The myth of Dumnonia

Although disagreeing on many other aspects, both kernowsceptic and kernocentric historians unite in accepting a kingdom of Dumnonia as a clear and obvious fact. Dumnonia appears as a fully functioning kingdom, replete with kings and courts and operating for some centuries after the ending of Roman rule around 410. Its existence is endlessly and uncritically repeated while it sailed serenely down the centuries until rudely scuppered by the English at some point from the late seventh century onwards.

However, a political unit called Dumnonia could well be a myth. Once the Romans had departed, explicit references to the Dumnonii are rare and those to an entity called Dumnonia rarer still. Nobody in the south-west of Britain explicitly described themselves as ‘Dumnonian’ in the period from 400 to 800; no inscribed stones are found asserting a Dumnonian origin or identity. There are no credible king lists. It looks more like a vague regional description. English sources do not mention Dumnonia or Dumnonians by name. More significantly, the terms are absent from Welsh writings. The Welsh Annals make explicit references to Welsh kingdoms from the sixth century but there is no mention of Dumnonia, just Cornwall.

The kingdom of Dumnonia is as wisp-like as Arthur. Far from glittering reality, it appears to be shimmering illusion.

Let’s adopt a more kernowcentric interpretation. Constantine in the 530s ruled over a place known to contemporaries such as Gildas as Dumnonia. Dumnonia was the name of a territory, derived from a people – the Dumnonii – and a reminder of the Roman Empire at a time when British elites were keen to don the garb of Romanitas. Constantine was a member of a shifting group of elite families that had fastened onto the power associated with the prestige goods being imported from the Mediterranean. The centre of gravity of this kingdom was found in the west, with a periodic high-status presence at Tintagel.

In the late 500s/600s British colonies were established in Armorica

Dumnonia in practice meant a Greater Cornubia. The heartland of this kingdom lay west of the Tamar, with only fragile links to the east. The archaeological evidence from the sixth to the eighth centuries, the relative absence of Mediterranean imports inland east of the Tamar, the lack of pottery production in Devon, the paucity of high status sites there, the decay of Exeter, all point to a distinction between the west and the east. Cornwall was not created out of the rump of Dumnonia, as is claimed. Quite the opposite; Devon was in practice the ‘tail-end’ of a Greater Cornubia that experienced its high point in the period from 450 to 550.

In the second half of the sixth century the power of this ruling elite collapsed. Any hold over the extensive territory east of the Tamar then became weaker and was exercised in name only. Even the possibility of a coherent, uniformly administered ‘Dumnonia’ faded. The reach of those aspiring to the title of king shrank. For all intents and purposes during the seventh century what remained of the kingdom of Dumnonia shrivelled westwards into its core or might in practice have disappeared. Yet, as Dumnonia was primarily an external categorization, outsiders still sometimes referred to the region as Dumnonia.

By Aldhelm and Gerent’s time around 700 ‘Dumnonia’ was a term usually restricted to what later became Devon. Gerent might still have claimed some sort of nominal overlordship over Dumnonia/Devon. The problem was that by this time, perhaps from the 680s, the English were beginning to nibble away at territory in the far east. Devon/Dumnonia by the end of the seventh century was effectively contested territory and continued to be so until the 820s.

(Adapted from my Cornwall’s First Golden Age, chapter 2.)

The Black Death in Cornwall

In these uncertain times we need a topic that can take our minds off our current problems. It’s always a good idea to put things in perspective by considering those who are in a more unfortunate position than we are. That was exactly the position for people in Cornwall 671 years ago to the day.

In 1348 a ship from the Continent had brought the bubonic plague, later known as the Black Death, to Dorset. In the absence of handy vectors such as mass rapid transport facilities, it took several months for the plague to spread along the south coast of the British Isles. But spread it did. Those who claim that Cornwall’s ‘remoteness’ can somehow reduce the effects of Covid-19 are sadly mistaken. Even in 1349 its peripheral location could not prevent the arrival of the plague, probably by boat, by March 1349. The worst wasn’t over until November of that same year.

