The standing stones of Cornwall

Cornwall is known for its stones, which can conveniently be divided into three main types dating from three different periods.

One of the pair of stones known as the Pipers in West Penwith, the tallest stone still standing

The first, and most active, period of erecting stones in the landscape was the early bronze age, from around 2,500 to 1,500 BCE. Menhirs (from the Cornish for long stone) were put up, either singly or in pairs. Their purpose is not always clear but some marked burial sites. Others were boundary markers while many would have had some sort of religious significance, now lost. Some stones had been moved a considerable distance before being erected, not as far as at Stonehenge perhaps, but several miles. This was also the period of stone circles and stone rows.

Stone erecting became fashionable again a couple of thousand years later when inscribed stones appeared. These were single stones with writing on them, a memorial to someone, usually the head of a family or an eldest son. That said, the oldest stone is possibly a memorial to a woman, Cunaide, who died aged 33 some time in the mid to late 400s at Hayle.

Inscribed stone at Lewannick in memory of Ingenuus

Cunaide may have been Irish. The main wave of stone erectors, arriving slightly later in mid-Cornwall, were definitely so. The late Charles Thomas provided the classic account of this migration in his brilliant And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Between 100 and 200 high status families, originally Irish but living in south Wales for a couple of generations, arrived via the Camel estuary around 500 AD and then fanned out across east Cornwall and into south Devon. They were Christian and literate (in Latin). Their inscribed stones either marked Christian sites or were boundary markers or were placed near the homes of those memorialized.

This practice was then adopted by local elites in the 500s and spread across the rest of Cornwall. There are 39 such stones in Cornwall, one in Scilly and another 15 in Devon. This sort of memorial ended around 700 when the last stone was erected in memory of Taetura, a priest, near St Just in Penwith. It’s been suggested that placing such inscribed stones in the countryside ceased when the material presence of the church became more important than the memory of ancestral kin.

The final re-emergence of Cornwall’s stone obsession began in the late ninth century when stone crosses were placed at the margins of church land or on routes to churches. This was confined mainly to Cornwall, where there are 50 such crosses that can be dated to the pre-1066 period. Although there are 10 examples in Devon, the style has been seen as expressing a ‘distinctively Cornish identity’. Perhaps this was a defensive reaction against the imposition of foreign rule at this time, as also happened at different times in Ireland, Wales and the north of England.

Cornish cross at Towednack church

For the context for the second and third phases of stone erecting see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age.

4.25 pm postcript: Just heard the sad news that Cornish archaeologist and patriot Craig Weatherhill has passed away. Craig was an expert on the pre-historic stones mentioned above and his Cornovia: Ancient Sites of Cornwall & Scilly remains the most readable guide to Cornwall’s archaeological sites.

The martyrs of ’97 and the Cornish rising

That’s 1497 of course. On this day in that year the two leaders of the Cornish rising met their grisly end. Michael Angove, a blacksmith from St Keverne and Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London. They suffered this fate for what they had considered was the perfectly reasonable act of marching to London to complain to the king about their grievances. Unfortunately, the Government viewed it otherwise, as a treasonable act of rebellion against Henry VII’s rule. The king had intended to send their body parts back to Cornwall to be put on public display in the main towns. But Cornwall in the summer of 1497 was reported to be ‘unquiet and boiling’ so he decided this wasn’t exactly the wisest course of action.

The rising had been triggered by anger at government demands for taxes to fight a far-off war with the Scots. This was compounded by popular disaffection over the suspension of stannary rights in 1496. All that may have been coupled with residual, lingering Yorkist resentment at the Tudor takeover in 1485. The insurgents struck out across southern England, heading for London to put the complaints of the commons in front of the monarch. They aimed for Kent, hoping to gain support there.

They were disappointed in that, finding the Kentishmen not half as rebellious as they were made out to be. Nonetheless, the complainants had received considerable sympathy on their long march east. The contemporary account, the Great Chronicle of London, reported that the Cornishmen were ‘favoured’ by the people of the lands they passed through, and paid well for their supplies. This source also reported the rebel force was 15,000 strong. Given that the Cornish population at this time was no more than 50-60,000, this either means well over half of all able-bodied Cornishmen were involved or that the host had picked up support in its trek across southern England.

Some proportion of the support that had adhered to the Cornish cause on its march east clearly melted away when it approached London and Henry’s hastily gathered royal army. It was reported that desertions had reduced it to 10,000 or fewer by the time it camped on Blackheath to the south-east of the city. There Angove and Flamank’s force was quickly defeated, with the loss of some 200 lives. Although ‘it seems odd that no peer was able to block their march – or even try to do so – before they got to London’, the rising had failed ultimately because the nobility had belatedly rallied to the king. Of course the Cornish army might have done better had they possessed better weaponry, cavalry and trained soldiers.

As he was being drawn through the streets of London Angove is supposed to have boasted that he would have ‘a fame perpetual and a name immortal’. However, by the nineteenth century the events of 1497 were largely forgotten. It was only the Cornish Revival of the twentieth century and the rise of a national consciousness that restored the place of the 1497 rising in Cornish history.

