A History of Cornwall

by Dr. Douglas Files MD, NSC

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Oh know ye the county of pastie and cream -
with hay in the meadow and tin in the stream,
In the beautiful county of Cornwall
The land of pasties and cream,
The land of the miners and fisherman bold
The land of the smugglers in stories of old...

From "Where Now Cousin Jack?" by Ruth Hopkins


After the last Ice Age Britain was occupied by prehistoric peoples. Evidence of their lives, such as standing stones, hut circles and barrows, are relatively common in Cornwall. During the Atlantic Bronze Age around 1000 B.C. Cornwall was settled by metal-working Celts named Britons who traded with other Celtic nations. In their new home they discovered large reserves of tin which was used to make bronze from copper. Early tinners could not dig mines so they simply sifted tin from streambeds.

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Mên-an-Tol , "Holed stone" near Madron and Locations of Inscription Stones

The Celtic peoples' most-preserved Iron Age settlement is at Chysauster, near Penzance, where stone walls and fireplaces still stand. Their British language developed into several other languages, including Cornish. History's first written account of Cornwall derives from Greek author Diodorus Siculus (circa 90 B.C. to 30 B.C.) whose source was a man who had sailed to Britain. He described the Cornwall region as "Belerion", meaning "Land's End". He also stated that the local Celtic inhabitants prepared tin and sold it to merchants who peddled it in Gaul. The Cornwall area was conquered by the Romans around 55 B.C., but Celtic chieftains soon retook it. Wild moors and a lack of safe ports greatly limited Roman influence in Cornwall.

The name Cornwall derives from "cornovii", meaning hill or peninsula dwellers, and "waelas", meaning strangers. Many Cornish towns were founded on hilltops for defensive purposes and to this day local place names bear the word root "car or caer" (fort) or "dinas" (hill).

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Celtic Torcs and Cornish Hills

In the 8th century A. D. the Kingdom of Wessex encroached upon Cornwall and in 722 the Britons beat them at Hehil. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that in 815: "& þy geare gehergade Ecgbryht cyning on West Walas from easteweardum oþ westewearde."..."and in this year king Ecgbryht raided in Cornwall from east to west." After that the kings of Wessex held Cornwall, which they called West Wales or Dumnonia, as a semi-independent dukedom. Not much is known of Dumnonia's rulers, but a King Mark almost certainly reigned at one time. It is telling that according to King Alfred the Great's will, he held little land in Cornwall.

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Drawing of King Mark by Howard Pyle, 1905

In the early 10th century King Athelstan of England fixed the boundary between England and Cornwall at the River Tamar. William of Malmesbury wrote that Athelstan evicted the Cornish from Exeter, "Exeter was cleansed of its defilement by wiping out that filthy race" Athelstan's successor, Edmund I, was styled King of the English and ruler of the Province of the Britons (i.e. Cornwall). In 1013 Wessex was captured by the Vikings, but Cornwall was allowed to remain independent as long as it paid the annual danegeld tribute. Over time, the English came to tolerate the Cornish, and later substantial cultural mixing occurred. But Cornish land was valuable and kings awarded it to their closest supporters. By the reign of Edward the Confessor the native Cornish landowners had been almost completely replaced by English ones.

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Launceston Castle, which Dates to Norman Times

In 1066 William the Conqueror seized the crown of England and granted significant land to a new Breton-Norman elite. He gave the entirety of Cornwall to his half brother Robert, Count of Mortain. Absentee Norman landlords were eventually replaced by a new Cornu-Norman aristocracy. Initially they spoke Norman French, and later Cornish and Latin. The Cornish language survived the Norman invasion and evolved characteristics which differentiated it from Breton. Interestingly, towns in Cornwall were still named in the traditional Celtic style, even well after 1066.

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The Flag of St. Piran and the Cornish Coat of Arms

Cornwall retains its own flag, which was traditionally the flag of St. Piran, its patron. Its white cross over black is said to represent the victory of good over evil. The shield containing 15 golden bezants derives from arms granted to Richard, Earl of Cornwall during the Crusades. He had been captured and Cornwall raised 15 golden balls to ransom their lord from the Saracens.