Reliable data on the spread of the disease was even worse then than now. One measure of its impact was the institution of new clergy to replace those who had died. In the decade prior to 1349 the average annual number of replacements in Cornwall was 4.2. In the year from March 1349, 85 new clergymen were required. This implies a clerical death rate of around 40%, which is quite close to general estimates of the mortality of the Black Death. Cornwall’s population fell from around 90-100,000 in the 1330s to between 50 and 60,000 by 1377. Although not all in one go. The bad news for the current ’herd immunity’ advocates is that there was a second, almost equally bad, outbreak in 1360-62, after which plague became endemic for two to three centuries.

Scourging was a popular remedy for the Black Death. Its effectiveness against the coronavirus is not yet known.

In Cornwall mortality is thought to have been highest around river estuaries on the south coast and in towns, probably reflecting trade links and population densities. Truro in 1378 was described as ‘almost entirely desolated and waste’, while in 1410 it was still ‘much impoverished by pestilence and death’.

Many farms and smallholdings suddenly became vacant. In Moresk manor around Truro in the early 1350s around half had no tenant, while on the poorer, upland soils of Wendron around two thirds of holdings were unoccupied. In the long-term depopulation became the norm for a century and a half. The 45 inhabited sites in Wendron in the early 1330s contracted to just 31 by the late 1400s. Arable land reverted to waste or became pasture, prices plummeted, and tin production collapsed to 20% of its early fourteenth century peak in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.

Yet the economy bounced back surprisingly quickly. Vacant landholdings were snapped up by formerly landless families, tin production had recovered by the 1380s, onerous feudal services tended to disappear, wages rose. For those who survived, the late 1300s and 1400s was a time of opportunity as Cornwall’s economy diversified and grew faster than elsewhere.

On the other hand the plague periodically returned. This period also saw frequent wars and occasional periods of food shortage and famine. Horsemen of the apocalypse tend to travel in groups.

Warbstow Bury

One of Cornwall’s most impressive hillforts is Warbstow Bury in north Cornwall. Overlooking the River Ottery around a mile to the north, it’s easy to imagine Cornish warriors using this fort to look across the valley, monitoring events there in the 810s or thereabouts. That was when the English were settling the land north of the Ottery and possibly expelling the native inhabitants in the process.

The ramparts still dominate the landscape

But this fort, with its two widely spaced ramparts and a partial third is an Iron Age fort and was built and occupied many centuries before the English arrived. As usual, according to folklore it had its resident giant, whose grave can be seen in the middle of the fort. More prosaically, this is now thought to be the remains of a medieval rabbit warren.

The views from the fort also led to its use as a Home Guard observation post in the Second World War, a continuity over millennia.

Warbstow Bury in 1882

Hooray, hooray! It’s St Piran’s Day

The actual St Piran, if there ever was one, proves to be a bit elusive. The cult of Piran was venerated at Perranzabuloe in the eleventh century and spread to other sites at an early date. But the Life of Piran, written in the 1200s, was plagiarised from the Life of the Irish saint Ciaran, who lived for 200 years and retained all his teeth. Teeth or no teeth, Piran clearly had a relatively high status in the saintly pecking order, Nicholas Roscarrock devoting a long entry to him in his Lives of the Saints of the 1610s.

Piran seems to have been an early version of Dr Dolittle, conversing with animals and converting a fox, badger and bear on his arrival in Cornwall. He also discovered tin, which seeped out of some rocks that he’d magically set on fire. However unlikely that was, Piran became the patron saint of tinners. While the Reformation put paid to the annual parading of Piran’s relics around the parish, St Piran’s feast day on March 5th continued as a miners’ holiday in the west. On this day games such as wrestling and hurling would be organised and considerable drinking indulged in. By the 1800s this had produced the phrase ‘as drunk as a Perraner’.

as drunk as a Perraner’

However, with the decline of mining after the 1860s Piran’s feast gradually faded. By the 1950s the day was hardly noticed outside Perranzabuloe. However, in the1980s it began its revival to become the major cultural celebration of Cornishness.

This was largely due to the adoption in the 1950s by Cornish revivalists of the black and white St Piran’s flag as the flag of Cornwall. The folklore collector Robert Hunt had in the 1860s described the simple white cross on a black background as the ‘device of St Piran’ and the ‘standard of Cornwall’. Its advantage lay in its simplicity, lending itself to the explanation that the black represented the black tin ore while the white was the smelted metal.

