I was 15 years old when I first saw —or at least, noticed— it: the white cross on sable, ablaze on a beach in the Isles of Scilly. The “Baner Peran” or flag of St Piran flapped defiantly in lieu of St George’s, which I had guilelessly sent scuttling up the pole moments before, as the piratical-looking friend I’d made that summer afforded me with an erratic Introduction to Cornish history. The only way he would now tolerate me as the “Sawsnek” scum I had turned out to be was if I sat through the tales of his clandestine, Germanic past —a murky recount that involved collaborating with the Nazis of the Channel Islands during World War II.
Dismissing it as a postprandial anecdote, I rarely thought about the episode in later years. But in time, as other historiographic shibboleths dissolved, so did the belief that Great Britain was the natural order of things. Below Macaulay’s long march from Athelstan’s Brunanburh to Trafalgar were the shadow steps of Arthur’s Badon to Culloden; a resistance to English encroachment embroiling a myriad plights and places.
Scotland, Ireland and Wales have long submitted counternarratives to demonstrate the story of the British Isles could scarcely be framed as one of unilateral assimilation. And though each may sometimes begrudge a foreigner insisting on their “inglis” identity abroad, their struggles have at least led to some perceptible returns, from parliaments to football teams.
While this transpired, though, one corner of Britain was denied from even the pariah’s narrative, typically on the strength of the constitutional curiosity of it being the first part of the Celtic fringe to be incorporated to the English state (albeit emphatically not into the English nation); and so, the first to lose its aspirations to a separate kingship. This corner was Cornwall, the persistence of which underpins how peoples, or gentes, are more historically resilient than nation-states and proof that, as J.G.A. Pocock once remarked, “[o]ne does not have to be a kingdom to have a history”.
Split from England by the River Tamar (or “Taw Mawr”, the Great Water), its mass of granite flows still prompt explanations that bear on the exploits of giants. Its flora —mostly bracken, gorse, heather and ling— makes up almost half of Britain’s total; its churches stand, squat like the adjoining tamarinds, against Atlantic gales and warm gulf streams.
Though it’s a rich land, oozing tin and copper from its veins, there is a puckish malice to its geology that can quickly tip into a darker animus. In Cornish lore, this nastiness is frequently attributed to Buccas, sea-imps like the Irish Puka or Welsh Morgans; but it is likely more to do with the rollercoaster ruckus of the landscape, in places —such as the drowned valleys of Fowey and the submerged forests at St Columb Porth— showing extreme subsidence; in others— like the beaches of St Ives and Newquay— sudden elevation.
Even when their backstories have blurred beyond retrieval, the old ways seethe at every turn. Such is the case with traditions like Crying the Neck, in which a harvester screams he “has the neck” of the corn in a ritual hailing back to Neolithic sacrifices. Small, productive plots and parcels still go unused in dedication to the spirits.
When many of these customs were still young, the Isles of Scilly were a single landmass. The archipelago began to sink —together with St Michael’s Mount— around 2500 BC, and submergence probably took place in the eleventh century (even today, the highest point on the islands is a measly 51 metres above sea level). Likely a garbled “Lothian” or an echoed “Lethowsow” —or Cornish for the waters between Scilly and Cornwall— Lyonesse, the fabled homeland of Tristan, probably rose from the folk memory of this inundation, drawing on much older British myths of a sepulchral island in charge of the setting sun; the site of which was thrust into fame as a potential Avalon first, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, then by Tennyson, who recast it as “[a] land of old upheavan from the abyss”.
Back on the mainland, while the Scillies (known also as the Cassiterides) basked in classical sources singing of tin-starved Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, the local Dumnonii were relatively unknown. West of the Legio II Augusta at Exeter there were few Roman roads and only a handful of forts. Despite this seeming diffidence, the Cornish name harkens to a late Roman text: the eighth century Ravenna Cosmography, which refers to a fortress of Cornovii (a Brittonic label for “horn”, the shape of the peninsula the tribe lived on) that was probably Tintagel. Curiously, one of the first Cornish kings that historians can place confidently is the rather Roman-sounding “Constantine”.
