The leaders of the G7 have gathered in Cornwall this week. Perhaps they might visit some of the sites of local interest, though sadly, President Joe Biden’s visit to St Michael’s Mount was cancelled due to poor weather. A very Cornish mizzle had settled in.
It’s not often that Cornwall and high politics converge. And now that the global power elite is down in the far southwest, it brings up the question of what all those high-powered visitors might think of it. Perhaps some of them might wonder what Cornwall is exactly, and how it fits in with the rest of the British Isles. The Cornwall of the popular imagination — cream teas, Poldark and fishing villages — is well known. Beneath the exterior, however, is something else, something much more complex and unusual, with profound consequences for the way we see England as a whole.
The last time the question of Cornwall’s identity was raised in Parliament was back in 2019. In July that year, Lord Bourne, who was then the Welsh Minister, told the House of Lords, “There are issues relating to Cornwall that are very different from other parts of the country,” before adding, “I better not say other parts of England because one thing that much of Cornwall is united on is that it is not part of England.”
Not part of England. There it is — the fundamental oddity of Cornwall: that despite being joined to the rest of the British landmass, it is somehow different. Most visitors, and perhaps some G7 attendees too, will sense that something unusual is going on from all those extraordinary and often bewildering Cornish place names: Lostwithiel, Mevagissey, Praze-an-Beeble, Perranzabuloe. It can feel like a foreign country.
When Cornwall is referred to as “the land beyond England,” it is with good reason. For thousands of years, its history was separate from the eastern parts of Britain, a fact embodied in the Neolithic standing stones and burial chambers found across the county. The Trethevy Quoit at St Cleer, for example, was constructed in around 3,500 BC. We know nothing of the people who cut those stones and hoisted them into place. But we do know that nothing like it exists anywhere else in England.
The settlers who are often referred to as “Celtic” first arrived in Cornwall from the continent in around 900 BC and as F E Halliday wrote in A History of Cornwall (1959) these Celts were no homogenous group. They were “a mixture of various races, of tall fair long-headed Nordics, of stocky round-headed… folk, of short dark long-headed Iberians.”
These “Celts” brought with them their own, deep history of cultural exchange, and some of these atavistic influences, Halliday speculated, found their way into the Cornish language. “Many constructions in Cornish resemble those in non-Aryan Hamitic languages,” Halliday said. “And the Iberians were almost certainly a Hamitic people, coming ultimately from Egypt and North Africa.” These people settled and flourished in the far west of Britain more than eighteen centuries before the Anglo-Saxon domains of the east merged to form the kingdom of “Engle-Land”.
The Romans didn’t much like the look of Cornwall, and it seems that the bulk of their trade with the metal merchants of the far west was done not by land but by sea. Tin and other metals have been mined in Cornwall for thousands of years, and Rome wanted its share. But the distances involved were too great, and the wild, savage tribes of the west of Britain were more than unwelcoming, as were the tracts of barren moorland and mist-covered bog. Rome made little headway into the land they called Cornubia, but the name stuck, at least until the Saxons arrived. They didn’t like the look of the west Britons either, and couldn’t make out their language. They thought them strange, and named them accordingly — wealas was the Anglo-Saxon for “stranger” and they attached this suffix to the Roman name, to get Corn-wealas meaning “the strangers of the cape”. (Wealas is also the origin of the name Wales.)
But the Anglo-Saxon invaders lost patience with the restless strangers in the west, and at the Battle of Deorham in 577, just outside Bath, the Britons were defeated and driven back into the west, the Welsh to the north of the Bristol channel, the Cornish to the south. This sundering of the two cultures cut off one from another, and both began to develop independently. But whereas the Welsh chronicled their history with the great accounts of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Giraldus Cambrensis and more, the Cornish had no such national literature. The only substantial Cornish language texts that survive are the “miracle plays”, long-winded dramas that were usually performed at public gatherings. Works such as “Beunans Meriasek”, or “The Life of Saint Meriasek, Bishop and Confessor”, an account of the life and times of a 4th century Breton saint, have tended to enjoy limited appeal.
This dearth of recorded history led to the growth of something much more remarkable — the story of Cornwall is found not in its history but in its myths. Nowhere in Britain can rival Cornwall for the legends it has produced. Of these, the greatest is surely that of King Arthur, defender of the ancient Britons, puller of the sword from the stone and resident of Tintagel, a castle stockade atop a rocky promontory on the wild Atlantic coast. But there is almost no historical evidence to suggest that Arthur even lived. The mediaeval monks of Glastonbury once claimed to have discovered his tomb in the grounds of the Abbey, but this is now widely believed to have been a fund-raising ruse. Arthur, it seems, might never have existed at all. The same is true of Tristan and Isolde, whose romance was so famously dramatised by Wagner. She was said to have been the wife of King Mark of Cornwall and Tristan the king’s nephew. But again, apart from a much-debated single reference to “Drustans” on a granite pillar near Fowey, which could be a reference to a historical Tristan, it’s not clear whether either of these characters ever existed.
The stories of Arthur and Tristan alone would put Cornwall among the first rank of the mythmakers. And yet, there is a huge array of lesser-known legends, of giants, fairies, mermaids, lost cities and witches, which sprung up in the imagination of people confronted with a landscape that was at times inhospitable and not a little sinister. What must a Briton living in the first century AD have made of those stone circles and megaliths? We shall never know. But it’s perhaps no surprise that the ancient Cornish came to believe that their land had once been inhabited by giants. How else could they explain the vast stone carns of Carn Kenidjack or the Cheesewring? There could be no other explanation for the huge stone quoits, such as those at Chûn and Trethevy. The early church did its best to stamp out the native superstitions that had grown up around these monuments, but that didn’t stop local names such as “The Giant’s Chair”, and “The Giant’s Pulpit”, from persisting in folk tradition.
