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History of the Cornwall Lieutenancy

The office of Her (or His) Majesty’s Lieutenants for Counties was established in England by the Tudors in the sixteenth century when France and Spain threatened the country’s safety.  County Lieutenants were appointed for ‘suppressing commotions, rebellions or unlawful assemblies’.

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The Lieutenant’s supporters  - the local gentry – were at first an informal group who could help when needed, but they gradually became formally appointed as Deputies. Cornwall was one of the first counties to have officially commissioned Deputy Lieutenants, in 1569.

The Lieutenancy was responsible for organising and training the local militia  -  the able-bodied men of the county -  who were expected to provide their own armour and weapons. Pitchforks and pikes were apparently much in evidence. Gunpowder was sometimes stored in the local church, as the safest building in the parish, with occasional predictable consequences.

During the Civil War and Commonwealth in the seventeenth century the office of Lord Lieutenant lapsed, but was reinstated by Charles II at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Many ‘disturbances of the peace’ at that time in Cornwall led to the formation of local militia regiments under the command of the local gentry: Edgcumbe, Coryton, Trelawny, Trevanion, Vyvyan, Arundel, Godolphin. It was the Deputies’ task to make sure that all the parishes collected a local rate to pay for arms, powder and bullets.

By the eighteenth century the County Lieutenants had acquired another duty and another title, that of ‘custos rotulorum’ or ‘Keeper of the Rolls’. It was their responsibility to appoint magistrates: local Justices of the Peace who were charged with the smooth running of the county’s business, at their quarterly meetings or ‘Sessions’. Maintenance of roads and bridges, the county gaol, supervising the work of parishes in caring for the poor, licensing pedlars and meting houses, and dealing with minor misdemeanours, all  generated a good deal of business, recorded on long pieces of parchment which were rolled up for storage. The Lord-Lieutenant represented the Crown and the Lord Chancellor and was therefore responsible for the ‘good management’ of the records.

Most of the eighteenth century was peaceful at home, the only threats being in 1715 and 1745 when the Scots attempted to put the Stuarts back on the throne. But from the 1780s into the early years of the nineteenth century there was a real danger that the French might invade. The records from this time read like a script of ‘Dad’s Army’ – would the elaborate plans for defending the Cornish coast  really have worked? Some of the Deputies feared the local population, armed with their pikes, as being more formidable than the French.

In 1871 responsibility for the local militia was removed from the Lord-Lieutenant’s jurisdiction, but until 1921 he (as they all were then) could still call up able bodied men ‘in real case of need’.

After the Militia Act of 1882 Deputy Lieutenants had no military duties at all, but still had to be commissioned military officers, and this qualification lasted until the 1960s when ‘civil qualifications’ were accepted.