History of Cornwall

(See also article on Cornwall)

The history of Cornwall begins with the pre-Roman inhabitants, including speakers of a Celtic language that would develop into Brythonic and Cornish. After a period of Roman rule, Cornwall reverted to independent Celtic chieftains. Since the Middle Ages, it has been a quasi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of England which was subsequently incorporated into Great Britain and the UK.

Cornwall has also figured in such pseudo-historical or legendary works as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, a precursor of much of Arthurian legend.

Pre-Roman Cornwall

Cornwall and neighbouring Devon had large reserves of tin, which was mined extensively during the Bronze Age by people associated with the Beaker culture. Tin is necessary to make bronze from copper, and by about 1600 BCE southwestern Britain was experiencing a trade boom driven by the export of tin across Europe. This prosperity helped feed the skilfully wrought gold ornaments recovered from Wessex culture sites.

There is evidence of a relatively large scale disruption of cultural practices around the 12th century BCE that some scholars think may indicate an invasion or migration into southern Britain.

Around 750 BCE the Iron Age reached Britain, permitting greater scope of agriculture thanks to new iron ploughs and axes. The building of hill forts also peaked during the British Iron Age. During broadly the same time (900 to 500 BCE), the Celtic culture and peoples spread across the British Isles.

Cornwall continued to serve as the principal source of tin for the civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans in fact knew the British Isles as the "Tin Islands" from Punic merchants who traded with the islands from the Carthaginian colonies in Spain. The Phoenicians traded with Cornwall and there is a strong local belief that some Cornish may be descendants from Phoenician settlers. The origin of the Cornish Saffron Cake is also reputed to come from this period.

By the time that Classical written sources appear, Cornwall was inhabited by tribes speaking Celtic languages. The Romans knew the area as Cornubia. This name is related to the words Kernow or later Curnow used for Cornwall in the Cornish language.

It is also proposed that this name may derive from the Celtic tribe of the Cornovii. A people of this name are known, from Roman sources, to have lived in the Outer Powys to Shropshire area of the later Wales and England. One unlikely theory suggests that a contingent was sent to the West Country in order to rule the land there and keep out the invading Irish. A similar situation occurred in North Wales. However, there is no evidence for this move west, and the Cornish place-name DVROCORNAVIVM (possibly Tintagel) referenced by Ptolemy would imply there was an independent tribe of West Country people called the Cornavii or "people of the horn". Possibly, they were a sub-tribe of the greater Dumnonii that covered much of the West Country at that time.

Roman Cornwall

During the time of Roman dominance in Britain, Cornwall was rather remote from the main centres of Romanization. Major Roman roads extended no further west than Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). Furthermore, the British tin trade had been largely eclipsed by the more convenient supply from Iberia.

According to Léon Fleuriot, however, Cornwall remained closely integrated with neighbouring territories by well-travelled sea routes. Fleuriot suggests that an overland route connecting Padstow with Fowey and Lostwithiel served, in Roman times, as a convenient conduit for trade between Gaul (especially Armorica) and the western parts of the British Isles. (Fleuriot 1982:18)


In the wake of the Roman withdrawal from Britain, Saxons and other peoples were able to conquer most of the east of the island. Cornwall, however, remained under the rule of local Romano-British and Celtic élites. It appears that Cornwall was either a division of the Dumnonii tribe - whose tribal centre was in the modern county of Devon - or they were a separate tribal entity subordinate to them. During the sub-Roman historic period there is no distinction made between Cornwall and Dumnonia. Indeed the names were largely interchangeable; with Dumnonia being the Latin name for the region and "Cornwall", or rather Cornu-Wealha, being the common Anglo-Saxon name for them meaning, literally "Cornish Welsh". The root of the prefix "Corn" is thought to come from Brythonic kern meaning "horn" referring to their geographical location and possibly also to the proposed pre-Roman Cornavii tribe (see above).

For most of its history, at least until the mid-8th century, the rulers of Dumnonia were probably also the rulers of Cornwall. In Arthurian legend Gorlois (Gwrlais in Welsh) is attributed the title "Duke of Cornwall" but evidence of his existence is scant. He could have been a sub-king in Cornwall because of place names such as Carhurles (Caer-Wrlais) and Treworlas (Tre-Wrlais). There was almost certainly a King Mark of Cornwall. After the loss of the territory today called Devon, the British rulers are referred to either as the kings of Cornwall or the kings of the "West Welsh".

This is also the period known as the 'age of the saints', as Celtic Christianity and a revival of Celtic art spread from Ireland and Scotland into Great Britain, Brittany, and beyond. Cornish saints such as Piran, Meriasek, or Geraint exercised a religious and arguably political influence; their activities also connected Cornwall strongly with Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, and Wales, where many of these saints were trained or formed monasteries.

The Cornish saints were often closely connected to the local civil rulers; in a number of cases, the saints were also kings. A Kingdom of Cornwall emerged around the 6th century; its kings were at first sub-kings and then successors of the Brythonic Celtic Kingdom of Dumnonia. The political situation was much in flux, and several kings or polities appear to have exercised sovereignty across the Channel in Brittany.