In the 1960s St Piran’s flag was derided as ‘MK’s flag’. Yet, it began to infiltrate the mainstream in the 1970s as the native Cornish reacted against mass in-migration from east of the Tamar and looked around for resources with which to reassert their Cornishness. St Piran’s flag was perfectly placed and by the 21st century had become the immediately recognisable and taken-for-granted emblem of Cornwall, adopted by businesses and even accepted by government.

In the 1980s and 1990s processions began to be seen on St Piran’s Day, first at Truro and then across the dunes at Perranporth. Here, a play about Piran was performed on a promenade from the holiday camp to the parish church that had been abandoned to the sands in 1804. Alan Kent points out how this was a re-invention with a powerful sense of place, taking place just a mile or two north of Perran Round, a plain an gwarry where an original but lost Life of Piran may well have been performed on his feast.

Pilgrims pay homage to Piran

Since then St Piran’s Day has gone from strength to strength, with events taking place in Cornish towns from Penzance to Lanson and among Cornish communities overseas. The parades and processions echo those of Catholic Europe. At Redruth, in a conscious evocation of earlier traditions, a giant lamb (the lamb and flag being a common symbol used in tin smelting) is paraded around the town. Meanwhile, older festivals such as the Hal an Tow at Helston and Padstow’s Obby Oss incorporate references to Piran and have adopted the ubiquitous St Piran’s flag. All this gives St Piran’s day, in reality a relatively recent reinvention, in Kent’s words, ‘an illusion of timelessness’.

The lifestyle of the Celtic saints

Around 140 separate Celtic saints were venerated in Cornwall. Later, it was assumed most of them came from elsewhere, from Wales, Brittany or Ireland, even though many were in fact probably native to Cornwall. As time passed, saints became the object of local folklore. In imagining the histories of their saints, the Cornish revealed how they saw themselves. Nicholas Orme (in his Cornwall and the Cross, p.18) has written that ‘between about AD 900 and 1500 … people in Cornwall … saw their past as linked with Ireland and Wales, not with England or Rome’.

Various miraculous events were associated with Cornwall’s saints. Cuby and Piran could carry fire without being burnt. Petroc lived on an island in the Indian Ocean for seven years sustained by a single fish, while Carantoc possessed a magic perambulating altar. This sailed of its own volition across the Severn from Wales with the saint hot in pursuit. Once across the Severn Carantoc had to tame a serpent that was annoying the locals. The same district near Bristol seems to have been particularly infested with serpents as Keyne turned them to stone by her praying. Not all serpents and dragons were being slain by the score in what was becoming England. Samson had to deal with one on his way through Cornwall for example.

Arthur figured in relation to several saints. Carantoc was assisted by Arthur when taming his dragon, while Kea returned to Cornwall from Brittany to broker a peace deal between Arthur and Modred. Endelient was the god daughter of Arthur, who had helped her when a local lord killed her cow. When she died, Endelient’s body was dragged in an ox-cart and the church built at the place the oxen stopped, something that also happened to Mylor.

Some saints were incredibly strong. Morwenna carried a stone for the font of her church on her head from the shore up the cliffs to the spot she chose. Selevan cracked a stone with a single blow of his fist. Menfre or Minver could fight off the devil merely by throwing her comb at him.

Saints seem to have had more than their fair share of bad luck. When a child, Mylor, son of a duke of Cornwall, had his hand and foot chopped off by an evil uncle. He received silver replacements that miraculously grew with him. Blaise was tortured with woolcombs but then very forgivingly became the patron saint of woolcombers. Selevan caught two fish with a single hook to feed the two children of his sister Breage. Unfortunately, the children choked on the bones. Gwinear was beheaded at the site of his church, massacred by the Cornish pagan King Teudar along with the rest of the company of 777 that he had brought with him from Ireland.

Sancred killed his father by accident and had to live as a swineherd in penance, later being revered for his ability to cure pigs. According to Nicholas Orme, in 1677 the too-clever vicar of Sancreed was prosecuted by his parishioners for unwisely saying that he was ‘the unhappiest of ministers, for that other ministers were patrons of their flocks but that he was but the herdsman of a company of swine’.

And finally, saints could make what look like quite odd decisions. God offered Sithney the chance to be the patron of young women, No, replied the misogynist, for they’ll always be pestering me asking for husbands and fine clothes. Instead he chose to be the patron of mad dogs. Much less trouble.

