Welcome to Cornwall
Cornwall is a very special part of England. It lies at the extreme south west of Britain, up to 25 miles wide and 70 miles long from Lands End to the southern boundary with Devon, at the end of the peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It has a spectacular coastline: in places strange rock formations take on the character of beasts, such as Lizard Point, which gets its name due to the rocks’ resemblance to a reptile. The temperate coast also has more than its fair share of sandy beaches. Cornwall was the last part of England to surrender to the Anglo-Saxons, and the heritage which emerged from years of resistance to the growing English kingdom places it as much with the Celtic circle as Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany. Thus, Cornwall’s is an ancient heritage. As Thomas Hardy wrote in 1870, it is a ‘region of dream and mystery’.
Arthur's View, Cornwall
Around 8,000 BC hunter gatherers arrived in the area, leaving evidence of their presence around the Lizard and on Bodmin Moor. Over 5000 years these people, and newer arrivals from the Mediterranean, developed agriculture and fortified settlements began to appear, such as that on top of Carn Brea near Redruth. In the 1st millennium BC another people arrived originating, it is thought, in Asia Minor and the landscape became dotted with hill castles and coastal forts, some of which survive as ruins today. When the Romans came to Britain they called the inhabitants of the islands Celts.
It is thought that the Roman conquest of England, while it may have been widespread, may not have penetrated deeply into the native village life and culture of remoter places like Cornwall. Romans may have intermittently come for Cornish tin but it was much more easily accessible from their Spanish mines. The real threat to Celtic culture came after Roman withdrawal with the invasion of the Saxons in the 5th century AD. Saxon invasion forced the Celtic peoples to the extremes of the islands, to the north, west and to Cornwall in the south west. One name for the land at this time was Cornouia: the land of the Cornovii or ‘horn people,’ so called possibly for the horn of land which they now occupied.
The following centuries were marked by the struggle for the survival of the Cornish realm. By 700 AD the Saxons reached the Bristol Channel, cutting the Cornish off from their kin in Wales. In 705 the Celts lost Exeter. This was followed by a series of battles prompted by King Ina’s attempts to conquer Cornwall. Cornish resistance was strong: they won in 722 led by King Roderick, chief of the Welsh and Cornish Britons. But generally the Cornish were losing ground. This prompted them, in 787, to seek an alliance with the Danes. While it did not discourage the Saxons it may have postponed their eventual conquest. This happened in 838, when a Cornish-Danish alliance was defeated by the armies of Ecgberht, king of Wessex, at Hingston Down, near Callington.
Cornish kings accepted English overlordship but retained a great deal of autonomy. In 936 the present frontier between Devon and Cornwall was established at the River Tamar by Athelstan, King of Wessex. When England was conquered by the Normans in 1066 Robert of Mortain became the Earl of Cornwall and built a castle at Launceston. In 1337 Edward ‘the Black Prince’ was named Earl of Cornwall by his father, King Edward III; since then the heir to the English (and later British) throne has been titled ‘Earl of Cornwall.’
Even this did not spell the end for the Cornish culture or language. In the 16th century Cornwall put up a strong resistance to the imposition of an English language Prayer Book, which resulted in a series of bloody battles which the locals were not in a position to win. The imposition of the Prayer Book certainly aided the decline of the language.
The last known native Cornish speaker, Doartye Pentreath, died in 1777. Even today however there are said to be in excess of 300 fluent speakers of the language. There is a Cornish monthly magazine, An Gannas and the language is just one reflection of their pride in their local identity: others include the maintenance of the Cornish flag, (a white cross on a black background) and the Patron Saint, the 5th century Holy man St Piran (Saint of miners). Pressure to excavate St Piran’s Oratory at Perranzabuloe, now marked by a concrete bunker, will not cease.
In the 18th and 19th century Cornwall was at the forefront of industrialisation. The base for this economic change was mining, especially of tin and copper. Cornish engineers, such as Richard Trevithick, became famed across the world. Around 1900 there was an economic decline in Cornwall and many Cornish miners left for Australia and the US where their expertise was much in demand. Fortunately the 19th century saw the construction of the first effective road links to Cornwall and also the arrival of the railway. Since then the natural delights of the county have enticed many from other places in Britain and beyond and the area has been opened up to tourism, which now benefits the local economy greatly.
Today historically and culturally sensitive visitors to Cornwall will be aware of the feeling of crossing a border when entering this mystical land. In some ways Cornwall is a failed nation, but it would be unfair to merely define it as such. It is better described as one of the last remnants of Celtic England, whose folklore and mythology has not been a victim the bloated self confidence of imperial success. What other English county has contributed more to a pre-imperial English identity? Where would England be without King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Lost Land of Lyonesse, tales of mermaids, and so on? For the Cornish are the descendants of the peoples from whom all of these legends and myths owe their origins.