The Cornish gentry’s ‘county’ identity in the 1400s

S.J.Drake, ‘Since the time of King Arthur: gentry identity and the commonalty of Cornwall c.1300-c.1420’, Historical Research 91 (2018), pp.236-254.

The high middle ages in Cornwall have not received much attention from historians. This is partly due to a lack of sources, but it remains regrettable as it was during those years that the institutional shape of ‘Cornwall’ began to cohere. Therefore, any article on identity in Cornwall in these centuries is to be welcomed. It’s a pity therefore that this one is such a disappointment.

S.J.Drake locates his or her article in the historians’ debate about the existence of ‘county communities’ in England. The consensus view that the gentry identified with their counties in the early modern and late medieval period was challenged in the 1990s by work on Warwickshire that suggested county loyalty was largely absent. Drake sets out to counter this and restore a place for ‘county’ identity. Rather inexplicably, he or she then adopts Cornwall as their example, despite the fact that Cornwall’s distinctiveness hardly makes it the obvious exemplar.

The main conclusion is straightforward. The concept of Cornwall was alive and well in the fourteenth century among Cornwall’s gentry, although co-existing with identities at other scales, from regnal to localist solidarities. This idea of nested identities is not exactly new and has already been applied to Cornwall in several places (see for example my Cornwall: A Concise History (2007) and the writings of Alan Kent.) But, apart from a fleeting reference to Mark Stoyle, work from a Cornish Studies perspective has been entirely ignored in this piece.

Perhaps the uncritical reliance on an older anglocentric viewpoint explains the second conclusion reached. This is that Cornwall, while ‘distant and distinctive’, was also ’a fully functioning shire integrated into the kingdom’, having been incorporated since ‘even before Athelstan’s reign’. If we consider that the word ‘county’ appears 142 times in just 19 pages we can see that Drake’s approach is fairly unsophisticated. The Cornish gentry identified with the territory of Cornwall. Cornwall was a county. Therefore, a county identity existed.

The first part of the article traces the emergence of shire administration. The role of the county court was critical, as it was the forum for lobbying Parliament and selecting county MPs. As in other places, it gained authority and administrative functions after 1300 from growing central government demands relating to taxation and defence. The expanding county administration also created local offices which were eagerly seized by local landowning dynasties.

What Drake terms a shire-franchise and a county identity was then reinforced after 1337 by the Duchy of Cornwall. Its lordship was exercised through shire structures, sometimes through shared offices, for example the stewardship of both Duchy and county court before 1376. The county court met at the Duchy Palace at Lostwithiel, which ‘stood as the physical embodiment of shire-franchisal power, of “Cornwall” itself.’

This is useful stuff. It helps us understand how a county administrative structure was imposed upon the territory of Cornwall by a combination of central state demands and collaboration from a local elite seeking power, money and status for themselves. Indeed, this process should be very familiar to us in the twenty-first century! However, further questions are never asked, or even recognised. For instance, why is it assumed that the Duchy reinforced a county identity, rather than the other way around? And what was the precise significance of the stannaries, swiftly passed over here? Surely, stannary courts and jurisdiction offered at least the possibility of plural franchises, which also problematises a bog-standard ‘county’ identity.

The entire second part of the article undermines its earlier assumption of a simplistic ‘county’ identity. This summarises the well-trodden evidence for Cornish cultural distinctiveness and a historical identity that produced what Drake rather insultingly calls a ‘quasi-people’. A long list of elements is enumerated, from language to an attachment to the Arthurian myth. There is little new here either, but Drake is forced to recognise that a ‘gentry-distinctiveness’ existed alongside a ‘distinctiveness of the governed’. These are however elided unconvincingly and the interactions between them left unexplored.

Dimly aware that all this evidence for historical distinctiveness makes a mockery of Cornwall’s status as a ‘typical’ county, Drake ends by re-asserting that the Cornish gentry ‘viewed themselves … as English’ and Cornwall at this time was a fully functioning and indistinguishable shire county. Much is made of John Trevisa’s pleading in the fourteenth century, which might alternatively be viewed as suspiciously hysterical protesting.

There is other evidence, even within this article, that could well suggest that the legitimacy of the ‘shire-franchise’ was less secure than intimated. Drake cites Carew concerning the meaning that contemporaries ascribed to Cornwall. Yet the quote from Carew runs ‘Cornwall, as an entire state, has at diverse times enjoyed sundry titles, of a Kingdom, Principality, Duchy and Earldom’. Strange that Carew, writing at the end of the 1500s, didn’t include county in his list. This lacuna is of course passed over in silence, but Cornwall’s history always offered alternatives to a county status.

The author of this piece is clearly unaware of the more subtle nuances of Cornish identity. Nonetheless, the account of the rise of a county administration in the fourteenth century is of value, as it explains how a county institutional framework was imposed on what was in effect a conquered territory with a previously ambiguous status and the role power played in that process. When later events caused cultural change, this administrative fait accompli was perfectly poised to fill the ideological vacuum that had appeared by the seventeenth century.

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