Knit Two, Drop Four: Finding lost heroes in the holes of history’s knitting

Issue FourNon-Fiction

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By Cheryl Hayden



In the latter part of the 20th Century, a new historiography emerged through the University of Exeter and general south-west England academia, which aimed to centre the experiences of the Cornish people. A critical part of this was the idea that notwithstanding the fervent nation-building agenda of the Tudor dynasty, a discrete Cornish identity continually challenged its endeavours and on several occasions erupted into total rebellion.[1] Out of detritus of this era, few individuals stand out as exemplars of resistance and loss like Tristram Winslade. Few are held up to such ridicule. From a ‘distinguished’[2] Devonshire family, Winslade inherited the endlessly grinding impact of his grandfather’s attainder for treason following the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion. For more than forty years, he and his brother pursued the right to lands to which they believed themselves entitled, revealing along the way their adversaries’ conniving, collusion and even forgery.[3]  But while his brother slides into obscurity, the enigmatic Tristram glides through history on a story that is elusive and yet, apparently, impossible for historians to ignore. Why is it, then, since his presence seems so hard to ignore, that he is so poorly understood?

In 2012, Tristram Winslade emerged twice in two new and very different works. In the first, Alan Haynes tells us his name was really William, and he is portrayed as a pathetic figure who in 1590, having been tortured on the rack and released from prison, became a wandering harper and presumably ‘not very good one’.[4]  The second publication came from my own research and the translation of a Latin document Tristram Winslade himself wrote in 1595. In this, he explains that he is the son of William and the grandson of John. He is in Brussels among the exiled English Catholic population and planning a Spanish invasion of Cornwall and Devon.[5]  He even names members of the Cornish and Devonshire nobility and gentry who would assist in this plan; ‘heads would have rolled’ had the Queen’s Privy Council got hold of it.[6]

From a chronological perspective, it is possible that both scenarios might be true. After all, it is a matter of record that Winslade had been racked and that he was released from Newgate Prison in March 1590.[7]  However, there is nothing in a careful reading of the historical record to suggest he ever went near a harp and everything to suggest that after his release, he started another legal action over land and then, ignoring the terms of his ‘parole’, left England as soon as possible.  He was headed for the safety of exile.

The creation of the crippled harper

It is not necessary to interrogate Haynes’ work in order to understand Tristram Winslade’s life. As we will see, the archive is full of material that reveals a life dedicated to a counter-Reformation. But for those of us interested in the fabrication of lies, it is instructive to follow the trail of misinformation and unpick it.

To begin the journey, we must identify our characters:  John Winslade (c. 1485-1550), his son, William (c. 1519 – 1583) and William’s son, Tristram (c. 1550 – 1605).[8]   We then need to join Richard Carew who, in the latter years of the 16th Century, embarked on a journey around Cornwall, recording his impressions of the Cornish people, their pastimes, traditions and culture, and the landscape, climate and economic activity. Of the Parish of Pelynt, in southern Cornwall, he writes:

The warmth of this hundred, side in the south, hath enticed many gentlemen here to make choice of their dwellings, as Mr Buller, now sheriff, at Tregarrick, sometimes the Wideslades’ [sic][9] inheritance, until the father’s rebellion forfeited it to the Prince, and the Prince’s largess rewarded therewith his subjects. Wideslade’s son led a walking life with his harp to gentlemen’s houses, wherethrough and by his other active qualities, he was entitled Sir Tristram; neither wanted he (as some say) a ‘belle Isound,’ the more aptly to resemble his pattern.[10] [emphasis added]

This short account has become a touchstone for anyone writing about the Winslades, and a thorough understanding of it is essential if we are to examine the way it has been used against Tristram. In this passage, Carew is referring to the estate of Tregarrick which would have been the inheritance of the Winslades (that is, William Winslade and his heirs[11]) had John Winslade not lost it through attainder. Carew then tells us that John’s son – William – was reduced by poverty to the life of a wandering minstrel and given the nickname ‘Sir Tristram’. It is reasonable to assume that this moniker is a reference to the Cornish legend, Tristan and Isolde. Carew appears to be drawing an analogy between William Winslade and Tristan of the legend, most likely because he believed both had displayed a certain pattern of behaviour, presumably betrayal of their kings and a certain way with women.

