The Song of the Western Men by Derek B. Scott

Derek B. Scott is is Professor of Critical Musicology and former Head of the School of Music at the University of Leeds. His biography can be found under Network Members.

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For some time, I have wanted to contribute a blog on a Cornish song, but other commitments have continually prevented me from doing so. As the RNSN project draws to a close I am offering something now, in the hope that it may be a departure point for research by someone else. The Cornish people were officially recognized by the UK government as a national minority in 2014. Cornwall (Kernow in Cornish) was an independent nation until the eleventh century. The Cornish language, which had been declared extinct in the twentieth century, has seen a strengthening revival since 2010, and the teaching of Cornish began to receive government funding in March 2014.

‘Song of the Western Men’, The Oxford Song Book (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), No. 104, pp. 170–71

‘The Song of the Western Men’ takes as its subject the Cornish reaction to the imprisonment of Sir Jonathan Trelawny by King James II (Byles 1906: 24). The song is, in fact, often referred to as ‘Trelawny’ or the ‘Trelawny ballad’ and tells of a protest march to London to secure his release. There was such a march, but it terminated at Bristol. John Trelawny was Bishop of Bristol but had been born on the Trelawny family estate in Pelynt (Pluwnennys in Cornish), twenty miles west of Plymouth.

A good sword and a trusty hand!
A merry heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

And shall Trelawny live?
Or shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

Out spake their Captain brave and bold:
A merry wight was he:
Though London Tower were Michael’s hold,
We’ll set Trelawny free!

We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land:
The Severn is no stay:
With “one and all,” and hand in hand;
And who shall bid us nay?

And shall Trelawny live?
Or shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here’s men as good as you.

Trelawny he’s in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why

And shall Trelawny live?
Or shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

Bishop Trelawny depicted in Hawker’s Cornish Ballads.

The verses were written in 1824 by Robert Stephen Hawker (1803–63), Vicar of Morwenstow, Cornwall (Byles 1906: 23). They were first published in The Royal Devonport Telegraph and Plymouth Chronicle on 2 September 1826. Hawker first claimed his authorship in Records of the Western Shore, 1832. The verses were set to music by Louisa T. Clare in 1861 and her composition won Hawker’s approval (Byles 1906: 269). She later composed the music to a popular drawing-room ballad ‘The Proud Ladye’ (1864), which had words by W. Melville. In the later nineteenth century, other settings of Hawker’s verse were made by George Brown Millett in 1886, and Gilbert Betjemann in 1890.

R.S. Hawker by George Howard, 1863

Hawker as Oxford undergraduate by Wright Delin, 1835

The Rev. Hawker was known for his eccentric behaviour: he is said to have excommunicated one of his many cats for killing a mouse on a Sunday (Van der Kiste 2013: 183). He was also unconventional in his choice of clothes. The self-built hut where he wrote poetry was perched on a cliff and constructed from driftwood he had gathered from the Atlantic below. It was known as ‘Hawker’s Hut’ and is now in the care of the National Trust.

Hawker’s Hut at Morwenstow in the early 20th century

The lines ‘And shall Trelawny die? Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men will know the reason why’ were already familiar and were incorporated into the song. However, it is probable that those words referred to Bishop Trelawny’s grandfather, Sir John Trelawny, leader of the King’s party in Cornwall, who was committed by Parliament to the Tower of London for electoral offences in 1627.

The assertion that a large number of Cornish men demand an answer had already been heard in the last verse of ‘Come All Ye Jolly Tinner Boys’, a song composed around 1807 expressing defiance at Napoleon Bonaparte’s threat to damage Cornish trade.

And should that Boney Peartie have forty thousand still
To make into an army to work his wicked will,
And try for to invaade us, if he doesn’t quickly fly
Why forty thousand Cornish boys shall knawa the reason why.

However, it was not uncommon for this kind of popular demand to feature in verses. A contributor to Notes and Queries (21 May 1904) quotes a couplet from a state paper dated 21 July 1653 written by Oliver Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe:

And what, shall then honest John Lilbourne die?
Three score thousand will know the reason why

A Cornish version of the Trelawny ballad was written in 1904 by Henry Jenner, a Celtic languages scholar and important activist in the Cornish language revival. Cornish is part of the Brythonic (or Brittonic) branch of Celtic languages and is related to Welsh and, more closely, to Breton. In Jenner’s translation, the refrain runs as follows:

‘Verow Trelawny bras?
‘Verow Trelawny bras?
Mes ugens mil a dus Kernow
A wodhvydh oll an kas.

‘Trelawny’ has become the unofficial national anthem of Cornwall. Yet, Sabine Baring-Gould argued that its tune ‘is merely “Le Petit Tambour,” and therefore not Cornish at all’, and so gave it no place in his and H. Fleetwood Sheppard’s collection Songs & Ballads of the West (Baring-Gould 1891: vii). Nevertheless, lyrics can have a striking effect on the mood and emotional resonance of a tune when sung. That much is obvious if ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is compared to the English glee, ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’, from which it took its tune. At one time in the nineteenth century, several European nations used the melody of ‘God Save the Queen’ for their anthems (and Liechtenstein still does).

References

Baring-Gould, Sabine. 1891. ‘Preface’. In Baring-Gould and H. Fleetwood Sheppard, Songs & Ballads of the West: A Collection Made from the Mouths of the People. London: Methuen. vii–xliii.

Byles, Charles Edward, ed. 1906. The Life and Letters of R.S. Hawker. New York: John Lane.

Hawker, Robert Stephen. 1884. The Cornish Ballads, with Other Poems. London: Parker.

‘Le Petit Tambour’, transcription available by the Village Folk Music Project taken from MOORE, John (Tyneside) MS, 1841, UK Tyneside, private collection: <https://www.village-music-project.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/MooreTy.pdf>.

Van der Kiste, John. 2013. The Little Book of Cornwall. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Williams, Angela. 2011. ‘Trelawny’. <http://www.robertstephenhawker.co.uk/?p=1002>

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