This is an account and discussion about the Spanish attack on Mousehole, Newlyn and Penzance in 1595. It is built up from various discussions on CORNISH-L over the period March to April 2001. There are contributions, with thanks, from Alan Trevarthen [AT—the major contributor], Michael Kiernan, Gail Chellew & Carol Polglase.

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The attack on Mousehole, Paul, Newlyn and Penzance by Spanish marines on July 23rd 1595 was what in the second world war would have been called a commando raid.

This raid was a very small part of the great conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism which tore Europe apart for two or three hundred years, and which was, in the late 1500s, raging locally at its fiercest and most fanatical.

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. They were based there 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 7000 Spanish troops and naval support. The Breton Protestant (Huguenots) and Royalist* factions had appealed to England and had initially received 2500 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 idealogy, great power rivalry, and the fact that Brittany had superb harbours and naval bases that could dominate shipping movements in the north eastern Atlantic.

There were a number of reasons for the Spanish raid on Cornwall, and these may be more fascinating than the details of the raid itself. They are bound up with the naval warfare, privateering and piracy that are part of British, Spanish, French, Breton and Irish history. They are about competition along the European Atlantic seaboard in the 1500s early 1600s, to explore, colonise, and grow rich from the Americas. I [AT] will cover this later.

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What happened

Meanwhile, below are details about the Mounts Bay raid of 1595. It is extracted from chapter 15 of A. L. Rowse’s “Tudor Cornwall” [Rowse 1947]. Rowse’s book, now 60 years old, is a bit dated in style, but is a remarkable work that I recommend for your bookshelves.

In extracting the essentials, I have also simplified a number of words, (e.g. fast boat instead of shallop), and added explanations that might be useful to some of the internationalised English speaking Cornish diaspora in 2001.

Here is what A.L. Rowse says about the raid:

In January 1595 the English troops in Brittany, having prevented the Spaniards from capturing Brest, (a huge naval port in NW Brittany) were withdrawn. That set the galleys at Blavet (an estuary harbour in southern Brittany) free to prowl round the Cornish coast…

At Plymouth Drake and Hawkins were fitting out their last voyage to the West Indies, upon which both were to die. The Spaniards were very anxious to learn its destination. In May a fast boat from Blavet, manned by sixteen sailors and twenty-four soldiers, appeared in Falmouth Bay and captured a fisher-boat of St. Keverne, carrying the men over to Brittany. There they were examined, but fortunately could tell the Spanish general nothing of the objectives of the expedition, but that it consisted of 100 sail and was under Drake’s command.

An English gunner, a Bristol man, whom the Spaniards would not release told the fishermen to report to the first J.P. they could upon their return that there were four galleys and ten ships of war at Blavet, and that they were expecting seven more galleys and ten ships with which to surprise shipping at Scilly. The fishermen on their return told their story.

On July 10th 1595 Godolphin 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 galleys were seen at several places off the Cornish coast :

Then at dawn on July 23rd 1595, four Spanish galleys were seen close-in to the shore, immediately off Mousehole. There they landed a force of marines, (Rowse says 200 men, mixed pikemen and musketmen, who proceeded to fire the little fishing town and the hamlets round about, including the church-town of Paul, whose church was ruined by the fire)

The inhabitants fled. Many reached Penzance where by chance Godolphin, (of Godolphin Hall, one of the two Deputy Lord Lieutenants of Cornwall, and in charge of the local militia musters) happened to be visting.

“Godolphin met them upon the green to the west of the town and tried to put them in order to resist [but] they were virtually unarmed. Godolphin 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.

But the Spaniards disconcerted his plan by leaving Mousehole, returning to their galleys and landing their whole force at Newlyn, next Penzance. They were some 400 men in all. They sent two ranks of soldiers to the top of the hill to spy out the country, and when they saw the smallness of Godolphin’s forces, they made for Penzance. The galleys kept up a fire upon the Cornishmen, who by this time were in a panic. Godolphin hoped to make a stand at the market place; but nothing could induce them 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. The enemy then set fire to Penzance as they had fired Newlyn and Mousehole. It was reported afterwards that they had a 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 green outside Marazion, further along the bay, for the defence of that place and the Mount. Hannibal Vyvyan sent word to Drake of the state of affairs, asking him to send down some of his leaders who had commanded in war and to put some ships in readiness. The success of the Spaniards might encourage them to land elsewhere further to the east, as well as on the north coast.

Next day they made show to land again on the west side of Mounts Bay; but the Cornish made a better show of resistance, and the 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. 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 water. The wind was strong at south-east, which prevented them getting away. But within an hour of the captains’ arrival from Plymouth, it suddenly shifted north-west, and the galleys seized a heaven-sent opportunity to get clear away.

