Cornwall: Land of the English Celts
Hidden in a southwest corner of England is one of the jewels of the Celtic crown. Cornwall may officially be a part of England but its history, culture, and language are more aligned with those of its Celtic cousins: Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Cornish are proud of their ethnic heritage and work to keep it thriving. It’s unsurprising, then, that there have been periodic attempts to make the county an independent country. No matter what its political status is or may be, Cornwall has a rich heritage to explore virtually or in person.
Before the Romans established Britannia, the island was inhabited by Celtic tribes. During the Roman occupation, many of the Celts moved to the northern and western parts of the island. This displacement became more pronounced after the Romans left and the island was invaded by the Germanic Angles and Saxons, creating what has come to be called “the Celtic fringe.” The areas which made up the fringe are now Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. The Cornish established the River Tamar as a boundary between themselves and the Anglo-Saxons. Since Cornwall, a peninsula, is surrounded on its other three sides by water, the Cornish were well-placed to defend their territory. This geography also increased their isolation, allowing them to hold onto their customs and language.
Even though the Anglo-Saxons managed to subdue the Cornish in the early 9th century A.D. and Cornwall technically became an English county, the people kept their style of dress, their folk traditions, and their own language. Into the Tudor period, the Cornish still considered themselves a race apart, proud descendants of Celtic Britons.
The Reformation dealt a tremendous blow to Cornish identity, though, by nearly wiping out their language.
The Celtic languages, such as Scots Gaelic and Welsh, are a family of languages believed to be descended from a common language. This is the same as Spanish, French, and Portuguese all belonging to the family of Romance languages. The Celtic family of language has two branches: Insular and Continental. The Insular is made up primarily of those spoken in Great Britain and Ireland (with one exception), and the Insular further subdivides into Goidelic and Brythonic. Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx are part of the Goidelic branch (along with Breton, which is spoken in Brittany, France). Welsh and Cornish are part of the Brythonic branch. Theoretically, a Welsh speaker can understand someone speaking Cornish and vice-versa.
Until the mid-16th century, the people of Cornwall spoke Cornish as their everyday language. In 1549, however, the Tudor government under Edward VI decreed that the liturgy be said using the new Prayer Book in English. Previously, it had been said in Latin except for the Creed which, in Cornwall, was recited in Cornish. The Cornish people were already angry about
Henry VIII’s assault on the traditional church but this new requirement—praying in English—proved intolerable. Fierce rebellion broke out. By its end, over 4,000 Cornish had been killed and Cornwall capitulated. English became the new official language and, within 200 years, the native language had nearly died out.
With the 20th century, came a renewal of native interest in speaking Cornish and reclaiming a Celtic Briton identity. By the 2001 UK Census, 34,000 people living in Cornwall (population around 500,000) identified themselves as Cornish rather than British. In 2014, the government of the UK officially recognized Cornish as a national minority. In Cornwall, the Cornish language is now taught in primary school along with English, and there has been a revival of songs sung in Cornish.
Tin and Independence
Mining tin has been an important part of the history of Cornwall, even pre-dating the Romans. The areas where tin was mined became known as Stannaries. Each Stannary had its own laws. From this developed the Stannary Court and Parliament. Under the Stannary Charter of 1305, Edward I of England granted the Stannary Courts the right to judge legal disputes. In 1337, the Duchy of Cornwall was created and the whole of Cornwall was then governed by the Stannary Parliament. This strengthened the Cornish perception of their status as an independent duchy.
Henry VII’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, held the title of the Duke of Cornwall. In 1496, he tried to introduce changes to the Stannaries. This did not go down well with the Cornish, so they refused to enact the changes. In response, King Henry shut down the Parliament and raised the people’s taxes. This led to a rebellion and a march on London. The Cornish lost the rebellion but metaphorically won the war. Henry VII reopened the Stannary Parliament and, with the Charter of Pardon in 1508, the Cornish Parliament was granted the authority to ignore laws made in the Westminster Parliament.
Oliver Cromwell abolished the Duchy of Cornwall but, in 1660, Charles II restored it. Nevertheless, it fell into disuse and met for the final time in 1753. Still, the Charter of Pardon, which gave Cornwall the right to ignore the laws made in the English Parliament at Westminster, has never been revoked. Thus, since 1973 there have been period calls to reopen the Stannary Parliament and reestablish an independent government in Cornwall.
Sights to See in Cornwall
Cornwall isn’t big. It is just over 1,300 square miles in size, smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware. But it is bursting with sights to see and experience. Here are five to consider, should you ever get the chance to visit this Celtic jewel.
It would be practically sacrilegious to go to Cornwall and not visit Tintagel. The ruins of this medieval castle sit on a jagged cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Fans of Arthurian legend will know that Arthur is believed to have been conceived (with a magical assist from Merlin) at
Tintagel when Uther Pendragon spent the night with the Duchess of Cornwall. Bu there is more to this site than folklore. Archaeological digs have found pottery and other items from the 5th and 7th century. Tintagel is believed to have played an important role in trade between Cornwall and the Mediterranean and to have been the fortress of Cornish rulers. The castle itself was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in the 13th century. He also built a walled garden. Among what remains of it are stepping stones engraved with the tragic story of Tristan and Iseult (aka Isolde), a medieval romance. In it, King Mark of Cornwall sends his nephew, Tristan, to Ireland to collect Mark’s arranged bride-to-be, Iseult. During the journey back to Cornwall, Tristan and Iseult unwittingly drink a love potion and fall madly in love with each other. Iseult, however, is contractually obligated to marry the king. The story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. All three principals die.
About seventeen miles from Tintagel, you can find the Hurlers’ Stone Circles, three circles of stone from the Neolithic or Bronze Age. According to legend, the stones are the remains of men who were petrified for playing hurling on Sunday. They are located on Bodmin Moor, an expanse of wild beauty, worth exploring in itself, whether you’re into ancient stones or not.
If you’d like some company while wandering the moor, you might enjoy the Alpaca Walking Trek by Ninestones Farmhouse. For 35 euros (about 43 dollars currently), you can go on an hour tour of the moor accompanied by an Alpaca. The tour includes a talk about the health and history of alpacas, instructions on how to handle your companion, some treats to feed your friend along the way, and, when you return to the farmhouse, you get treated to a Cornish Cream Tea.
Prefer a little quiet contemplation time? The Waterfalls at St. Nectan’s Glen are considered one of the most spiritual of places in the UK. It is a site of unspoiled, natural beauty where you can just relax among animals, songbirds, and the sound of the falls. It’s rumored there might be a few faeries, pixies, and spirts hanging about too!
Want to combine relaxing with exploring? Consider taking a trip on Cornwall’s Great Scenic Railway. There are four routes to choose from. My choice would be the trip from the market town of Liskeard to the fishing port of Looe. On the train, you’ll be treated to views of beautiful wooded valleys and watch as the river meets the sea. This is a great trip for lovers of wildlife and birds. The river is the haunt of herons, egrets, and curlews as well as other wading birds. When you reach Looe, you can hit the beach or go for a stroll through the town, exploring its many shops, pubs, and restaurants. If you want to linger in Looe, there are a number of hotels, B&Bs, and even camping accommodations. At less than 5 euros, the train fare leaves you money for a splurge in town!
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