St Piran’s Day: Tin, Tricks and Terror in 15th-century Cornwall

Continuing with our patron saint series, today we hear from Dr Hannes Kleineke  of the Commons 1422-1504 Section about the patron saint of Cornwall, St Piran. Also see Part One and Two of  Dr Stephen Roberts’ blogs on Parliament and the Welsh language in honour of St David’s Day…

With recent news of the possible reopening of the South Crofty tin mine in Camborne, on the feast day of St. Piran, patron saint of tin miners, as well as of Cornwall, it is worth reminding ourselves that for many centuries the wealth of Cornwall lay in its rich deposits of tin ore, which provided Europe’s principal supply of the metal. Tin was the gold of the west: small wonder then, that men stole, cheated and murdered for a share of the precious commodity.

One Cornish family with mining interests in the late medieval period were the Kendales of Lostwithiel, who over several generations in the late 14th and 15th centuries provided MPs for their home town. In the first half of the fifteenth century the family’s interests in the tin industry were controlled by two Kendale brothers. Stephen Kendale, the elder, served five terms as mayor of Lostwithiel between 1418 and 1438, and represented the town in Parliament in 1417. His mining operations were considerable: on a single occasion in June 1420 he brought a consignment of some 2,500 lb. of tin to be weighed, taxed and officially stamped in the duchy of Cornwall’s coinage hall at Lostwithiel. His brother, Thomas, who served as MP for Lostwithiel in 1427, became a senor royal customs official in the Cornish district. He for his part had acquired land holdings including tin mines through his marriage to Maud Trewenhelek, an heiress from St. Columb Minor.

In November 1439, Thomas, still a relatively young man, was ‘takyn wyth dedly seknesse’ while in London on business and died. It was his dying wish that after his death some of his property should be sold to pay for a chaplain to sing masses for his soul, but his brother Stephen would have none of it, and staged an elaborate charade to get his hands on his brother’s tin mines. Within five days of Thomas’s death he arrived at his widowed sister-in-law’s house at Lostwithiel and with mock concern warned her that the steward of the duchy of Cornwall, Sir William Bonville, was planning to send men to seize her so that he could marry her off to one of his own henchmen. The distraught woman gladly accepted his offer of protection, and agreed to move to his house. Once there, though, Maud discovered that she was very much a prisoner, as Stephen would not even allow her to leave the house to go to church. All the while he claimed that this was for her own good, and to drive the point home arranged for some of his own servants to ride up and down in the street on successive nights, making as much noise as possible, telling the frightened woman that these were the steward’s men who had come to take her away.

In spite of her fright, Maud continued to refuse to hand her affairs, and, apparently, the keys to her house over to her brother-in-law. Stephen was thus reduced to send yet other servants, who broke into Maud’s chamber through the floor boards, and carried off the property deeds she kept there. Having achieved this, he finally set Maud free after ten days’ captivity. Yet, when she returned home, and found her house ransacked and her documents gone, it did not take her long to put two and two together and to publicly denounce her brother-in-law. Stephen’s influence in Lostwithiel meant that she could not stay there, but she held her own and continued to defend her rights in the law courts for a number of years. Before long she found an ally in the tin merchant Otto Vivian, whom she went on to marry. Vivian was hardly a more desirable character than Kendale, who sought to use his connexions both in Cornwall and further afield to create something of a tin cartel.

Vivian was the respectable face of the operation. The same could not be said of his associates Richard Tregoose and Philip Malpas. Malpas, a London draper and MP for the city in 1432 and 1442, built up considerable wealth managing the export of the metal through the port of London. He also built up a reputation for sharp practices, and such was his unpopularity in London that his house and warehouses were ransacked by the lesser Londoners during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. Even Malpas’s lack of scruples did not, however, compare to that of the final member of the trio, Richard Tregoose, who over a period of 20 years terrorised the mining community with a campaign of murder and torture in a bid to gain control of an increased share of the county’s tin production: men were threatened with castration, tortured with whipcords tied around their heads and had their ears and digits severed. Yet, Tregoose was careful to maintain influential contacts, and these allowed him to secure election to Parliament for the town of Bodmin in 1435, and even for the county of Cornwall in February 1449. There can nevertheless be little doubt that many active in, or associated with, Cornwall’s mining industry breathed a sigh of relief when Tregoose was killed by an arrow in an ambush by Reynold Tretherf, a wealthy local esquire, in August 1452.


Further reading:

  • Hannes Kleineke, ‘Why the West was Wild’, in The Fifteenth Century III: Authority and Subversion ed. Linda Clark (Woodbridge, 2003), 75-94
  • John Hatcher, English Tin Production and Trade before 1550 (Oxford, 1973)
  • G. L. Lewis, The Stannaries: A Study of the Medieval Tin Miners of Cornwall and Devon, Cambridge, Mass., 1908)


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