While Cornwall remained relatively unaffected by the Romans, it was certainly afflicted by their exit. Emigration to Brittany where, even today, the French does not distinguish between “Cornouaille” in one shore or another (and where the Cornish itself refers to the latter as “Breten Vyghan,” or Little Britain); immigration from Ireland (because more than 400 miles of seaboard are hard to defend) and the onset of Christianity all predated the English arrival. In the end, after so many battles —some won, such as Hehil in 722, others lost, as when Egbert ravaged the land in 814— Hywel, one of the last Cornish kings, probably attended Athelstan’s great court at Exeter in 928.
In this tumultous period, many chose to flee. The Roman historian Prokopios relates how the Franks encouraged the Cornish to settle their most sparsely populated lands. Others went further afield: among the sixth century bishoprics of Galicia, the Acta of the Councils of Braga record an “ecclesia Britonensis” and a Bishop Mailoc.
If the hagiographies are to be trusted, though, they were replaced by better folk. St Piran drifted in on a mill-stone, St Ia arrived on a leaf, St Mawes steered her barrel to the Cornish coastline, and so on. Never had there been a holier diaspora since Christ sent away the Apostles. So many came (or were invented in a fit of local patriotism) that sayings were coined to the effect that there were “surely more saints in Cornwall than there are in Heaven”.
Quite how Cornwall fit into the new Anglo-centric equation remained far from clear. Though the English were last to arrive on the British Isles, they were the first to institute a nation-state there. For the mostly indigenous Cornish, it all began and ended in a fudge —as much can be inferred by the title of Edmund, Athelstan’s successor, who styled himself “King of the English and ruler of the province of the Britons”.
Defeated but never assimilated, Cornwall never became part of England. Instead, it joined the nation in headers labelled “Anglia et Cornvbia”. This is articulated at the top of the Magna Carta, where the separate Arms of England and Cornwall are displayed side by side, in an arrangement reminiscent of Churchill’s much later words: “We [the British] are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not combined.”
This was not a comfortable understanding. The legends of King Arthur were made to ballast a ride that could potentially amount to a hostage situation. Tensions ran high; so much so, that when the French Canons of Laon visited Bodmin Priory in 1113, they caused a riot upon suggesting Arthur might not still be alive. “Nyns yu marow maghtern Arthur / King Arthur is not dead!” their hosts insisted, ready to wreak vengeance.
Even the Normans got in on the act, with Breton nobles and foot-soldiers swearing that their southwesterly land-grab was only a middle-finger to the ancient Saxon foe. Nor was this bluff comparable in scope to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s more ambitious stratagem. His Historia Regnum Britanniae (1136) annexed the Arthurian tradition (in the Matter of Britain, Cornwall is founded by the Trojan Corineus, while the remainder of Britain was led by Brutus), converting it into fuel for a British project that the Norman-English state vowed to fulfil. The gall of this move encouraged others across the sea to lift the legendarium of Cornwall into their own ballads, with the unforeseen result that many European nations have a specific word for Cornwall —and none for the other sub-kingdoms of Britain.
An earldom for roughly three centuries, Cornwall was promoted to a dukedom by Edward III, who considered it a steady source of revenue for heirs apparent. Though still separate from the Kingdom of England (duchy charters are still used as proof of this in constitutional law today), the duke was effectively sovereign over the land, making it a perfect jungle-gym for princes.
The duchy’s peculiar tenancy system had a long history, too: the 25 Cornish entries in the Domesday Book, for instance, disclose no obvious organisation. It also mirrored the distinct geography of a country divided by the mysterious “Cornish acre” i.e. a unit that flickered expediently between 64 or 120 acres. Given the overwhelming power of its office while eschewing the typical hereditary tenure with its heavy rights and obligations for a seven-year, free-market lease with negligible rights meant Cornwall struggled to produce a strong and influential gentry.
As a consequence of this, the Cornish towns were generally dominated by English Channel or North Sea peoples like the Dutch, Irish, Flemings and French. By 1327, over half the burgesses at Penryn were foreigners. The competition for authority also came, quite literally, from below, with the recognition of the privileges that would one day constitute the Stannary Parliament —an assembly of tin-miners.
Though it would prove its mettle against the French at Sluys in 1340 and at Agincourt in 1415, Cornwall suffered the burning of Fowey in 1378 and the sacking of Looe in 1405. In the Wild West of the English Channel, there was a free-for-all with war flashing hot-and-cold between Fowey and the Cinque Ports during the reign of Edward II. This was also reflected on land with the country’s descent into the War of the Roses, three decades of anarchy that Malory unkindly claimed was a throwback to the degenerate Britain of Arthur; a king the Cornish still insisted “Levyth yet… and schalle come and be a kyng [again]”.