However, not every historian has paid such careful attention to the identities of the individuals discussed here by Carew. The nickname ‘Sir Tristram’ has thrown many off course, and among them is the early 20th Century historian, Frances Rose-Troup, who made the Prayer Book Rebellion and its key players her speciality.[12] She correctly identifies John and William – father and son – as the two Winslade men active in the rebellion and includes numerous footnotes to clarify aspects of their genealogy.[13] In one of these footnotes, she identifies William Winslade’s two sons. She writes:

Tristram and Daniel. Of the former Carew writes: “He led a walking life with his harp to gentlemen’s houses, where through and by his other qualities, he was entitled Sir Tristram; neither wanted he (as some say) a ‘bele Isoud,’ the more to resemble his pattern”.  His name really was Tristram; he was captured by the Spaniards, but before that he had laid claim to certain Courtenay estates saying his grandmother, Jane Trelawney, was grand-daughter of Edward, Earl of Devon…[14] [emphasis added]

The three words ‘of the former’ mark Rose-Troup’s fundamental mistake. It is a mistake made in 1913 that was still being made 99 years later in Haynes’s work.  How did it come about? It seems that in analysing Carew’s words, Rose-Troup has focused on the second sentence only. By ignoring the first, she seems to have lost sight of John Winslade as the attainted and executed ‘father’. Rose-Troup discusses John Winslade at length in her book so it is difficult to understand why, in this footnote, she ignores him. The result is that having correctly identified Tristram as William Winslade’s son, and John’s grandson (for she is correct when she says that Tristram’s name really was Tristram), Rose-Troup has wrongly assumed that the nickname of ‘Sir Tristram’ and the real person Tristram were the same person. She has missed the intriguing notion that William, suffering from the disparaging nickname of ‘Sir Tristram’, chose to name his son ‘Tristram’.  The psychology behind this idea is close to breathtaking, and yet historians, by failing to read closely and tangling themselves in knots have completely missed it. They have been so baffled by the wood, they have failed to notice the trees.


Historians blindly following historiography

Arguably the most influential historian to write about 16th Century Cornwall in modern times is Cornish-born Oxford scholar and historian A.L. Rowse, who refers to the Winslades in at least three significant publications: Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (first published 1937); Tudor Cornwall (1941); and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955).[15]

In the first two works, Rowse appears unaware of the real Tristram Winslade, despite writing about his life. For example, in the Grenville biography, he gives an account of Tristram Winslade arriving at the English College at Douai in 1583, but concludes that this is William travelling under his nickname,[16] while in Tudor Cornwall, there is no reference at all to the real Tristram. In 1955, Rowse finally identifies Tristram as John Winslade’s grandson but continues to ascribe to him the walking life led by William:

“…of the defeated side curious bits of flotsam and jetsam fetch up in odd places.  Sir John Arundell’s son retained Winslade’s grandson, Tristram, as his servant at Lanherne …  Winslade and his father disappeared from Cornwall, no-one knew wither.  Carew says that “Winslade’s son led a walking life with his harp, to gentlemen’s houses, wherethrough, and by his other active qualities, he was entitled Sir Tristram; neither wanted he (as some say) a ‘belle Isoult’, the more aptly to resemble his pattern.”[17]

The main problem here is that when Rowse refers to Winslade, he does not stop to ask a very simple question: which Winslade am I talking about?

In 1975, F.E. Halliday gets William’s identity right – he does in fact understand that William was given the nickname of Sir Tristram – but his writing of history is not complicated by the appearance of the real Tristram Winslade.[18] The omission of Tristram means he does not become tangled up.  Then, in 1977, the impact of Rose-Troup’s and Rowse’s errors emerge in the work of Julian Cornwall.[19] While not commenting on ‘Sir Tristram,’ it is apparent that Cornwall has endeavoured to apply a logical chronology to the main players of the Prayer Book Rebellion. Although not discussing Tristram, it appears from his observation that William Winslade must have been a ‘very young man’ in 1549, that he has accepted the idea that William and Tristram were the same person. In fact, William was about 30 years of age and living on his own estate at Mithian, from where he led his troops.[20]

In 2002, John Chynoweth, while understanding that there were three Winslades active during the second half of the 16th Century – John, William and Tristram – still manages to attribute the ‘walking life with his harp’ to Tristram, rather than to William.[21]  From this point, the historiography of the era becomes less interested in minutiae. In 2003, Cooper’s book on Cornwall and Devon during the Tudor era, the only Winslade mentioned is the attainted and executed John.[22] In 2004, Payton briefly mentions John Winslade’s leadership role in the rebellion[23] and in 2007, Deacon neatly avoids the issue by describing Tristram as ‘a member of the wealthiest family to support the 1549 rising’, which is true, but does tend to imply, wrongly, that he took part in the rebellion.[24]