This reached its climax in 1997 with the Keskerdh Kernow – a hike to London that revisited the route taken by the insurgents of 1497. By this time the actual events of 500 years earlier had been reimagined as the rising took its place as a romanticised icon of national rebellion. A brave Cornish-speaking army was crossing the border into England, St Piran flags fluttering furiously in the breeze.

Transhumance in Cornwall

These days we often hear the word transgender in the news. But what about transhumance? And why was it important to Cornwall? The dictionary definition of transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock from one grazing ground to another.

Let’s go back around 1,300 years to the time when transhumance was widely operating in Cornwall.  The practice involved moving animals every May from the fields around the hamlet to rough grazing on the uplands. This helped to protect the crops and hay being grown and harvested over the summer close to the farms. In October the stock was rounded up and brought back down to the home settlement.

Groups of small huts discovered on Bodmin Moor provide the physical evidence for the practice. Around two metres by four, there was ‘room for a single bed, open fire and some storage’. The huts were clustered in groups of up to ten, probably reflecting a hamlet, with the individual huts used by different households.

Bodmin Moor

From May to October, these huts were occupied by the young women who watched over the animals. But that was not their only task. They milked the cows, made butter and cheese and worked with wool. Periodically, they would have been visited by others bringing supplies and taking away the dairy produce. Meanwhile, men and older women remained in the home hamlet to harvest the crops, care for the children and the vulnerable and generally maintain their households.

This system involved an estimated minimum 1,000 households on Bodmin Moor alone. It was in place by the late 600s at least from the evidence of placenames such as havos (or summer-land). It survived into the late 700s but began to disappear in the early 800s.

Peter Herring, the expert on Cornish transhumance, tells us this was not merely of interest economically. He suggests its extent ‘suggests a stable and peaceful rural society [and] a sophisticated farming practice’. The annual round-ups on the open moors and downlands ‘would have required administration and authority’ at some level above the hamlet.

Moreover, the cycle of transhumance was marked by the festivals of Beltain and Samhain, bringing communities together and marking the passage of the seasons. Meanwhile, for the young women, time spent on the uplands acted as a rite of passage and provided a spell of independence. In all, Peter Herring concludes that ‘many, maybe all, Cornish hamlets seem to have practiced transhumance in the early medieval period; it was, perhaps, a fundamental part of being Cornish’.

For the context of transhumance see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age

Slavery in Cornwall: the Bodmin manumissions

No-one likes to think their ancestors were slaves. These days, it’s probably much worse to imagine that our ancestors may have been slaveholders. Yet at the time of Domesday Book, in 1080, Cornwall had more than its fair share of slaves. These not only worked their lord’s land, like later serfs, but were owned outright by someone. Their owner could buy and sell them, although they had the responsibility of feeding and housing their slaves. And they could also free them.

A page with the freeing of a slave
recorded in the margin

At Bodmin, some acts of manumission, the freeing of slaves, were recorded from 939 to 1100, written in the blank pages of a gospel book originally produced in Brittany. This source lists a total of 129 freed slaves. Fully 84% of those slaves had Cornish-language names. In contrast around two thirds of the 34 slave owners had English names. This, plus the evidence of Domesday Book, was taken by Henry Jenner and other Cornish patriots to show that the English had enslaved some of the Cornish.

However, slaves, whether born into slavery, captured or made a slave as an act of punishment, were far from unknown in the other Celtic countries at that time. There is evidence for slaves in Wales and in Ireland. In the latter place female slaves and cattle were units of currency before the economy became monetized. In Brittany even peasants in the 800s were recorded as owning some slaves so it’s very likely the same occurred in its sister society in Cornwall.

Moreover, the names may not mean what they appear to mean. As early as the late 800s some Cornish landowners were adopting English language names in addition to or instead of their Cornish ones. This may have just been a fashion or it could have been a wise tactical move in view of the growing English grip on Cornwall.

Therefore, we can’t be sure that those slaveowners with English names were actually English or ethnic Cornish who had changed their names. What the manumissions do show us is that ordinary Cornish people (witnesses to the manumissions) and the slaves themselves were much more likely to retain their Cornish names as late as the Normans’ arrival. Meanwhile, landowners and the upper clergy were conversely quicker to adopt the cultural practices of their new colonial masters.

The medieval monasteries of Cornwall

It’s Easter Sunday. It seems appropriate therefore to write about something religious.

The original Cornish monasteries were part of the Celtic church, but by the Norman period these were just memories, if that. Then, from 1100 to the mid-1200s, a great wave of monastic foundations burst across the British Isles. Cornwall received its share of this, although it had no great, independent monasteries. This was because the wealthy magnates and the rich merchants who could endow monasteries with land and money were thin on the ground.

The first wave of monasteries was Benedictine. Small cells of this order were established in Cornwall, offshoots of abbeys in England and France. Between 1100 and 1150 five had been founded, the largest at Tywardreath. The others were at Tresco on Scilly, Minster near Boscastle, St Michael’s Mount and Lamanna (Looe Island), although the last two of these were closed and sold well before the Reformation.