When Christianity did come to Cornwall, it arrived in boats from Ireland and Wales, carrying the saints who converted the tribes, and whose names are now found in place names across the county. St Piran, the Irish monk, arrived in the 5th century and the Cornish flag bears his name. The others came in droves, St Petroc and St Goran among them. There were also the lesser-known holy people such as St Winnow, St Veep and St Just, all of whom gave their name to remote hamlets but whose origins are now entirely forgotten, their stories lost to history. We know nothing about them.
But what remained was the strong sense of Cornwall — Kernow, to give its proper name — as a unique civilisation, with its own language, customs, history and national story. Like all things, however, its autonomy could not last, and from the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in western Europe to the rise of the House of Plantagenet, Cornwall was gradually brought under English sway, eventually becoming the possession of the Black Prince, who was made Duke of Cornwall in 1337. The Duchy of Cornwall has remained the property of the heir to the throne ever since. The huge mineral wealth, reserves of tin and other metals, along with the land’s extraordinary fertility made it a prize of enormous value.
Despite this encroachment from the east, the old ways persisted. The Cornish language lasted for another four hundred years, though it was gradually pushed further into the west by the spread into Cornwall of dominant eastern dialects. Crucially, the Book of Common Prayer was never translated into Cornish, which further reduced the language’s reach and institutional currency. As is well known, the last monoglot speaker of the Cornish language is thought to have been Dolly Portreath of Mousehole, who died in 1777. The notion that the language vanished with the death of a single person is perhaps a little too neat to be true, but it’s certain that, by the mid-19th century, spoken Cornish had died out, preserved only in the dialect of fisherman and farmer, as well as in all those place names.
Various people have tried to bring Cornish back, and of these, Henry Jenner was the first and most influential of the revivalists. Born in 1848, Jenner was the kind of busy gentleman scholar that Victorian Britain was so adept at producing, a sort of Henry Higgins of the Celtic fringe and he set about trying to create a Cornish equivalent of the Eisteddfod, the annual Welsh bardic gathering.
But so long gone was the old language, that in 1904, when Jenner made his pitch to the pan-Celtic Congress for Cornish admission, he was met with skepticism, and the counter-argument that Cornwall was no longer Celtic. But Jenner succeeded in arguing them round and the first Cornish Eisteddfod, which he called “the Gorsedh” took place in September 1928 at Boscawen-Ûn, a Bronze-Age stone circle near St Buryan. It was presided over by Jenner himself, and with his long white beard, heavy brow and hedgerow crown, he certainly looked the part.
Jenner’s Cornish Gorsedh remains an annual event, albeit rather a fringe one (the above photograph was taken at the 2019 Gorsedh, in St Just.) He would no doubt be pleased to know there are now around 500 fluent Cornish speakers, and that, on crossing the Tamar Bridge, visitors will read the Cornish greeting, “Kernow a’gas dynergh” — welcome to Cornwall.
He might be less pleased to read articles like the one recently published in the Daily Mail, by a journalist who moved to Cornwall in search of a life of idyllic seclusion, only to be greeted with so much hostility that she decided to leave. The realities of life in Cornwall are far from being the “Poldark Fantasy” of the journalist’s imagination. Cornwall contains some of the most deprived areas in the country and the usually reliable tourist industry has been ravaged by the Covid pandemic. Aside from a few deposits of exotic metals, such as lithium, Cornwall’s mining interests are long gone. It was the first part of Britain to de-industrialise and nothing has replaced the loss of Cornwall’s mines.
The Daily Mail article was perhaps a little tough on the Cornish character (my father’s side of the family are Cornish). The humour can be a bit rough and ready, and if you’re an outsider, then that’s how you’ll stay. Even so, the journalist’s account did unwittingly hit on a truth, which is that there is in fact a real difference between the Cornish and the English. In 2015, researchers at Oxford created a “genetic map” of Great Britain. In the course of their survey, scientists discovered that there is a genetic distinction between the Cornish and people on the other side of the border. “There are separate genetic groups in Cornwall and Devon,” the report found, “with a division almost exactly along the modern county boundary.”
It’s a shame that President Biden’s meeting with the Prime Minister at St Michael’s Mount was cancelled. If it had gone ahead, perhaps they might both have learned the story of Cormelian, the giant who lived on the mount when it was known as Karrek Loos yn Koos. That opportunity has been missed. But if Biden does happen to learn something of Cornwall’s ancient past during his visit, it could — at a stretch — have diplomatic significance. Might the President, who has Irish roots, feel a particular affinity for England’s “Celtic” far west?
For the Prime Minister — and for England — Cornwall offers a further lesson. Since the immigration of the 20th century, the idea of England as a culturally diverse society has become commonplace. The story of the post-colonial influx of citizens from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa holds that before, Britain was mono-cultural and that after, it was multicultural.
Cornwall’s history suggests that this story is incomplete. It tells us that England was culturally diverse long before the changes of the last century took place. “Englishness” is therefore not the indivisible thing that some people might take it for. It is a compound identity, and always has been. We know this because, through its myths, its lost language and in its ancient stones, the land of the far west tells us so.
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