Biographical details of Michael Joseph are limited. He came from the artisan class and his lack of wealth would have left no paper trail at this time. Written sources of the time tell us only that he was a blacksmith who came from St Keverne. The title ‘An Gof’ that followed Michael Joseph’s name denoted his trade, as it means ‘the Smith’ in Cornish. Over time this became the Cornish surname ‘Angove’. Michael Joseph may not have had the advantages of education and wealth that his fellow leader, Thomas Flamank, lawyer of Bodmin possessed, but in the smaller close knit world of his parish he would have been a man of some standing.
We know nothing about his family, but he was definitely someone’s son and he was probably married. A subsidy record of the Parish in 1525 tells us that there were still three men with the name An Gof or Engoff in the parish 28 years after his execution. Perhaps these were his sons or nephews?
The population of St Keverne parish at that time has been estimated at being approximately 280 men, and the main occupations were farming and fishing. There was no mining in St Keverne parish. An Gof’s forge would have been at the hub of village life. They needed him to make and repair the implements and tools essential for their livelihoods. The late 1400s saw a massive rebuilding and renovation of St Keverne church and perhaps Michael Joseph was employed to keep the stone masons tools sharp. Much talk and discussion must have taken place at the forge fire.
He would have walked our paths, fished in the sea, worshipped in the church and enjoyed the views that we know so well today.
We don’t know if he incited the folk of the parish or if he was chosen as their leader, but we do know that in late May or early June of the summer of 1497 he left the home that he knew so well and began the long march to London, gathering followers along the way, to petition the King. He may even have made or repaired the simple bill hooks, pikes and knives that those of the parish carried with them.
Although comments about him in written sources have to be read with care, depending on who was writing and how they wished him to appear- a worthy opponent or a prattling oaf, his actions certainly speak for him. He must have been a charismatic man, able to persuade and promote loyalty in his followers. He was someone the Cornish could look up to, and his natural language would probably have been Cornish. Thus he was able to communicate with those whose first, and possibly only language, was Cornish. It seems they were not a rabble, but that they maintained discipline and were well supported by the people of the places through which they passed.
He was certainly brave and dedicated. Even on the eve of battle the London city chronicler tells us that the rebels spent the night in
‘great agony and variance; for some of them were minded to have come to the King and to have yielded them and put them fully in his mercy and grace: but the smith was of contrary mind.’
After capture it seems he never faltered for the Great Chronicle tells us that he came
‘riding behind a yeoman of the guard, the Smith being clad in a jacket of white and green of the King’s colours and held as good countenance and spake as boldly to the people as he had been at his liberty‘.
Even when being drawn on a hurdle towards Tyburn to face a grizzly execution he ‘gloried’ in what he had done and boasted that he –
‘should have a name perpetual, and a fame permanent and immortal’.
Written by Karen Richards, Ystoryor Lanheveran, and translated and filmed by Esther Johns