The episode was over, except for the examination of English prisoners who had been landed by the Spaniards in Mounts Bay. [Note by AT—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 freed prisoners told Godolphin that the galleys would have stayed longer and done more spoil along the coast, had they not stood in fear of Drake’s fleet. The Spanish had intended to have gone to St. Ives and Padstow, and thence into the Bristol Channel, but they were much in want of fresh water when the change of wind enabled them to get away. The Spaniards purposed to take Scilly. where they would keep their galleys under the protection of the fort. Godolphin drew the moral of the affair: two good pieces of ordnance to beat them from the Roads, a better store of ammunition, and, some skilful leaders in places where they might land.

Sir Nicholas Clifford reported well of Godolphin’s conduct: “For the town of Penzance, had the people stood with Sir Francis Godolphin, who engaged himself very worthily, it had been saved; but the common sort utterly forsook him, saving four or five gentlemen.” Those same common people took refuge in “an ancient prophecy, in their own language… that hath long run amongst them, how there should land upon the rock of Merlin, those that would burn Paul church, Penzance and Newlyn. And indeed so is the rock called where the enemy first stepped on shore…

Ewra teyre a war meane Merlyn
Ara Lesky Pawle Pensans ha Newlyn.”

From a letter of Thomas Treffry we learn what happened further to the galleys. On their way back they encountered a fleet of seventy hulks and gave chase to fourteen of them which were severed from the rest. They sank one of the hulks, but in the fight lost 140 men and “had one of their galleys so torn as they could not carry her to Blavet.” The other three were still there [Note by AT—Presumably moored in the Blavet river in Southern Brittany]. Two Spanish fly-boats had recently chased a Bristol ship into Fowey, while there were Spanish men-of-war at Conquet. (Western Brittany)

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Implications for England

For the government the affair, unimportant as it was, administered 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 the country. Its effect was salutary. The whole defence position of the country was carefully surveyed by Burghley, and a spate of new instructions sent down to the west country.

Sir Walter Ralegh was to go down and view all the levies in Cornwall and see them trained. Meanwhile the deputy-lieutenants were to see to the barricading of the port towns, and receive Captain Peyton who was to train the levies. They were unwilling to bear the charge of this, but the Council insisted…

Ralegh, 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.

He 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 defenced 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.”

His prognostication proved correct: the objective of the Adelantado’s Armada of 1597 was Falmouth.

During the years 1595 to 1597 the war at sea woke up again and large-scale operations were resumed as in the years 1586 to 1589… Drake was called out from his retirement and placed, with Hawkins, in command of another expedition, their last, to that familiar scene of their activities where they had made their début thirty years before. The expedition accomplished little; both Drake and Hawkins died upon it and were buried at sea; disease ravaged the fleet. In April 1596 several of their ships reached Falmouth in great want and distress.

A new generation had come to the fore: that summer (Lord) Essex and (Walter) Ralegh made their brilliant attack upon Cadiz, in which the city was captured and of which the effect was to temporarily bankrupt King Philip of Spain.

(Soon however) with infinite labour and cost, in altogether more unfavourable conditions, the indomitable, obstinate Philip was preparing another great armada to reduce the heretic country (England). In October it set sail: the revenge for Cadiz. In England something similar to the measures of 1588 (The date of the most well known of the Spanish Armadas — there were several) was put into force. There was to be a royal army at the centre around Queen Elizabeth I, to which Cornwall and Devon were to contribute 2000 men.

It was not necessary: the Protestant winds which saved us in 1588 repeated their good work in 1596, no doubt to the perplexity of devout catholics. The armada was struck by fierce gales off Finisterre; a number of fine galleons were lost and hundreds of good fighting men.

Undismayed, like something termite in the habit of his mind, Philip went on gathering what remained for another effort next year.

At Plymouth, Gorges (the military Governor) raised his garrison to 100, and while under his supervision many more hundreds of pounds were spent upon the fortifications of Plymouth Citadel The strain was being felt: notification was given that there would not be sufficient out of the revenue of Devon and Cornwall to meet his half-yearly charges, now amounting to £900.

Ralegh and Essex were fitting out another joint expedition at Plymouth, this time for the Azores, to intercept the Plate fleet. Meanwhile information was coming into the west country of the renewed preparations in Spanish harbours: an armada of 100 sail. It was thought that, as in 1588, they would be heading for Calais.

In the Azores, the English fleet of Ralegh and Essex just missed the Plate treasure fleet bound for Spain: the narrowest escape King Philip had had. Essex and Ralegh quarrelled bitterly, and, their fleet battered by the gales of that summer and in no condition to fight, made for home.

Two days before they left, the Adelantado weighed anchor from Ferrol (Spain) and with all his armada kept company “with greatjoy” until within twenty-five leagues from the Scilly Isles off Cornwall. Then it transpired what his objective was: not Calais at all, but Falmouth. His instructions were a new and elaborated version of the great Menendez’s plan of the seventies: to seize, fortify and garrison Pendennis Castle at Falmouth, then take his fighting ships to the Scilly Isles, wait there, and destroy the English ships returning from the Azores.

If successful in this, he was with the other half of his forces, some 10,000 men, to march eastward and capture Plymouth. It was an ambitious plan, and some part of it might have achieved success. But again the anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish winds of the Channel prevented it being put to the test. It was October when the armada put out; it was within two days’ sail of Land’s End when the autumn gales struck it and forced it to turn back.

