In an age before surnames John of Cornwall was one of the first Cornish literary ‘greats’. A theologian, he studied in Paris before returning to Britain and teaching at Oxford. By 1197 he was archdeacon of Worcester but had been twice turned down for the post of bishop of St David’s in Wales. He was put forward for this on account of his knowledge of ‘Welsh’, although some sources suggest that was also the reason for his rejection.
John is best known for his version of the Prophecies of Merlin, written in the 1150s. These followed Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the 1130s. Geoffrey had borrowed the character of Merlin from ninth-century Welsh texts.
Those texts had vaingloriously predicted that ‘our people will rise up and forcefully cast out the Saxon race from beyond the sea’. In Geoffrey’s account, Merlin explains why two dragons happen to be fighting: ‘Alas for the red dragon, its end is near. Its caves will be taken by the white dragon, which symbolises the Saxons … The red represents the people of Britain, whom the white will oppress. Its mountains will be levelled with the valleys, and the rivers in the valleys will flow with blood. Religious observance will be destroyed and churches stand in ruins. At last the oppressed will rise up and resist the foreigners’ fury. The boar of Cornwall will lend his aid and trample the foreigners’ necks beneath his feet.’ The boar of Cornwall was Arthur.
Most of the prophecies in John’s text are more obscure, to say the least. For example, ‘then the lily will be twisted from the narcissus and the Christ-thorn, and gold will drip from the horns of the sheep’. Anyone seeking the result of the next Cornish Pirates game will be disappointed. Nevertheless, in John’s version, two thirds of Merlin’s prophecies are distinctive and don’t appear in Geoffrey’s. This suggests access to a different, possibly Cornish or Breton, source. Meanwhile, various glosses added by John were written in Cornish.
The importance of John’s work is that it proclaimed a non-English perspective and the existence of a distinct Cornish identity. Furthermore, it hints at a native prophetic tradition surviving in Cornwall until at least the 11th or 12th centuries, 200 years after Cornwall’s supposed integration into an emerging English kingdom.