Cornish saints were sometimes replaced by international or English saints. At Redruth by 1960 Euny was sharing his church with St George

It’s Celtic saints’ month

With St David’s Day tomorrow, St Piran’s on Thursday and St Patrick’s in a couple of weeks’ time, this has to be the month of the Celtic saints. To the greater glory of St Euny, my local saint, I shall be forced to devote the next three blogs to the subject.

Stauined glass modern representation of
St Uny at Lelant church

Who were the Celtic saints? Saints were supposed to have been roaming around in the early middle ages causing all sorts of mayhem while confronting pagans and serpents alike. They were men and sometimes women, Christian missionaries, suffering for their faith, performing miracles and founding churches during their hectic voyaging up and down the seaways of Celtic Britain.

What truth can be gleaned from the scanty historical record is more prosaic. Some saints may well have taken to their boats (or millstones or leaves). The life of Samson, written in the late 600s, suggests he crossed Cornwall on his way from Wales to Brittany. However, most saints’ lives were written up much later, from the ninth century onwards, centuries after their subjects had died, and are much less credible. Although people liked to think that ‘their’ saint personally founded ‘their’ church, it’s more likely that the saint’s cult migrated, not the saints themselves.

The great age of the Celtic saints was the period between 500 and 700, a time when Christianity was spreading across the Celtic world. This was probably also the time cults began to spread, transferred from monasteries to daughter churches. Maybe a relic or two, the supposed teeth or a fragment of a saint’s bone for example, would accompany the cult, to be proudly displayed in a shrine in the church.

St Euny’s Well, at Sancreed

Saints often had their holy wells, to which people would head to seek healing. Certain saints had particular specialisms; for example, St Cadoc was good for intestinal worms. Meanwhile, if you had a sick pig, St Sancred was the chap to pray to. They would also have had their special days when services were held, feasts were prepared, relics were proudly paraded around the parish and sometimes the saint’s play was performed at the local plain an gwarry.

The Black Prince. ‘Our’ first Duke of Cornwall

In 1337 King Edward III upgraded the existing earldom of Cornwall and made it into a duchy. He also established the convention that it would henceforth belong to the eldest son of the monarch. The recipient in 1337 and first Duke of Cornwall was the seven-year old Edward of Woodstock.

A romanticised image from the 19th century

On coming of age young Edward ensured that Duchy offices were packed with his own men. Very few Cornish in the years before the 1460s held Duchy posts. The Duke was keen to make more money from his estate. In addition, unlike the immediately preceding earls, he was also prepared to order action against local gentry who overstepped the mark and took the law too frequently into their own hands. He curbed local hard men such as John Trevarthian and Sir John l’Ercedekne, while imprisoning his own Duchy steward in Launceston Castle in 1357 for misdemeanours.

But despite this oversight, Edward remained an absentee lord, only visiting Cornwall twice, for a couple of weeks in 1354 and over Christmas and the New Year in 1362-63. Each time he ventured only as far west as Restormel. His main interest became squeezing the surplus from the Duchy to pay for the wars he was busy fighting in France.

Here you are, son. Here’s
Aquitaine. Forget Cornwall” Edward III rewards the Black Prince

At the age of 16 Edward had played a prominent part in the victory at Crecy. Later, in 1356, he captured the French King at Poitiers and took him back to England. Becoming Prince of Aquitaine in 1362 Edward never returned to Cornwall after his visit late that year. In his absence over the Channel, oversight inevitably became looser and even more remote. Cornishmen began to pick up more Duchy offices, while endemic lawlessness and family feuding returned.

Meanwhile, the Duke was getting involved in the Castilian civil war. More battles were won there until he contracted dysentery in 1367. Recurrent bouts of illness pursued him through his final decade and he eventually died of dysentery at Canterbury in 1376, aged 46.

And why was he ‘black’? This may be a later designation as the first reference did not appear until the 1530s. It’s been suggested that it came from the colour of his shield or armour. Others insist it stems from his brutal reputation in Aquitaine, where he was not slow to put the French to the sword. However he obtained his sobriquet, this martial Duke seems to have treated his Duchy as a convenient cash cow rather than any more meaningful constitutional possession.