During the 14th century a Cornish literature based on religious-themed mystery plays gained fame. Many of these concerned Glasney College, which the Bishop of Exeter had established in the 1200s. Later on, under the Tudor Kings of England, Cornwall ceased to be considered a separate geographic entity. Up to that time laws were specified to apply in Anglia et Cornubia "in England and Cornwall", but the Tudors began to assume that Cornwall was part of England. Still, the locals considered themselves a breed apart.

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The Cornish Rebellion of 1497

Over the centuries many battles occurred in Cornwall. In 1497 Perkin Warbeck landed near Sennan, claiming to be one of the Princes who Richard III had murdered in the Tower of London. He led a rebel force, intending to challenge the king, but he was killed in battle at Exeter. The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 began simultaneously among tin miners who objected to paying taxes for a war against Scotland. Since the time of Edward I, Cornwall had been exempted from many English taxes. Fifteen thousand-strong, the rebels marched on London, but were defeated by Henry VII at the Battle of Deptford Bridge. The ringleaders were executed. The Spanish invaded Mounts Bay in 1595 and the Civil War of 1642-1649 saw many battles in the Duchy of Cornwall such as the Battle of Stratton and the Battle of Braddock Down. Cornwall remained a Royalist stronghold throughout most of the Civil War because its special tax exemption depended on the Duke – and the King - remaining in power. The monarch's eldest son traditionally serves as Duke of Cornwall.

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Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, Taken by Cromwell's Forces after a 6-Month Siege

Christianity thrived in Cornwall after Irish missionaries called "saints" visited in the 5th century A.D. Saint Piran is now considered the patron saint of Cornwall, although in Norman times Saint Michael the Archangel held the title. Cornwall has over a hundred holy wells, each of which is affiliated with a saint. Early Cornish bishops were Celtic, but after 963 all bishops were English. In 1050 the Sees of Sherborne and Crediton merged to form the Bishopric of Exeter.

In the 1500s the replacement of Catholicism in Britain led to the Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall. Locals particularly resented the Book of Common Prayer being printed in English since many Cornish citizens did not speak the language. The king reacted to the rebellion with violence and Royal troops killed 10% of the population. After this butchery the Cornish language began to decline in popularity.

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Cornwall Church Parishes and Truro Cathedral

The Church of England was forced upon the Cornish but most of them converted from Catholicism within a generation. Later on, the Cornish took strongly to John Wesley's brand of Protestantism called Methodism. John and his brother Charles were well-received on a series of personal visits to Cornwall. From 1800 to 1950 the Methodist religion was the most common faith in the county.
On the first of November 1755 an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal caused a tsunami to batter the coast of Cornwall. For five hours the sea rose 6 to10 feet several times, and great loss of life resulted.

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A Tsunami Like the One that Struck Cornwall

Cornwall had long been known for its mines but the development of steam engine in the 1800s led to significant improvements in mining techniques. Machines could perform many duties previously carried out by men. By the middle of the 19th century, however, great deposits of tin and copper were found in other nations and out-of-work Cornishmen emigrated to Australia, South Africa and the Americas to mine the new deposits. A saying became popular indicating that if there was a hole in the ground anywhere, one could find a Cornish miner at the bottom of it. (A related adage held that if three houses were together in one place in Cornwall, two would be alehouses.) The last Cornish mines have closed now, leaving only ruins of engine houses with tall chimneys. Only the pasties remain – the vegetable or meat pies that miners ate for lunch.

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Ruins of a Cornish Tin Mine

The fish stocks are now depleted and Cornwall was never a manufacturing center. So the 537,000 local inhabitants have publicized their mild climate, rugged coasts and sandy beaches to encourage tourism. Cornwall remains one of the poorest regions of Western Europe, though.

In the late 20th century a political and cultural movement revived Cornish nationalism. The Cornish would like at the least to be recognized as a separate nation within the United Kingdom, like Wales. Children are now encouraged to learn the Cornish language. One local tale is illustrative: when an English family moved into her town, a Cornishwoman is said to have allowed that they were nice people, for foreigners.

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The Cornish "Riviera"

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Towns of Cornwall Today