Slowly but surely, the Brythonic identity collapsed. In 1532, Brittany, whose language was still mutually intelligible with Cornish, entered into a Treaty of Union with France while, at home, the English tongue made inroads. Even as sixteenth century fishermen still required English interpreters at court and vicars often made use of their Cornish counterparts in western parishes; broadly speaking, a happy parallel existed that was best summed up by Andrew Boorde in noting that “[in] Cornwall is two speches; the one is naughty [poor] Englyshe, and the other Cornyshe.”
Yet assimilation was repeatedly resisted. Despite winning Bosworth under the banner of the Red Dragon with Cornishmen at his side (and portentously naming his heir Arthur), Henry VII suspended Stannary government and tried to levy new taxes to fund a war with Scotland. Almost immediately “An Gof” (The Smith) rose in the west, asserting that “[it] was a scandal that the King of England, to make a small expedition against the Scots, should burden the wretched men of Cornwall who cultivate a barren soil or scrape a living [of tin] out of the earth”.
Defeated in battle at Blackheath (1497), The Smith was hanged, drawn and quartered. Though again defeated, the Cornish were not cowed; their resistance to English norms made obvious to visitors. In a dispatch from 1506, a Venetian Ambassador to Castile who was in Cornwall for a week observed that: “We are in a very wild place which no human being ever visits, in the midst of a most barbarous race, so different in language and custom from Londoners and the rest of England”.
The English would have probably agreed, considering the biggest complaint from visitors was that the Cornish rebuffed foreigners by saying “meea navidna cowzasawzneck” (I will speak no English). But it was the Act of Uniformity (1549) that converted circumspection into overt hostility. Already alert to the fact that parish registers were being used as tracking devices for taxation, the Cornish drew up a petition to the king declaring that the new service was “like a Christmas game… We utterly refuse this new English”. It was not that Latin mattered, but that Cornish particularism had to be accommodated.
1549 ended, much like 1497, with the clergy. Those not exiled were executed. Welsh, the Cornish vicar of St Thomas, was hanged from his own church-tower. A carrot tacked onto the bloodied stick was the bestowal of 44 MPs on the area —almost the same number as Scotland. But perhaps the real reason Cornwall begrudgingly began to integrate was the development of a British weltpolitik that converted the country from a backward periphery of London into the frontline of the Royal Navy. Salty sea-dogs like Richard Grenville of Stowe earned substantial reputations on the mainland thanks to antics in the order of 15-hour battles fighting more than fifty Spanish ships. But before the Cornish could truly demonstrate their naval stature, the Civil War exploded.
To Royalists, this meant complimenting the valiant, stout “Western Welsh”, often described as the ancient Britons par excellence and as masters of the “Cornish hugge” or wrestling, for which they were renowned. But to Parliamentarians, Cornwall was a giant “mousetrap,” and seventeenth century Devon resumed its Anglo-Saxon marcher status by being permanently on guard against the bare-legged, “beggarly”, “cruel”, “cursed”, “perfidious”, “heathenish”, “Mettal-men” of Cornwall. This intensity of feelings was displayed towards the end of the war when, in a triumphal march around Penwyn, the Roundheads brandished on the ends of their swords the silver balls of Cornish hurling –major symbols of Cornishness and an unmistakeable message in public humiliation.
In the heat of this internecine conflict, the corsairs of Barbary –nominally subjects of the Ottoman sultan– took advantage of the situation. Plundering the coastline from 1625-55, sometimes as many as sixty ships prowled the English Channel. The situation was so critical that Parliament looked to ransom over 3,000 English prisoners in Algiers and Sir John Eliot, the Vice-Admiral of Devonshire, was provoked to remark that “[the] seas around England seem theirs.” Taking matters into their own hands, the Cornish organised cruising flotillas that hunted for corsairs to lynch. Sir John Pennington did most of the work, down to ridding a pirate-base on Lundy Island. Initiatives like Cromwell’s order to take any “Arab” to Bristol to be slowly drowned and the bombardment of Tripoli by Sir John Narborough (1675) also proved effective .