A reconstruction of Launceston Priory

There were no examples of the reforming, more austere (at first) Cistercian order of monasteries in Cornwall. Instead, the biggest religious establishments were Augustinian priories. These were houses of priests rather than monks. Unlike the latter, they could go out into the world, although living together and without personal possessions. A small priory at Tregony had been shut as early as 1287. However, the biggest were at Bodmin and Launceston, both established in the 1120s. A third at St Germans joined them in the 1180s.

In the 1200s fashion turned from monastic institutions to the support of friaries. Unlike the residential orders, friars prioritised preaching to the people and, at least initially, the virtues of poverty, surviving on charity rather than land and endowments. Both the major orders of friars established houses in Cornwall in the mid-1200s, the Franciscans at Bodmin and the Dominicans at Truro.

Launceston Priory site now

Monastic cells, priories and friaries were then a feature of Cornish life into the 1500s. At times squabbling with the townsfolk (as at Bodmin), or arguing viciously among themselves (as at Launceston) or accused of laxity and drunkenness (as at Tywardreath), these institutions, in the pithy words of A.L.Rowse, ‘never produced anybody of importance’.  In March 1539 the final monastic institution in Cornwall – St Germans Priory – was closed down by the Government. This followed the dissolution of smaller monasteries in 1536 and friaries in 1538.

Cornish studies resources – an update

You are not alone. With more time on their hands than they know what to do with, people are inevitably seeking out new thrills on the internet. This phenomenon has even reached this website, with the number of visitors increasing by 40% over the past month.

Who is now accessing Cornish studies resources and what are they clicking on? First, the location of visitors mirrors the Cornish diaspora. While the majority (56%) are in the UK, 20% are from the States and 9% from Australia.

What are they reading? Unsurprisingly, the most looked at pages are related to surnames, their origin and history, with the highest number of views this year garnered by ‘18th century surnames by parish‘ and ‘What makes a surname Cornish?’. The scores of comments and queries on the last are possibly as interesting as the piece itself. The two other pages getting the most hits are ‘Cornwall’s population history before 1750’ and ‘Fact and fiction in The Last Kingdom’. People are oddly drawn to this last, a slightly tongue in cheek discussion of the historical accuracy and the treatment of Cornwall and the Cornish in the TV series based on Bernard Cornwell’s books. Maybe the title suggests something more spectacular. Sorry to disappoint.

The blog posts that have been most popular are perhaps more predictable. Those with most views – ‘Cholera in Cornwall‘ and ‘The Black Death in Cornwall‘ – have a certain contemporary resonance, although they may help to put things in perspective. Next come two of my series of blogs on Cornwall’s rarer indigenous surnames – ‘Local Cornish surnames. But which locality?’  and ‘Some Cornish surnames with single points of origin’. Finally, there are two posts that might appeal to Cornish revivalists – ‘Cornish past and present, placenames and polemics’ is a review and summary of Ken Mackinnon’s papers on the Cornish language, now available online, and Rod Lyon’s book Colloquial doesn’t mean Corrupt. Meanwhile, ‘The myth of Dumnonia‘ seeks to undermine a cherished historical belief.

Whether you agree with my scribblings or not, thanks for coming back to this site. I hope you find something here of interest or value. If you have any suggestions for topics either to blog about or to provide slightly more extended treatment on a page of their own, do let me know.

Trematon Castle

The Normans arrived in Cornwall in 1070, around four years after seeing off the English at Hastings. Once here, they threw up a handful of their trademark castles, probably at first wooden structures on top of a raised piece of ground – a motte – overlooking an enclosed courtyard – or bailey. The first two hugged the Tamar at Launceston and Trematon and were joined within a few decades by a castle at Restormel, near Lostwithiel. The location of the first castles in the far east suggest an initial uncertainty about possible insurgencies by the native Cornish.

In the 1100s these castles were rebuilt with impressive stone keeps and, along with Tintagel, which was built in the early 1200s, eventually became the visible symbols of the power of the earldom of Cornwall. Trematon is probably the least well-known of the four but stands comparison with the others. It’s described in the recent edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England as ‘more impressive than Launceston, if not as perfect as Restormel’.

The castle keep at Trematon

Situated on a hill overlooking a branch of the Tamar estuary near Saltash, Trematon castle was sold to the earl in 1270 and since then has been the property of the earldom and, from 1337, the Duchy of Cornwall. In the late 1200s a gatehouse was built, together with a hall and other buildings in the bailey. The gatehouse survives although the other buildings have long gone, being replaced in 1808-09 by a country house. In the process part of the castle wall was demolished in order to obtain a sea view.

The house built in 1808-09 in the former bailey

Handed around from favourite to favourite by a succession of earls and dukes, the castle for the most part remained untroubled by the swirls and currents of medieval and early modern history. One flurry of excitement occurred in 1400 when Geoffrey Penriche, bailiff of Trematon, led a group of armed men into Saltash in belated support of a rising to restore Richard II to the throne taken by Henry IV.  Failing miserably to garner support from the townsfolk, Penriche contented himself with stealing some cash and a few barrels of red wine before riding off eastwards into the dustbin of history.

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