Ralegh and Essex on landing were shocked to learn how narrow had been their and their country’s escape.

The immediate consequence of it, when the objective of the armada was bit by bit learned, was that the fortification of Pendenis Castle was undertaken in real earnest. (Lord) Essex gave his opinion that it was not defensible as it was against an army landed, and that an engineer should be employed to make the ground better to resist fire. It was reported that the Adelantado had meant to establish himself on the headland and turn it into an island by cutting the narrow neck of the peninsula.

At the moment of danger, Ralegh had drawn 500 levies into Pendennis; it was a great strain for a poor county. When it had passed Godolphin wrote him: “Our country poor people do and will much repine at the burden of maintaining these small forces, of 400 or 500 at Penryn for guard thereof, which guard to the intended force is of ineffectual moment.”

He suggested a further garrison to lie in readiness about Truro. “But what speak I of beggarly country aid against princes’ royal armies, which cannot but by our prince’s purse and munition be resisted?”

That put the gist of the matter in a sentence. The strain of defence, the constant responding to calls on levies, maintaining them in service, was becoming too much for Cornwall’s resources; the English government would have to come to the rescue. To its credit, it did. The 500 levies were allowed to go home; in their place the government sent two companies of professional (mercenary) soldiers from the Low Countries to Pendenis, and three to Plymouth; and hard pressed as it was financially, it maintained them.

Regarding Ralegh — His power so close to the English throne, and possession of highest offices in Cornwall, (Lord Lieutenant, and Lord Warden of the Stannaries) came to an end with the Queen’s life. (Elizabeth I). Parker published the proclamation of King James, “which with a general joy and applause was then received and so continues.” The accession of James meant peace. To the war-weary, overburdened county of Cornwall, it must have come as a blessed relief: the end of the fighting Elizabethan age.

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It is worth remembering that almost all the details of this raid in Mount’s Bay in 1595 comes originally from Richard Carew’s “Survey of Cornwall.” [Carew 1602] He wrote this in 1602, 7 years after the raid. Carew got his information by word of mouth from Sir Francis Godolphin who says he was at Penzance when it happened, and portrays himself as quite a hero, for he says that he could only get a dozen of his servants to stay with him (2 with guns), and with these men he tried to fight off 400 fully armed Spanish troops (200 with guns).

For those who want to read more, Peter Pool in his “History of Penzance” [Pool 1974] quotes Carew’s whole report on the event. At least he quotes F.E. Halliday’s rendering of it into modern English from Halliday’s “Richard Carew of Antony”

But every story, every history is an interpretation. Godolphin’s heroism, wonderful though it seems to be, probably lost nothing in his telling of it to Carew.

And what about Carew? Was he completely unbiased?, or what sort of little spin might he possibly have put on the story when he put it into print for the other gentry of the county?

Nobody really knows—we can only look at the background to the event, and assess it the light of that, and of the political and religious positions of Carew and the other gentry who controlled Cornwall in 1602.

The purpose of the Spanish war against England was to restore the Catholic faith in England.

Only 46 years before this Mount’s Bay raid, 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 inner government 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). (For more information read Philip Caraman’s “The Western Rising—1549—The Prayer Book Rebellion”)

Was Richard Carew of Antony who published the story of the Spanish raid in 1602 related to Sir Peter Carew and Sir Gawen Carew of 1549? I don’t know, but Carew was not a common name in Cornwall. If they were part of the same family, then Richard Carew probably held strong anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish, and pro-English protestant government feelings.

It is possible that such feelings were not fully shared by all of the common people of Cornwall. Cornwall must have remembered only too well the manner in which the Prayer Book rebellion of 46 years earlier had been brutally crushed by Russell, the Carews, and the 3000 Dutch mercenaries and the English troops that they led.

And all Cornwall knew also that the religion could easily change again at any time. The Catholic religion had already been restored in England at least once since 1549. This was from 1553 to 1558, during the reign of Phillip and Mary (Queen Mary was a daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary’s husband Philip was, in addition, the King of Spain). Indeed in 1557 England and Spain were so close at a royal level that they were allies in a war against France.

Carew does not tell us what the common people of Mount’s Bay thought. It is possible they had not all become committed protestants or Puritans. It is possible they were not all against an invasion by Spain, Catholicism’s world policeman, to reinstall the old religion again. How can 400 heavily armed 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.

Carew tells us nothing of what the common people of Mount’s Bay thought, but he does tell us how they behaved. Read his version of the events in the Penwith chapter from Carew’s “Survey of Cornwall.”

Conclusion : All the accounts of this raid are all based on Carew’s written account in his “Survey,” and this is based on what Francis Godolphin told Carew. It may all be 100 percent accurate, but keep an open mind

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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 chappie was the “chief” inhabitant of Mousehole)

The second entry 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—1000 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 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.

a useful report from the oposing side in the dispute.

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