The century (1550-1650) brought in two big changes. First, Duchy reforms and the removal of the royal monopoly on copper (triggering massive investment in both tin and copper). Second, by 1700, the Reformation, Civil War and naval enrolment left large English footprints where there’d almost been none. The upshot was that while there were 22,000 Cornish speakers in 1600, by 1700 there were but 5,000 (with the last monoglot dying in 1676 and its last speakers, like Dolly Pentreath, circa 1777). In short, when an unstable bilingualism hit, most chose to drop Cornish, often by forcing servants to address their children solely in English; while embracing a horizon that contemplated enemies more spectacular than England.
Though a rather cold phenomenon, this greater assimilation (reminiscent of Daniel Defoe’s comment that the Union was one of policy, not affection) was resisted in many quarters. After all, “Cornwall had never been conquered”. As late as the 1670s, a Cornish gentleman urged his compatriots to eschew “foreign marriages” with the Saxons (“Sawsons”) to preserve the country (“Kernow”). And in western parts, many still used patronymics in the old Welsh fashion.
Despite this, cooperation paid large dividends in the navy for Cornishmen like admirals Bligh, Pellew and Boscawen, capturer of the Temeraire, the French warship rendered famous by J. M. W. Turner. Even Britain’s most distinguished naval signal —“England expects”, launched just before Trafalgar— was not English, but given to Nelson by Lieutenant Pascoe from near Torpoint (“That will do nicely”, Nelson responded).
For all their naval hijinks, the Cornish didn’t get rid of Barbary piracy, either. They nationalised it. Though English culture made inroads, the law struggled to keep pace. Equity was achieved on foodstuffs through rioting and, on the “harvest-field” of the sea, through smuggling. Both were boosted by wrecking, and hellish storms were quickly spun into praise-worthy acts of God in which sea-sent goods were treated as manna from heaven. The most celebrated case of this took place in the stormy winter of 1739-40, when Scillonians claimed over 9,000 gallons of brandy as their salvage right.
Where the law failed to change minds, religion did its share. Non-conformism was undoubtedly the strongest wind to blow across from England (and certainly the most successful at cross-pollinating). Destroying habits once considered irredeemable, John Wesley repeatedly attracted massive crowds. Establishing moral improvement and self-help wherever his heady gospel was proclaimed, it reached a Cornish soul already coloured by a strong sense of individualism.
It was this entrepreneurial teaching that thrust Cornwall into the Industrial Age. Below ground, the parish of Gwennap alone was responsible for more than a third of the planet’s production of copper ore by 1824. Above it, almost all the industrial mining equipment in the world could be traced through a Cornish genealogy, most obviously in the development of the Cornish beam engine, but also in railway locomotives and sea-safety. Despite the claims of conventional textbooks, it was Richard Trevithick, a Cornishman, who developed the first railway locomotive in 1804. His model, displayed at the Wylam colliery in the North-East of England, was taken as a prototype by the derivative Newcastle School of locomotives that often claims the gongs.
No amount of innovation could, however, cork the immemorial superstitions. Sailors on the seven seas would still refuse to utter anything remotely church-related, even when their lives depended on it. Downshaft, miners would still leave bits of their “crib” or lunch for the “knackers” –underground Buccas in need of propitiation. Mining poems such as this one, by John Harris, seem haunted:
Hast ever, by the the glimmer of a lamp,
Or the fast-waning taper, gone down, down,
Towards the earth’s dread centre…
Hast ever heard, within this prison house,
The startling hoof of Fear? The eternal flow
Of some dread meaning whispering to thy soul?
But no international knackers kept the Cornish away from the British Empire’s lucrative metals, especially as domestic mines became less profitable. Settling around the world (particularly in Southern Australia, California and South Africa), the Cornish established outposts everywhere. The exodus snowballed so quickly as “Cousin Jacks” made the most of their mining reputations that between 1850-1900, roughly 20% of Cornwall’s male population had left, including almost half of its men in the 15-24 age bracket.
The money sent home by the diaspora was needed. With mining companies going bust and pilchard shoals migrating away from Cornish shores, the peninsula quickly found itself mired in a dependency culture. This bled into the twentieth century, with unemployment statistics that often almost doubled those of neighbouring Devon.
