History of Cornwall as a Celtic Area

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

The geographical isolation from the rest of Britain affected the history of Cornwall and made the Cornish language survive much longer than other native languages. But after a massacre, they slowly adopted English.

A watercolor painting of an English stately home with formal gardens at Mount Edgcumbe in Cornwall.
Cornwall is an isolated area of southwest Britain, separated by the Tamar River. (Image: Helen Hotson/Shutterstock)

Cornwall is located on a peninsula at the far southwest of Britain, almost completely isolated from England by the Tamar River. It is one of the smallest Celtic areas on the map today. Unlike the rest of Britain, Cornwall was almost isolated and underwent a different process in the fall of the Roman Empire.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Early History of Cornwall

Before the Roman invasion in the first century, the leading tribe in the area of Cornwall was the Dumnonii. Thus, the area was called Dumnonia. Dumnonia was an independent part of a bigger area under heavy Roman influence. Its rulers were minting coins in imitation of the Romans, before the Roman invasion. Dumnonia, however, was not doing that despite their geographical closeness.

Later, Dumnonia was invaded by the Romans. In the 5th century, it also experienced the Angles and Saxons raid.

Learn more about Celtic Britain after Rome.

The Barbarian Raiders and Cornwall

When the Roman Empire began to fall in the 5th century, the barbarians who wanted to invade Britain were free to do so. Rome had left Britain on its own. However, the nature of these invasions changed, and the raiders decided to live in Britain. This settlement made some of the Britons move westward into the ‘Celtic fringe’. These were probably some of the British elite, not poor refugees that had escaped the Anglo-Saxons westwards, in fear. The rest of the British community accepted the newcomers’ culture and even language.

Cornwall was one of the areas in which British speech survived for a while. Until the mid-seventh century, Dumnonia was isolated from other British speakers, in Wales and the northwest. But the Saxon kingdom extended westwards, and in the 10th century, only the extreme western part of Dumnonia was ruled by the native. This area was called Kernow, and ‘Cornwall’ came from this native name plus the Germanic word wealas the word for British-speakers.

Learn more about Celtic Languages in the Ancient World.

Cultural Importance of Cornwall

Although it was a small area, many legends and famous stories seem to have originated from there. Whether King Arthur really existed or not is debatable, but if he did, he must have lived in Tintagel. Tintagel is an impressive but remote early medieval fortress that still survives, and might have been a royal center for the kingdom of Dumnonia.

Tristan and Isolde. Oil painting on wood. Illustration of ancient Celtic legend from the 12th century.
Tristan and Iseult is a famous Cornish story. (Image: Cernecka Natalja/Shutterstock)

Another important story with Cornish roots is Tristan and Iseult. The popular story portrays a forbidden love, which became the foundation of a famous opera composed by Richard Wagner. King Mark of Cornwall is to marry Iseult, and as the marriage is arranged, there is a magic love potion to make them fall in love. Tristan, the King’s nephew, goes to Ireland to fetch the bride, but he drinks the love potion with her instead, and their forbidden love begins. Unfortunately, everybody dies at the end of the story. The story remains popular all over Europe, but in each society’s native language.

The Fate of Cornish Language

Up to the Middle Ages, Cornish was still the language spoken in Cornwall. The medieval English government used Latin for business and in churches, and people could keep speaking their native language. In the 15th century, English dominated business interactions, and the Cornish elite had to learn it in order to keep doing business. Still, most of the Cornish spoke their mother tongue. The significant turnover happened in the 16th century.

In 1549, after the Protestant Reformation, the government brought an English prayer book into the scene, in place of the Latin one. Both Latin and English were foreign languages to the Cornish, but Latin was as foreign to the rest of the people in the whole kingdom. This led to the Prayer Book Rebellion, where almost 4000 people were killed. The rebellion is still remembered in Cornwall, and a monument was built in their memory on the 450th anniversary in 1999. In 2007, the Bishop of Truro apologized formally for the massacre.

Old illustration of British soldiers defending against insurgents
It took a massacre to stop the Cornish language. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

After the revolution was violently suppressed, Cornish began to fade as a language. In the late 18th century, Dolly Pentreath became famous for supposedly being the last native speaker of Cornish, even though she was not really the only one.

An important impact of Cornish was actually on the American accent. The vast number of emigrants from this area to the U.S took the pronunciation of ‘r’ with them and added it to American English.

Learn more about Celts and Picts in Scotland.

Cornish Names

Cornish names usually contain some distinctive elements such as ‘Tre’, ‘Pen’, and ‘Pol’. Examples of such names are Sir George Trevelyan and Dolly Pentreath.

These names are among the most Cornish things that remain from the original Cornwall, despite their long-lasting resistance to changing the language.

Common Questions about History of Cornwall

Q: Is Cornwall English?

Despite the geographical isolation, the diverse history of Cornwall, and the rebellion to keep Cornish as the main language, it is now a part of England.

Q: Was Cornwall ever a separate country?

The history of Cornwall contains many signs of independence. The Roman conquest in the 1st century diverged the path of Cornwall’s independence, and it became a part of the surrounding area.

Q: Did the Romans go to Cornwall?

Yes. The Romans entered the history of Cornwall in the 1st century AD and invaded the city.

Q: How did Cornwall get its name?

Cornwall is the combination of its native name ‘Kernow’ and the Germanic word wealas. The naming history of Cornwall shows the native and Germanic effects on the area.

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