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A Breif History of Cornwall

The early history of Europe is marked by waves of colonising peoples, each able to superimpose their culture on the preceding due to superior technology, agriculture, political organisation or abilities in war.

The peoples invading Britain are in order the Gaelic Celts, the British Celts, Romans, and then the Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes etc.) and later the Normans (Norse or Norwegians who had settled in France and spoke a French dialect).

The Celts had closely related languages but in the Gaelic language a 'Q' is often used where a 'P' is used in British; this gives rise to the names P and Q Celts. As the Celts swept through Europe they left behind Celtic areas for example: Galicia in Spain, Galata in Turkey (Galatians of the bible) and Gaul (now France where they often show Gallic temperament). Thousands of years before Christ the Celts ended their migration at the Atlantic ocean. The Q Celts settled in Ireland and later a tribe (called the Scotii by the Romans) migrated back to Briton to create the Gaelic area of the highlands of modern Scotland. The P Celts colonised the rest of the British Isles and later migrated to the part of modern France called Brittany.

Six groups of Celts still remain though much influenced by and merged with the peoples of later invasions. The three Q Celtic languages are Gaelic of Eire (the modern state of Ireland), Gaelic of Scotland, and Manx (of the Isle of Mann). The three P Celtic languages are Welsh of Wales, Cornish of Cornwall (extinct but revived as a hobby by several thousand people) and Breton of Brittany.

The Roman invasion of the first century AD had great influence on the lowland of England and there it introduced the idea of towns, roads and 'modern' administration. However they had little influence on the Celtic regions. They fought battles with some Celtic tribes for example those they called the Iceni of modern East Anglia. The Iceni were lead into battle by Boudicca (in British) or Boudicea (in Latin) and were coloured blue by woad. The other well known tribe was called the Pictii (Latin for painted ones) who lived beyond the wall that Hadrian built across northern England to keep the marauding tribes out. The Romans referred to the tribe living in the horn (cornum in Latin) as the Cornovii from which came the 'Corn' part of Cornwall.

Map of Cornwall - 1614
Jone Speed - Map of Cornwall - 1614

The barbarians that caused the contraction and fall of the Roman empire were various Germanic tribes. Some of these tribes (Saxons, Angles etc.) entered Britain and steadily expanded over the first thousand years AD, defeating the Celts in all of lowland England. Arthur (a Celt with a Roman education and background) tried to unite the Celts in the south and prevent the Saxons separating the tribes of Wales from those in what is now the south-west of England. 'King' Arthur (Arddur in welsh and Arturus in Latin) failed but later romanticised stories of him and the other tribal leaders (knights in the stories) have ironically entered into English folklore. From that point there were the north welsh (Wales) and the southern welsh (the south-west peninsula) and quickly the languages began to deviate from each other.

The Saxons established territories in the south (Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex, Essex for western, southern, middle and eastern Saxons) and the angles further north (East Anglia). The far north also had Danish settlers. Eventually a whole nation came into being with its own language Anglo-Saxon (to become English from Anglish) and Kings. These kings Alfred, Aethelstan etc. were crowned on the coronation stone at the King's town (Kingston-on-Thames) but made the roman town Londinium (in Latin) into their capital, London.

The P Celts of the north (Strathclyde Celts) were superseded and little remains of their language except North of England sheep counting (yan, dan, try, pethera etc.) which are the Celtic numbers and of course many place names there are Celtic. Cumberland for example derives from Cymry (the brotherhood in modern welsh and the modern welsh name for Wales).

The welsh remained independent until the middle ages when they were married into the English crown (the welsh family Teudar or Tudor). The Anglo-Saxon for stranger is 'wealas' and gives rise to Wales and the surname Wallis or Wallace and the 'wall' part of Cornwall (strangers from the horn).

In the south-western peninsula, the Anglo-Saxons gradually moved further west and several kings had expeditions to conquer these Celts. Many of the Celts from the modern counties of Devon, Dorset, Somerset and further east migrated to a rocky peninsula now in modern France. Here they set up a new country of course now called Brittany. The name of Britain is Celtic and is in Welsh 'Pryddain' (pronounced Brithin). In the Breton Celtic language 'dd' or 'th' becomes 'zh' and so the Breton name for Brittany is 'Breizh'. The Breton language deviated from that of the 'southern welsh' but it is still possible with great difficulty for speakers of Welsh, Breton and Cornish to understand each other. Breton and Cornish being more similar to each other than either to Welsh.

For sometime the Anglo-Saxons left Cornwall unconquered, due to the long distance from London, the difficulty of the terrain in Devon and the steep sided Tamar estuary and valley which separates off Cornwall. The wetter climate and the less desirable land probably also stopped the progress of colonisation. It can be clearly seen now in the place names where there are few Celtic place-names remaining east of the Tamar (avon is Celtic for river, pen for hill, coombe for valley etc.) but almost 100% west of the Tamar. Also the Anglo-Saxon incursions can be seen around the north of the Tamar valley into north eastern Cornwall.