The combined result of this is that history is either full of incorrect statements and inferences about this family, or glosses over them. The result is a foggy discourse which includes the following ‘facts’:

  • William’s real name was Tristram, (and so Tristram took part in the 1549 rebellion)
  • William was captured by the Spaniards
  • Tristram led a walking life
  • Sir Tristram was really called Tristram
  • John (‘the father’) was really William

It is not surprising that Alan Haynes, writing in 2012, was confused. He does, however, recognise his dilemma. To get around this, he comes up with the explanation that ‘Tristram’ was a name used by the Spanish, in lieu of his real name, William. This, of course, is the converse of Rose-Troup’s claim that William’s name ‘really was Tristram’.  Whichever way you look at it, an individual born in 1550, and not involved in the Prayer Book Rebellion, is impossible to extract from this discourse.

Hero, where art thou?

There are a number of primary and secondary sources that could have clarified the William-Tristram identity crisis, and at least one of them was actually being used by the historians noted above. This was the remnant of Tristram Winslade’s interrogation in the Tower of London in 1588.[25] Tristram had been sailing with the Spanish Armada, as an unattached officer in Philip II’s army, when his ship foundered off Plymouth and was forced to surrender to Sir Francis Drake.[26] In his interrogation, Tristram reveals that he was born in Devonshire and that following Sir John Arundell’s ‘troubles’ – his arrest in 1577 on suspicion of having kept a priest – he (Tristram) fled England.   He provides an account of his travels, the chronology of which is somewhat uncertain but includes time in the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and Ireland. His most recent journey (prior to being found aboard the Armada) had been to Spain, which he entered at Barcelona. Here, he was apparently arrested, ‘but being known to be a Catholic, he was relieved’.[27]  Importantly, he confirms the identity of his father, William, by saying that William had also left England in 1577, at ‘about the same time’ as Tristram had, but he had died in Lisbon shortly after being granted a Spanish pension on the basis that he had served Charles V ‘in his wars’. This, too, we find to be true. So much for the ‘walking life’.[28]

The truth of Tristram’s claim about serving Sir John Arundell is borne out by a legal deposition from January 1575 (on modern calendars), in which he gives evidence in a legal matter between Sir John and his wife’s son-in-law, Francis Tregian.[29] Stating his age as 24 years, Tristram confirms a  birthdate in the early 1550s, thus strengthening the argument that he could not have been William. Even more tantalising is evidence that at this very time – in 1574-75 – he was not simply serving Sir John Arundell; he was already in the service of Spain and preparing plans for a Catholic invasion of Wales.[30]

Here, then, through very few archives, we have the essence of a man whose lifetime’s work was centred around the devastation of his family and its wealth and the acute desire for a counter-Reformation.  But English historiography does not favour this story. If we are to continue with our exploration, we must turn to ‘the other side’: that is, to the historiographies of Spain, the Counter-Reformation and the English Catholics living in exile. Here, we find another story.

As already noted, the Jesuit historian A.J. Loomie finds Tristram working as a military activist in Brussels during the 1590s[31], and it is perhaps Loomie whose work on the English exiles working for Spain in Brussels is most informative in recreating the milieu in which he lived during the latter decade of his life.  Hyland is another Catholic historian to have gathered various bits of information about Winslade, from his origins in a ‘very distinguished family from Devonshire’, to the Tower of London interrogation and then to his death at the English College of Douai in 1605.[32]  Other publications of the Catholic Record Society also provide insights into Tristram Winslade’s activities after leaving England.

The early exploration of North America provides yet another story, in which Tristram, along with Sir Thomas Arundell and Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton,  advocated a Utopian colony in North America for those English Catholics who could not return from exile or could not stand to remain in England, which was by this time under James I. In this context, Dennis Taylor draws on a letter written to Tristram in March 1605 by the influential Jesuit, Father Robert Parsons,[33] who roundly rejected the notion. Taylor suggests that Shakespeare’s inspiration for ‘The Tempest’ came from this plan and notes that Winslade was ‘mysterious’ … ‘a veteran soldier and Catholic activist, who reargued the Catholic scheme’ but added that nothing else was known about him.[34]

It is beyond the scope of this paper to reveal every intricate detail of the known facts of Tristram Winslade’s life. Rather, what we have achieved is an understanding of how Tristram’s identity, his presence and his voice have been misread, misunderstood, manipulated and silenced by the grand narrative of English 16th Century history. But by rummaging through the archives and examining alternative historiographies, we have shed light on a man who, far from being a wandering harper, had devoted his life to planning invasions of England that would result in a Catholic Counter-Reformation – surely a life of deliberation, action, risk and suffering.




