Henry Jenner

On this day in 1848 Henry Jenner was born at St Columb. Jenner played a key role in the Cornish ‘revival’ that began in the 1870s and has long been regarded as the patriarch of Cornish revivalism. However, he wasn’t brought up in Cornwall, having been taken with his family to Essex and then Kent at the tender age of three. He didn’t return even for a visit until he was 19. Nevertheless, the young Henry nurtured an intense emotional yearning for Cornwall. This was possibly exacerbated by his unwordly education at an Anglo-Catholic boarding school. Both the school and his clergyman father’s High Church perspective bequeathed young Henry his world-view, one that he loyally took with him to his grave in 1934.

Discovering the Cornish language as a teenager, Jenner found a romantic surrogate, a consolation for his lost homeland and one moreover that gelled with his general attachment to all things old, preferably from before the Reformation. His work as a keeper at the British Museum from 1870 to his retirement in 1909 was an appropriate base for his interests. In the mid-1870s, he published articles on the Cornish language and toured West Penwith in a largely disappointing quest to find some fragments of the traditional spoken language.

Jenner as Grand Bard in what became required regalia for any self-respecting Cornish Celt

After an interlude, Jenner was drawn back to the Cornish language at the turn of the century. He wrote his Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904. This has been widely seen as kick-starting the re-invention of the language, while Jenner also played a vital role in getting Cornwall accepted as a Celtic nation. Returning to Cornwall on his retirement in 1909 he became a central and unmistakeable figure in the ‘revival’. Among other posts, he was President of the first Old Cornwall Society at St Ives in 1920 and inevitably the first Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorseth in 1928. He had written a draft ceremony for this body as early as 1907.

In recent years Jenner’s wider affiliations have come in for more scrutiny. For instance, for Jenner language was a less important factor in Cornish nationality than race. As Tim Saunders has shown – in his chapter in Henry and Katharine Jenner (2004) – he viewed the Celts (and the Anglo-Saxons come to that) as superior to the ‘aboriginal’ inhabitants of Britain, who he thought made up the bulk of the English working class. Politically Jenner was no Cornish nationalist; instead he was a unionist with views that were pretty far off the scale. While ‘opposing every radical cause from Italian unity onward’ he also looked forward to the restoration of legitimist monarchies, whether Stuarts in Britain or Carlists in Spain. In fact, any monarch at all was preferable to democracy, which he described as ‘hateful’. This wasn’t just an academic affectation. Sharon Lowenna (in Cornish Studies Twelve) showed how Jenner was involved in preparing secret codes for the Firefly plot in 1899. This was a plan cooked up to smuggle firearms to Carlists in Spain. It was eventually scuppered by the Spanish navy.

Jenner’s commitment was to faith (in the Anglo-Catholic church), throne (as long as Stuarts sat on it), and fatherland (both Cornwall and Empire). This dreamworld ideology was unlikely to appeal readily to the practical, down-to-earth and dour Methodist modernism of the average Cornish person of the Edwardian period. It was also a context for a view that learning Cornish was essentially a sacramental act, a personal commitment to land and ancestry. Nonetheless, his Handbook was based on the living Cornish of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Paradoxically, it was his less ethereal successors who took it further back in time, grounding it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and making it even more ‘classical’ and sacramental in the process.

2 thoughts on “Henry Jenner

  1. Jenner’s life and work constitute an abiding paradox. His sulphurous outlook on the world went hand-in-hand with a command of Cornish and a grasp of linguistics that would not be equalled for decades. Unfortunately, his repugance for those he regarded as inferiors (i.e. most of the human race), and his dilettante approach to anything not conducive to turning the clock back to 1788, prevented him from putting the Cornish language to work again. His papers show that he tinkered with Cornish for most of the last third of the nineteenth century, and that he planned several useful books apart form the Handbook.

    At the time, as far as I can see, he was most well-known as the husband of Kitty Lee. From references by people who knew them, I conclude that it was his wife who made him into the nearest that could be managed to a normal human being. (Charles Thomas once told me that when Jenner came into the tearoom in Hayle, everybody spoke in whispers and seemed to be walking around on eggshells.) There is certainly some work to be done on the comparative presentation of Jacobitism in their respective bodies of work.

    An intriguing thought is that when, during the year of the Firefly Incident (in which Jenner seems to have been the conspiracy’s cryptographer) his great friend John Hobson Matthews became a member of the Welsh Gorsedd, another prominent Celtic activist joing the Order of Bards was a young Irish schoolmaster, a moderate Home Ruler called P. H. Pearse. Some 17 years later, he would become the only member of the Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain (and, of course, I stand open to correction here) ever to have been shot for rebellion.

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