Meanwhile the Saxons of Wessex were rapidly approaching from the east and crushing the kingdom of Dumnonia. In 710 it is recorded that the "West Welsh" defeated the men of Wessex but were soon to lose more territory in the years that followed it. In 825 at the Battle of Galford the "Cornish men" in alliance with the Danes attacked Wessex and seem to have kept the status quo and retained political independence for the British lands west of the River Tamar. In another battle c.875 it is recorded that a king Doniert or Dungarth drowns and from this time onwards Cornwall is subject to England. A remarkable quote is attributed to the last independent king of Cornwall; "Sorrow comes from a world upturned". In 936, Athelstan is recorded as having fixed the eastern boundary of the Britons at the Tamar, massacring many of those remaining to the east.


Cornwall now became attached to the Kingdom of England, although the amount of its autonomy from Saxon and Norman England is currently the subject of controversy and reevaluation. The Cornish language continued to be spoken, particularly in western and central Cornwall, and acquired a number of characteristics establishing its identity as a separate language from Breton.

Ruins of the Norman structure at Tintagel.
Ruins of the Norman structure at Tintagel.

The Normans deposed the last native Eorlderman of Cornwall, Cadoc, in 1066 and supplanted him with one of their own supporters. They created a succession of Earls of Cornwall who held that office from 1068 to 1336, with many gaps. In 1336, Edward the Black Prince was created Duke of Cornwall, a title that has been born by the first son of the Sovereign since 1421.

A popular Cornish literature, centred on the religious-themed mystery plays, emerged in the 14th century (see Literature in Cornish).

Tudor and Stuart period

The general tendency of administrative centralization under the Tudor dynasty began to undermine Cornwall's special status. For example, under the Tudors, laws were no longer specified to apply in Anglia et Cornubia (in England and Cornwall); instead, Anglia was taken to include Cornubia. The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 originated among Cornish tin miners opposed to the raising of taxes by Henry VII to make war on Scotland. This levy was resented for the economic hardship it would cause; it also intruded on a special Cornish tax exemption. The rebels marched on London, gaining supporters as they went, but were defeated at the Battle of Deptford Bridge.

The Cornish also rose up in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549. Much of southwestern Britain rebelled against the Act of Uniformity, which introduced the obligatory use of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer. Cornwall was mostly Catholic in sympathy at this time; the Act was doubly resented in Cornwall because the Prayer Book was in English only.

Pendennis Castle, site of a 5-month Civil War siege.
Pendennis Castle, site of a 5-month Civil War siege.

Cornwall played a fairly significant role during the English Civil War, as it was a Royalist enclave in the generally Parliamentarian southwest. Parliamentary forces invaded Cornwall three times; military actions in Cornwall included the first and second Battles of Lostwithiel (1642 and 1644) and the siege of Pendennis Castle.

Cornish defence of Jonathan Trelawny, bishop of Exeter, who was one of the Seven Bishops imprisoned by James II in 1688, was commemorated in the well-known Song of the Western Men.

It is worthy of note that on many maps produced before the 17th century Cornwall was depicted as a nation of Great Britain; famous example are Gerardus Mercator's Atlas and the famous Mappa Mundi. Others would be Sebastian Munster (1515), Abraham Ortelius and Girolamo Ruscelli.

1714 to the present

1783 map of Cornwall
1783 map of Cornwall

As in other Celtic regions, Jacobitism enjoyed substantial popularity in Cornwall during the early 18th century. Resisting the established church, many ordinary Cornish people were Roman Catholic or non-religious until the late 18th century, when Methodism was introduced to the duchy and became widely popular.

Richard Trevithick's steam engine.
Richard Trevithick's steam engine.

At one time the Cornish were the world's foremost experts at mining and established a School of Mines. As Cornwall's reserves of tin began to be exhausted many Cornishmen emigrated to places such as the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa where their skills were in demand. The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 is attributed to Tin miners. The tin mines in Cornwall are now economically worked-out at current prices, but the expertise and culture of the Cornish tin miners lives on in a number of places around the world. It is said that, wherever you may go in the world, if you see a hole in the ground, you'll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it. Several Cornish mining words are in use in English language mining terminology, such as costean, gunnies, and vug.

In 1841 there were nine hundreds of Cornwall: Stratton, Lesneweth and Trigg; East and West; Powder; Pydar; Kerrier and Penwith. The shire suffix has been attached to several of these, notably: the first three formed Triggshire; East and West appear to be divisions of Wivelshire; Powdershire and Pydarshire. The old names of Kerrier and Penwith have been re-used for modern local government districts.

Since the decline of tin mining, agriculture and fishing, the area's economy has become increasingly dependent on tourism — some of Britain's most spectacular coastal scenery can be found here. However Cornwall is the poorest county in England and it has been granted Objective 1 status by the EU. A political party, Mebyon Kernow, the MK, or 'Sons of Cornwall', was formed in 1951 to attempt to assert some degree of autonomy (see Cornish nationalism); although increasingly the flag of St. Piran is seen across Cornwall at protests and demonstrations, the party has not achieved significant success at the ballot box, although they do have some councillors.

Recently there have been some developments in the recognition of Cornish identity or ethnicity. In 2001 for the first time in the UK the inhabitants of Cornwall could record their ethnicity as Cornish on the national census and in 2004 the schools census in Cornwall carried a Cornish option as a subdivision of white British.


  • Léon Fleuriot. Les Origines de la Bretagne. 1982. Payot.
  • Michael Wood. "In Search of the Dark Ages"

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