Every history has its losing side, and as an exiled character in a subjugated Cornish-Catholic narrative, it could be argued that Tristram Winslade’s voice has become doubly silenced. The man is absent from his history, and yet his name remains ripe for character assassination through a process of content evaporation that has left nothing but image of a crippled harper or claims that he was just a ‘nutter’.[35]  Indeed, the grand narrative of Elizabethan England is arguably so excessively triumphant that those who opposed its religious reforms are essentially wiped from the scene leaving the obvious few – Mary Queen of Scots, Anthony Babington and Philip of Spain – as the arch-villains against whom victory glitters. Beneath the powerful rhetoric of this nation state, alternative historiographies, while emerging through the efforts of post-colonial scholars, ‘revisionist’ historians and minority historiographies, remain largely buried. [36]

As we have seen, English history’s lip-service to Tristram Winslade can be interpreted as a lack of real interest in the context of his story or perhaps confusion. At worst it represents a deliberately contrived silence that pretends to tell a story but which in fact says nothing; the insidious type of silence that is not so much about the ‘complete absence of talk’ – there has been a great deal of ‘talk’ about Tristram – but rather ‘the absence of content’.[37]  By tunnelling into the holes created by this absence, both the revisionist historian and the novelist can unearth the fragments of astonishing lives that official historiography would rather ignore, expose the lies and suggest some alternative truths.

[1] There were numerous skirmishes and scuffles leading up to the disastrous 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion, all protesting against the Edwardian reformations.  See, for example: A.L. Rowse (1941). Tudor Cornwall, Jonathan Cape Ltd, London; Philip Payton (2004) Cornwall: A History, Cornwall Editions, Fowey; F. Rose-Troup (1913). The Western Rebellion of 1549, Smith Elder & Co. London, University of Michigan Reprints. Professor Mark Stoyle, in West Britons, Cornish Identities and the Early Modern British State, (2002, University of Exeter Press) argues that 150 years of Cornish rebellion from 1497 to the Civil War had its roots in ethnic struggle.

[2] Many sources cite the Winslade family as Esquires of the White Spur, described as ‘a rare distinction…(which) denotes military prowess’. P. Caraman (1999), The Western Rising 1549: The Prayer Book Rebellion, Westcountry Books, Tiverton, p. 31.

Archives, E178/531. During this commission, numerous witnesses testified to collusion between the Winslades’ enemies. Also, A.L.Rowse (1941), Op. Cit. p. 283

[4] A. Haynes (2012). The Elizabethan Secret Services, The History Press, Stroud.

[5]  C. Hayden (2012). ‘Tristram Winslade: The Desperate Heart of an English Catholic in Exile’, Cornish Studies 20, University of Exeter Press, Exeter.  (Translation from Winslade’s Latin by Michael Kelly.)   Also, A. J. Loomie. (1963).  The Spanish Elizabethans: the English Exiles at the Court of Philip II, Reprint, Fordham University Press, New York. Loomie’s book includes an appendix of Englishmen receiving pensions from King Philip II of Spain provides a precis of Tristram Winslade’s career (p. 263).

[6] Winslade, T. (1595). ‘De praesenti statu Cornubiae et Devoniae quae duae Provinciae sunt Hispaniae proximores’, unpublished manuscript, Hans Kraus Sir Francis Drake Collection No 12, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.    Hans P. Kraus was a New York antiquarian who included Winslade’s document in his Sir Francis Drake collection, which he donated to the Library of Congress in 1980. The Library of Congress has informed me that the description of the document’s content, part of the collection’s catalogue, was prepared by one of Kraus’s researchers and that they did not have a translation of the Latin. This suggests to me that Kraus’s staff read the Latin document but did not undertake a written translation, or, if they did, it no longer exists. Cheryl Hayden acknowledges that historians researching prior to 1980 would have been unaware of the existence of Tristram Winslade’s document.

[7]Confirmation of Winslade’s racking is found in a record of the Acts of the Privy Council cited by P. Martin (1988), Spanish Armada Prisoners, Exeter Maritime Studies No. 1, Exeter University Publications, Exeter, p. 75.

[8] T. Winslade, 1595. Op. Cit.

[9] The spelling of the surname is inconsistent in 15th and 16th Century sources. Wydeslade, Wideslade, Wyndeslade, Wynslade and Winslade are all to be found. In his 1595 document, Tristram uses ‘Winslade’, and so I have done the same.

