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Cornish History, Language, and Identity

Author: Amy Bullock
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A Brief Cornish History

Cornwall stretches from the southwest tip of England. The county’s history and identity weaves a fascinating narrative, from its prehistoric roots to the modern legacy. Cornwall has seen countless stories of resilience and reinvention. Yet rebellion and hard work remain firmly in its Celtic blood.

At one time, Cornwall stood at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution as the mining industry boomed in the 19th century. Today, more than a quarter of Cornwall is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This southern county attracts visitors from all over the world.

Read on to discover Cornish history and identity, from its early history and the origin of its name to the Cornish language and culture today.

Discover:

Prehistoric Cornwall

Hundreds of sites of historic interest dot the land and seascape of Cornwall, or Kernow in Cornish. From windswept moorland to towering granite cliffs, the region is rich in history. There is evidence of hunter-gatherers in Cornwall from the Stone Age, more than 10,000 years ago. Most of the megalithic sites began to appear in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age period, continuing into the Iron Age as tools became more refined.

Centuries of lives gone by mark the Cornish landscape, full of charm and stories. Today, visitors can revisit these through standing stones, quoits, ruins, and festivals.

What is a Quoit?

It would not be unusual if you have not heard of a quoit before. There are, after all, only twenty quoits remaining in the world. Most of them are in West Penwith, a district of Cornwall.

Quoits

Quoits are Neolithic – approximately 6,000 year old portal tombs consisting of a series of large granite slabs specifically left open. This suggests these structures were not burial chambers but sites to pay tribute and lay offerings to the dead.

Some of the best-preserved examples of these stone quoits lie in the heart of Cornwall. Trevethy Quoit stands on Bodmin Moor and is affectionately known by the locals as ‘The Giant’s House’. Lanyon Quoit is located in West Penwith and is one of the most well-known standing stones in Cornwall due to its proximity to Men-an-Tol.

Men-an-Tol

Men-an-Tol – ‘stone of the hole’ – doesn’t classify as a quoit, but it is a series of standing stones. It is believed that these menhirs date from the Bronze Age. One of the stones at Men-an-Tol has a circular hole in the middle. Locals would pass children through the gap to ensure their health and vitality.

Other historical sites from this period in Cornwall include the ancient villages of Chysauster and Carn Euny in West Penwith.

Roman Cornwall

When talking about Cornwall, it is important to understand the origin of the name itself. In the 1st century AD, when the Romans occupied much of southern Britain, Cornwall was known as Cornubia. The Cornoviii tribe lived on this land. The name Cornovii or Cornubia is most likely derived from the Brittonic word ‘corn’, meaning horn, horn of the land, or end of the land.

The Romans arrived in England in 43 BC with the Roman emperor Claudius’ invasion. While there is evidence of the 400 year presence of the Romans across much of Britain, their presence in Cornwall is a topic shrouded in mystery. The few Roman sites in Cornwall suggest that, for one reason or another, they did not push themselves upon the western tip of Britain. Perhaps this was due to the harshness and exposure of Dartmoor or the twisting tidal Tamar River valley.

Archaeological Evidence of Roman Cornwall

However, there is some evidence of this great empire in Cornwall. Archaeologists have confirmed Roman coins in Iron Age burial sites and have found a 2nd century Roman villa as far into the region as Camborne. Yet, for the most part, Cornwall remained largely unhindered by any attempt to dominate. That is until the trading of copper and tin became of substantial commercial value in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Valuable materials throughout much of history, this led to the increased development of settlements.

Medieval Cornwall

Stories shape Cornwall and those who live there; these tales connect people to the landscape and form a strong sense of identity. Strong Celtic roots run through the blood of the people who work the land and the sea surrounding it.

The Cornish rebellion of 1497

The Cornish have always been rebellious. It is not uncommon to hear of the gallant efforts of Cornish farmers and fishermen storming the Thames to fight for their rights. The rebellion of 1497, in the time of Henry VII’s rule, is an example of Cornish pride and anti-English morals. Cornish men marched as far as the outskirts of London to protest high tax enforcement. They aimed to regain their semi-autonomous status, which King Henry had taken away.

Although the Cornish didn’t win the battle, they did regain their rights to semi-autonomy and lower tax brackets. This consolidated feeling of independence and identity, which is still upheld today, can be seen in the Cornish flag. Flying high, the black and white cross celebrates the patron saint of Cornwall, St Piran.

The Reformation

On a later occasion, in 1549, King Edward VI introduced the Act of Uniformity, which brought with it the Prayer Book Rebellion. The act outlawed all languages other than English, and all Bibles throughout the country were only to be printed in English. The Cornish tried to fight back against this as it alienated the Cornish people. Many of the residents couldn’t speak or read English. A group attempted to march in protest, which led to an unfortunate end and resulted in the English language bibles being forced upon them. This contributed to the demise of the Cornish language and identity.

The Industrial Revolution in Cornwall

Throughout history, mining has played a core role in Cornish identity, especially from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tin, copper, and china clay led Cornwall to dominate the global market. Mining fuelled the Industrial Revolution. However, by the late 1800s, the market flooded and eventually crashed. The last mine in Cornwall to close its doors was South Crofty in 1998.

Cousin Jack

Towering engine rooms continue to scatter the Cornish landscape today, and these ghosts can be seen all over the county. The end of a prosperous mining era led to high unemployment rates. Following this, many Cornish miners migrated worldwide to South Africa, Australia, and beyond. Cornish immigrants earned the nickname ‘Cousin Jack’ by asking for a job for their cousin or friend ‘Jack’ back in Cornwall.

Read our brief history of mining in Cornwall.

Find Out More

Cornish Language

The Cornish language is a large part of the Cornish identity. Much like that of its Celtic familiars, such as Wales, or Breton in northwest France, the roots of the language are in ancient Brythonic.

The Cornish language remains at the root of place names throughout Cornwall. The last fluent speaker of the original Cornish language was possibly Dolly Pentreath, a fish wife from Mousehole who died in 1777. However, this cannot be confirmed.

The Cornish Revival

The language lives on today, with 515 people in the 2011 census declaring their primary language as ‘Cornish’. In 2023, the language had its most significant revival yet with a yearly spoken word and music festival and a website, Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek. This can’t be mentioned without raising a glass and thanking the efforts of Henry Jenner and William Borlase. In the 18th century, the pair became interested in the language and culture, and they are almost entirely responsible for the preservation of it today.

Cornwall Today

Major cultural festivities continue to take place in Cornwall. One example is Crying the Neck, which happens annually throughout the county. Crying the Neck celebrates the last of the corn, marking the official end of the harvest. Held in Penzance on Midsummer’s Eve, Mazey Day, or Golowan, still observes the cultural celebrations of this day.

The combination of personal story-telling and public celebration solidifies community identity for those who have lived here for generations and is inclusive for those who have relocated more recently. They demonstrate a passion for a deep-rooted identity whilst sharing the vibrant history with visitors from near and far. This allows for a better understanding of heritage and enables everyone to appreciate and participate, paying homage to Cornwall’s long and splendid past and present.

Meet the Author: Amy Bullock

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