heir) and Sir Francis, followed him in becoming Members of Parliament.

* Custos rotulorum: keeper of an English county’s records and, by virtue of that office, the highest civil officer in the county

** Stannary: region containing tin works

This Spanish amphibious expedition to England was entrusted to Carlos de Amésquita, a Basque*** officer in the Spanish navy during their 1585 – 1604 war with England. He commanded 3 companies of ‘arquebusier’ riflemen (about 400 men in total) and four galleys**** (Capitana’, ‘Patrona’, ‘Peregrina’, and ‘Bazana’). He sailed from Port Louis, Brittany, on 26 July. After calling at Penmarch (a port-town in the Finistère department of Brittany in north-western France), he sank a French barque manned by an English crew and with a cargo bound for England. Carlos de Amésquita landed at Mount’s Bay in Celtic-Cornwall on 2 August. The English militias, which formed the cornerstone of their anti-invasion measures and numbered several thousand men, threw down their arms and fled in panic. Only Francis Godolphin, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall and commander of the militias along with 12 of his soldiers stood to offer some kind of resistance. In two days the Spanish took all they needed and burned the villages of Mousehole, Paul, Newlyn, and Penzance, as well as taking the cannon from forts in the area and re-mounting them on the galleys. The port-town of Penzance had also been bombarded by the Spanish galleys and three English ships were sunk.

*** The ‘Basques’ as an ethnic group, primarily inhabit an area traditionally known as the ‘Basque Country’, a region that is located around the western end of the Pyrénées mountains on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and straddles parts of north-central Spain and south-western France. They are a remnant of the early inhabitants of Western Europe; Basque tribes were already mentioned in Roman times. The Irish and the Welsh are genetic blood-brothers of the Basque people, according to a study published recently. The findings provide the first direct evidence of a close relationship between the people thought of as Celts and the Basques. The Basques are thought to be the closest descendants of the Palaeolithic people who established the first settlements in Britain more than 10,000 years ago. The Celts and the Basques are two different cultures, each with distinct languages. But genetically, they are related. Haplogroup R1b1a2 is found in both groups. The frequency is about 70% in Spain and 60% in France. In south-eastern England the frequency is about 70% in parts of the rest of north and western England, Spain, Portugal, Wales and Ireland, it is as high as 90%; and in parts of north-western Ireland it reaches 98%.

**** Spanish galleys were able to be propelled by oarsmen, and also had masts and sails for use when the winds were favourable.

At the end of this Spanish campaign a traditional Catholic mass was held on Protestant-England’s soil and, on re-embarking soon afterwards on 4 August, Carlos de Amésquita promised to build a church on the site once England had been defeated. He then sank an English naval vessel that was shadowing them and evaded an English fleet sent against them under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins. On 5 August Amézquita met a Dutch squadron of 46 ships, sinking two of the Dutch ships and suffering the expedition’s only Spanish casualties (20 men killed) before the rest of the Dutch ships escaped.

He then stopped at Penmarch in western Brittany for repairs, and finally arrived back at Port Louis on 10 August in triumph.

Afterwards, people wondered how could only 400 Spanish troops occupy part of West Cornwall for a couple of days, yet there be only three known Cornish deaths (Jenken Keigwin of Moushole, James of Newlyn, and Teck Cornall), and furthermore, Keigwin was buried at Paul on July 24th whilst the Spanish troops were still ashore attending mass. We know there were some active Spanish sympathisers, because English prisoners previously captured by the Spaniards and released in Mousehole during this raid reported that the Spaniards had been guided by a renagade Englishman, Captain Burley of Weymouth, Dorset.

Nonetheless, the main problem with the defence of Cornwall lay in its isolation, and the great length of coastline, with its many bays and deepwater inlets which were potential landing points.

Cornwall in the far south-west of England is shown in ‘red’

The Spanish attack on the villages and towns of Mousehole, Paul, Newlyn and Penzance, in Celtic-Cornwall, by Spanish ‘marines’ was what in the second world war would have been called a ‘commando raid’. This naval raid was a very small part of the greater conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism which tore Europe apart for two or three hundred years, and which was, in the late 1500s, raging at its fiercest and most fanatical.

Spanish Galley, close in-shore

life was harsh for the galley-slaves in the Spanish navy during the Elizabethan era

Spanish Infantry of the period, typical of the troops landed by Carlos de Amesquita

In January 1595 the English troops in Celtic-Brittany (part of France), having prevented the Spaniards from capturing Brest, (a huge naval port in north-west Brittany) were withdrawn. That let the Spanish galleys at Blavet (an estuary harbour in southern Brittany) free to prowl round the coast of Cornwall …

These Spanish galleys were based in Blavet because France itself had been in a state of civil war for years, between the Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants), and both sides had called for foreign support. The Breton-Catholic faction, led by the Governor of Brittany, the Duke of Mercouer, had appealed to Philip of Spain and received 7,000 Spanish troops and naval support. The Breton-Protestant (Huguenots) and Royalist* factions had appealed to England and had initially received 2,500 English troops, plus naval support.