In the 9th and 10th centuries there were battles, some of which were won by the Cornish (in some cases with the help of the Danes) but eventually the Cornish princes had to sign a treaty after the final battle at Boleigh (near Lands End in Cornwall). The treaty written in Cornish, Anglo-Saxon and Latin was signed at St Buryan which was given privileges as a Royal parish (Royal Peculier).

Over the next 800 years the integration of Cornwall into England took place gradually. There was little economic interest in Cornwall and it remained peripheral to the development of the country of England. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 the Norman French monarchy ruled England and introduced social and political hierarchies with sophisticated administration, law etc. These were superimposed on a Cornish Celtic peasantry.

The Cornish, Bretons and Irish were Christian before the Anglo-Saxons but they operated a typically Celtic form of religion with hermits living in cells (the Cornish saints, cil or kil is Cornish for cell), sacred wells etc. To this day the distribution of churches is much influenced by this.

Many of the saints were missionaries from Ireland who came to support the church in Cornwall. To this day many places and churches bear the names of these saints such as Ia (St Ives), Winwaloe (Gunwallow), Austol (St Austell). A story says that the patron saint of Cornwall, St. Piran sailed on a millstone from Ireland to land on the north Cornish coast (near modern Perranporth = St Piran's port). On the beach he made a fire and surrounded it by black stones taken from the cliff. In the heat a silvery metal ran out of the rocks. This is supposed to have given rise to the tin-mining industry in Cornwall and the Cornish flag of a white cross on a black background.

Only later after the Norman conquest did the English system of parishes, bishops and monasteries become established in Cornwall. Only in the last hundred years did Truro the capital town of Cornwall have a cathedral built and have a bishop. Previously the Bishop of Exeter ruled over the see of Devon and Cornwall.

The English language became the main language and by 18th century most people were either bilingual or spoke only English. Dolly Pentraeth of Paul near Land's End claimed to speak only Cornish and made a living speaking it to tourists (she died in 1777). However there were still bilingual people in the 19th century and quite a few people knew stories and songs in Cornish. In the 20th century there are many Cornish words and Celtic sentence construction in the dialect of English used in Cornwall but televison and travel have reduced the number of people with this dialect though a cornish accent still exists. As the colonisation confined the Cornish language to a smaller and smaller area of the western tip of Cornwall it became more and more influenced by English loan words and pronunciation and so gradually became more and more debased. As writing was introduced with the church using Latin or by the national administration using Anglo-Saxon and later English, Cornish did not benefit from a standardised spelling and remained a verbal language with oral tradition. The Cornish learnt and spoken today was constructed from all available written and spoken sources and uses a standardised spelling that is phonetic and corresponds most closely to the language of its middle period when it was distinctive and not so much influenced by English.

The industrial revolution hit Cornwall early and hard. It was one of the most heavily populated counties and had an influx of people from the rest of Britain. New villages, towns and roads were set up in association with the mining of tin and copper and the ports used to import coal for smelting and to export the metals. It is in this period that the Cornish language suffered and that the present pattern of habitation evolved. The industrial population were a target of the non-conformist Christian sects and so Methodists and Baptists became very numerous.

However the mining gradually declined and the population with it. In the early 19th century the new mines in Australia and North America attracted skilled and unskilled Cornish workers. In the 20th century the more economic mineral deposits elsewhere in the world have all but killed the Cornish mining industry. The many deep harbours of Cornwall provided both the shipping and fishing industry. The coming of the train service to Cornwall improved the fishing industry by providing a fast route to export fish to the cities of England. It also provided Cornwall with a new industry of early flowers and vegetables. This industry died as European countries with a more favourable climate have taken much of this trade. The fishing industry is generally thriving though technology, quotas and dwindling fish stocks have reduced the employment in the industry. Thus Cornwall is generally an area low in employment opportunities. The seasonal industry of tourism and holiday-making provided another industry but this too has suffered through cheap foreign travel especially in sunnier areas of Europe.

Cornwall is seen by most people to be just a county of England. However there has been a revival of things Cornish including the language, customs and flag. It is now possible to study the language for school examinations. There are some connections between the Celtic nations that try to maintain these 'roots' against the dominating cultures. There are even a few militant people who wish to obtain some autonomy from England and have tried to set up a currency, parliament, a nationalist political party and a resistance 'army'. Only the party has had any success.

 - Some information from “Topography of the Hundred of Powder” C. G. Henderson 1925

- Extracts from The Genealogy of Tregenza Family by Paul Tregenza.