The worst was yet to come. As naval war industries in the area wound down, the English decided the suffering Cornish were a rather insular, defensive and defective people –a complete inversion of their stout medieval image. Subsistence became Cornwall’s order of the day for most of the twentieth century, with hunger and privation being stoically endured with great displays of solidarity and altruism; a literal sharing of crusts that was powerfully captured in a much later film: Why the Whales Came (1989).
Some, like the painter Sven Berlin, reckoned it was a lack of art that made the Cornish strange. He speculated that, to find succour from their barren and precarious lives —only lifted by an innate love of the sea— they had become clannish. Many were even less thoughtful in their disdain. While Robert Louis Stevenson may have toyed with Cornish features in Treasure Island (1883), in Across the Plains (1879) he observed that “[a] division of races, older and more original than Babel, keeps this close, esoteric family [the Cornish] apart from neighbouring Englishmen. Not even a Red Indian seems more foreign in my eyes”. A description that echoed that of English puritan Roger Williams, who complained two centuries before, in 1652, that “[w]e have Indians in Cornwall”.
This otherness extended to geography as well. Cornwall was perceived not as a geologic marvel, but as a Celtic twilight zone; a sort of frail, prehistoric shadow –tinged with pantheism– to England’s sturdy, upright frame. Perceptions such as these led artists such as Stanhope Forbes and Alfred Wallis to joke that “Cornwall is like a Christmas stocking –all the nuts go to the toe”. Tourists —known as “Emmets” or ants because they scuttled away in the rain— proved to be the balm to Cornwall’s post-industrial woes, in that they attracted investment and became the targets for local abuse.
But tourism (and wealthy English immigration) also posed bigger questions –not least due to the fact that Cornwall was the most homogenous region of Great Britain; with over 90% of its inhabitants being born there, according to the 1851 Census (and most of “outsiders” being from Devon). Though the Cornish avoided the strategies of the Irish, Welsh and Scottish by historically performing a very different manoeuvre in the identity stakes (i.e. instead of defining its “Celtic” nature in opposition to the British state, they branded it a justification for being Britons par excellence), immigration raised awareness that something important could be lost.
So as middlebrow metropolitans sold their houses for larger places (and leftover cash) in the provinces, a revivalist agenda picked up speed. Plays from the Middle Ages were studied to inject new life into the Cornish language. St Piran’s flag was flown, and rugby crowds (AKA “Trelawny’s Army”) descended on Twickenham in a sea of black and gold.
Not that revivalists had it all their own way. They were rooting for a rurally-inflected, post-industrial Celtic idyll when most of Cornwall was still caught in an industrial, nonconformist mindset. This division was most nakedly exposed in the Troubles of the eighties and nineties when New Agers (i.e. Celticised Anglos) settled in Cornwall only to find themselves repeatedly confronted by the Cornish (i.e. Anglicised Celts), who loathed how their anachronistic ways ran against the grain of local life. Afflicted with an Anglo-Saxon variant of the white saviour complex, they had —in the words of John Lowerson— come to see Cornwall as a “British Tibet; distant, [properly] valued [only by] outsiders and threatened by an occupying power”.
Nowadays, most of the old quasi-national constitutional accommodations (such as the Duchy and the Stannaries) are antiquated, but few in London would dare replace them with ones that might ignore the Cornish identity. Even below the Westminster politics, high blood pressure reigns, most notably in 2002, when the symbols of English Heritage on historic sites were removed by activists claiming that the English agencies were behaving illegally on Cornish soil –a case that ended with the courts insisting everybody keep the peace of the status quo.
With Cornwall never having been incorporated into the English shire system or shoved into the historiographic straitjacket of wilful provincial identities like Kent and Yorkshire, it’s improbable the Cornish will subsume into the English soon (especially when many of their councillors still write County Hall inside inverted commas, balking at the insinuation Cornwall might just be a county among others).
Far from being naïve, most will shudder at the prospect of another layer of superfluous bureaucrats and politicians –even in the name of St Piran. So while top-down autonomy will likely be more notional than real in the midterm, Cornwall’s cultural conscience –its most fundamental source of sovereignty and insubordination– is here to stay, and over pints of Doombar or Tribute, many a toast that challenges English hegemony will be exchanged yet with the cheer “Enys bedhes Kernow! Let Cornwall be an island!”
A regular contributor to Lapsus Lima, Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel-guide hack(er) and book reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower or at Excvbitor (www.excvbitor.com) for jottings.