* It was a temporary quirk of history at this time that the French King was a Protestant. This happened when the previous French royal house of Valois had become extinct. The next-in-line turned out to be Henry de Navarre, the leader of the Huguenots, and a Calvanist. He became Henry IV of France and so for some time France had a Protestant King. England and Spain both had numerous reasons for wanting to support factions in Brittany, not least, the hope of future annexation. But their immediate motivations were religious ideology, great power rivalry, and the fact that Brittany had superb harbours and naval bases that could dominate shipping movements in the north eastern Atlantic.

At Plymouth in southern England, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins were fitting out ships for their last privateer-expedition to the West Indies to loot Spanish treasure-ships – during which both men were to die – and, of course, the Spaniards were very anxious to learn their destination.

Image descriptionSir John Hawkins

Image descriptionSir Francis Drake

In May 1595 a fast Spanish ship from Blavet, manned by sixteen sailors and twenty-four soldiers, appeared in English waters off Falmouth Bay and captured a fishing boat out of St. Keverne. The Spanish then took the captured fishermen back to Brittany. There they were questioned, but could tell the Spanish general nothing of the objectives of Drake and Hawkins expedition, except that it consisted of 100 ships and was under Drake’s command.

Image description Spanish fast-Flyboat

A captured English gunner, whom the Spaniards would not release, told the fishermen to report to the first Justice of the Peace they could find on their return to England, that there were four Spanish galleys and ten ships of war at Blavet, and that they were expecting seven more galleys and ten ships with which to surprise English shipping at Scilly in Cornwall. The fishermen duly told their story on their return to England.

On the 10th of July 1595 Sir Francis Godolphin (of Godolphin Hall, one of the two Deputy Lord Lieutenants of Cornwall, and in charge of the local militia musters) wrote to Lord Essex that more men would be needed for the defence of Scilly: “I rest still of the same mind that it needeth a stronger garrison, for the gathering of those Spaniards seemeth as a cloud that is like to fall shortly in some part of her Majesty’s dominions.”

In the next ten days Spanish galleys were seen at several places off the Cornish coast: St Eval and Padstow in the north where Grenville’s son hastily mustered some sort of militia, the sight of which discouraged the Spaniards from landing; and at St. Keverne on the 21st of July a number of foreign ships were seen cruising around the Manacles reef—Falmouth Bay area.

Image descriptionWest Cornwall, with the town of Mousehole circled

Image descriptionMousehole from the air

Then at dawn on the 23rd of July 1595, four Spanish galleys were seen close-in to the shore, immediately off the village of Mousehole. There they landed a force of ‘marines’. Rowse (an historian of those times) says 400 men, mixed pikemen and musket-men, proceeded to burn the little fishing town and the hamlets round about, including the town of Paul, whose church was ruined by the fire. The inhabitants fled in panic. Many reached the larger town of Penzance where by chance Godolphin, happened to be visiting.

Godolphin met them upon the community’s ‘green’ to the west of the town and tried to put them in order to resist, but they were virtually unarmed. Godolphin then sent a messenger to Drake and Hawkins at Plymouth, “to consider what is to be done for your own safety and our defence.” He clearly thought that the raid, and the ships in Falmouth Bay, were the prelude to invasion of England.

However Carlos de Amesquita foiled Godolphin’s plan, returning his troops to their galleys and then landing his whole force at Newlyn, next the important town of Penzance. Carlos de Amesquita sent two ranks of soldiers to the top of the hill to scout out the country, and when they saw the smallness of Godolphin’s forces, they made directly for Penzance.

Image descriptionthe Spanish Galley was a wonder of the age; small and fast, mounting heavy guns,
plus it could use both sail-power and oar-propulsion

The Spanish galleys kept up a fire upon the English, who by this time were in a panic. Godolphin hoped to make a stand at the market place; but nothing could induce his English troops to stay, neither his persuasions nor threats with his drawn rapier. Only a dozen or so of his own servants stood with him in the rear of the retreating mob. The Spaniards were in possession of three parts of the town; there was nothing for him to do but withdraw. Carlos de Amesquita then set fire to Penzance, just as he had already fired Newlyn and Mousehole. It was reported afterwards that they had a Catholic mass said on the western hill, where they vowed to build a friary upon the conquest of England. They then returned once more to their galleys.

By evening an encouraging number of volunteers and local militiamen had turned up to help Godolphin, and they encamped upon the communal ‘green’ outside Marazion, further along the bay, for the defence of that place and the Mount.

Hannibal Vyvyan sent word to Sir Francis Drake of the state of affairs, asking him to send down some of his officers who had commanded in war, and to put some of his ships in readiness; as he was worried that the success of the Spaniards might encourage them to land elsewhere further to the east, as well as on the north coast.

Next day Carlos de Amesquita made show to land again on the west side of Mounts Bay; but the English made a better show of resistance, and so the Spanish galleys moved farther off out of range.

The day after, Sir Nicholas Clifford and other captains arrived from Plymouth, while Drake sent down some of his ships to the Lizard.