[10] R. Carew (1602), Op. Cit. p. 157

[11] The word ‘heirs’ is a clue to the existence of Tristram and his brother/s

[12] F. Rose-Troup, Op. Cit. (fn 1)

[13] F. Rose-Troup, Op. Cit. pp. 100-102

[14] F. Rose-Troup, Ibid. p. 101, fn 4. Rose-Troup is rare, but correct, in her mention of the two sons. Tristram identifies himself in his 1595 document and while Rose-Troup does not cite a source for Daniel, he appears as a witness at the Special Commission of Inquiry into their father’s property, Op. Cit. National Archives, E 178/531.

[15]A.L. Rowse (1955).  The Expansion of Elizabethan England, Macmillan & Co.  Quote found in a new edition published by University of Wisconsin Press (2007, p. 43, accessed on line); A.L. Rowse (1977). Sir Richard Grenville of the ’Revenge’, Book Club Associates, London. p. 188. It should be noted that this was first published in 1937.

[16] A.L. Rowse (1977). Ibid, p.188.

[17] A.L. Rowse (1955). Op. Cit. p. 43.

[18] F.E. Halliday (1975). A History of Cornwall, Garden City Press Ltd. Letchworth, Hertfordshire, p. 183

[19] J. Cornwall (1977). Revolt of the Peasantry 1549, Routledge & Keegan Paul, London.

[20] J. Chynoweth,(2002), Tudor Cornwall, Tempus Publishing, Stroud. Chynoweth makes many references to William Winslade of Mithian.

[21] J. Chynoweth, Op. Cit. p. 291.

[22] J.P.D. Cooper (2003). Propaganda and the Tudor State: Political Culture in the Westcountry, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 62.

[23] P. Payton (2004). Cornwall, A History, Cornwall Editions, Fowey, p. 122

[24] B. Deacon (2007). A Concise History of Cornwall, University of Wales Press, p. 78

[25] Interrogation of Tristram Winslade, July 1588. Surrey History Centre, LM/1329/370

[26] P. Martin (1988). Spanish Armada Prisoners, Exeter Maritime Studies No. 1, Exeter University Publications, Exeter, p. 53. Also, Loomie, Op.Cit.

[27] St G. K. Hyland (1920), A Century of persecution under Tudor and Stuart sovereigns from contemporary records, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co, London. Online publication.

[28] In July 1551, Winslade was serving Charles V at the siege of Siena. Calendar of State Papers, Edward VI.

[29] Cornwall Record Office, Deposition of Witnesses, Tregian v Arundell 11 Jany 1574 (AR/17/107)

[30] J. M. Cleary, J.M. (1966). ‘Dr Morys Clynnog’s invasion projects of 1575-1577’ in Recusant History, Vol. 8 No. 6. October. A.F. Allison & D.M. Rogers (eds). Catholic Record Society, p. 316.

[31] A.J. Loomie  (1963).  The Spanish Elizabethans: the English Exiles at the Court of Philip II, Fordham University Press, New York. (1971) Guy Fawkes in Spain: the ‘Spanish Treason’ in Spanish Documents, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Special Supplement No. 9, Nov. 1971, William Clowes & Sons Ltd, London.  Also, T. McCoog, The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland and England 1589-1597.

[32] Hyland, Op. Cit.

[33]R. Persons, (1605).  Letter to Tristram Winslade in A documentary History of North America to 1612, Vol III. Quinn, D. B. (ed). Arno Press & Hector Bye Inc. New York 1979. pp 364-365

[34] D. Taylor (2013), ‘Prospero’s Island and the Catholic Exploration of America’ in The Catholic Shakespeare, Portsmouth Institute Review, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland, pp. 77-88.  Also Luca Codignola: “Roman Catholic Ecclesiastics in English North America, 1610-58. A Comparative Assessment”, in CCHA Historical Studies, 65 (1999), pp. 107-124

[35] Personal email from Powderham Castle, Devonshire, on behalf of Lord Devon, October 2016.

[36] This flavour of Elizabethan England permeates the work of A.L. Rowse, whose The England of Elizabeth (Reprint Society, London, 1950) is dedicated her ‘glorious memory’. He suggests that in overcoming the German threat in World War II, Englishmen ‘turned for inspiration to that earlier hour’ (ie: Elizabeth’s reign) (p. 17); in his preface, Rowse equates the Reformation, with its unity and homogeneity, as a ‘measure of progress’ (p. viii).  On p. 490 he likens the Catholics threat to a Fifth Column.

[37] V. Vinitzky-Seroussi & C. Teeger (2010). ‘Unpacking the Unspoken: Silence in Collective Memory and Forgetting’ in Social Forces, Vol 88(3), pp. 1103-1122


Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.