Image descriptionSir Nicholas Clifford

The plan was to cut off the retreat of the Spaniards if they should land again, as they would shortly have to, for they were hard pressed for drinking-water. The wind was strong at south-east, which prevented them getting away. But within an hour of the English captains’ arrival from Plymouth, the wind suddenly shifted north-west, and the Spanish galleys seized a heaven-sent opportunity to get clear away.

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The episode was over, except for the interrogation of English prisoners who had been captured by Carlos de Amesquita, and later released in Mounts Bay. (This seems remarkably ‘civil’ for the times; the return of previously captured prisoners, probably most of them taken from fishing and merchant boats intercepted on the high seas, and taken for questioning. During the Spanish/ English fighting in Brittany in the past few years prisoners of war had often been slaughtered by both sides.)

The attacking Spanish force did not come from a Spanish port, but were part of a Spanish fleet based in the Blavet estuary (now Port Louis and Lorient) in Southern Brittany.

For the English government the affair, unimportant as it was, administered quite a shock: it was the only time in the whole course of the war that the Spaniards effected a landing in any force in any part of England. Its effect was salutary. The whole defensive position of the country was carefully surveyed by Burghley, and a spate of new instructions sent down to the west country.

Sir Walter Raleigh was to go down and inspect all the militia-levies in Cornwall, and make arrangements for their training requirements.

Meanwhile the deputy-lieutenants were to see to the fortification of the port towns, and receive Captain Peyton who was to undertake the training the local militias. The local communities were unwilling to bear the cost of this, but the Council insisted…

Image descriptionSir Walter Raleigh

Raleigh, who had to make what he described to his friend Cobham as his “miserable journey into Cornwall” away from the pleasant pursuits of Sherborne wrote a powerful criticism of these measures to the Council at the end of November.

Image descriptionSherborne Castle built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594

Raleigh showed in detail that the situation of Cornwall was much more exposed and difficult than that of Devon, though their liabilities under the scheme were equal, and he argued that Devon should be reinforced from Somerset, from which access was broad and easy, and not from Cornwall. He recalled the difficult geography of Cornwall, eighty miles in length, virtually an island so that it would be very difficult to get forces round the Tamar to aid Plymouth, and Cornwall was itself broken into three parts by deep river-estuaries so that communication inside it was hard enough. He concluded that “there is no part of England so dangerously seated, so thinly manned, so little defended and so easily invaded, having the sea on both sides, which no other county of England hath, and is so narrow that if an enemy possess any of the two or three straits, neither can those of the west repair eastward nor those of the east westward.” He drew attention to the Falmouth estuary, “which is as much of Cornwall as the enemy should need, for within so much as lieth to the west… are the best ports, and are very sufficient to receive the greatest fleet that ever swam, and containeth 27 miles of length very guardable, which in my simple judgment is every way more to be sought for by the enemy than Plymouth, at least if the same were so well understood by them, which is not unlikely.”


When the Spaniards landed at Mousehole they not only burnt that village but also the church at Paul. This prompted the vicar, JOHN TREMEARNE, to make the following entry in his registers:—

Jesu spes et salus mea. 1595. A register of the names of all those that were baptized, married and buried in the Parish Church of St Pawle, in the Countie of Cornwall, from the 23rd Daie julie, the year of our Lord God 1595, on the which Daie the Church, towre, bells, and all other things pertaining to the same, together with the houses and goods, was Burn’d and spoil’d by the Spaniards in the said parish, being Wensdaie the daie aforesaid, in the 37th year of the Reigne of our Sovereign Ladie Elizabeth, by the grace of God, of England, Fraunce, and Ireland, defender of the Faith. Per me Johannem Tremearne, vicarium Ejus.

The first entry in the burial register read something like this:—
JENKIN KEIGWYN, of Mousehole, being killed by the Spaniards, was buried the 24th of Julie.
(This man was the ‘chief’ inhabitant of Mousehole)

The second entry, in Latin, reads:—
Jacobus de Newlyn occisus fuit per inimicos, et sepultus est 26 die Julii; similiter Teek Cornall, et sepultus, the 26 of Julie.
Translated, this reads:—
James of Newlyn was slain by enemies, and was buried on the 26th day of July, likewise Teek Cornall, and buried, the 26th of July.

It is often thought that the chapel of St. Mary in Penzance was destroyed in this attack but in the book by Peter Mound, ‘Pensans, The Holy Headland—1,000 years of Faith and Fortune, St Mary’s Penzance,’ this idea is refuted by the official report sent to the King of Spain by the commander of the Spanish raid that states:—

“In this town we burned more than four hundred houses, some outlying hamlets and three ships which were laden with wine and other goods. The mosque where they gather for their conventicles was not burned because Captain Richard Burley, an English gentleman entertained in your Majesty’s Royal [Spanish] Navy, said that this mosque had first been English and that Mass had been celebrated in it previously. Friar Domingo Martinez, principal chaplain of the galleys, wrote two verses in English in which he declared the reason for not burning it and his trust in God that Mass would be celebrated in it again within two years. This done our men withdrew to another town called Newlyn, burning it and all the outlying houses.

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