The Later History of Cornwall - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
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The Later History of Cornwall

Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies | The Iron Age  800 BCECE 300

Later History

Carn Euny fogou
Carn Euny fogouUp in England, the Iron Age came to a close with the arrival of the Romans. Resistance lasted decades, but Romanitas was a soft-power culture with ruthless hard-power clout and, within a century, the Brits were cleaved between Romanised Brits concentrated in the Roman orbit and traditional Brits living in outlying areas. Perhaps the Dumnonii played good politics in keeping the Romans out by giving them business and avoiding trouble – as they did later with the Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Those in a position to do so will have enjoyed Roman products and opportunities, but most people in Cornwall were only marginally affected by Romanitas.

The Roman occupation marginalised the Dumnonii, to some extent conveniently, and Dumnonia held together during Roman times, keeping its head down, protected by its geography. The Romans came as far as Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum, a frontier trading centre. Upcountry, Roman hegemony lasted 350 years until the Romans withdrew in CE 410.

During the early medieval period and up to the 900s, Dumnonia experienced 500 years of sovereignty. This was the time of Celtic Christianity and a cultural and economic revival under a series of kings, some of whom were astute rulers.  Christianity entered the Celtic lands early, grafting onto druidism and giving a new lease of life to old ways.

There is a viable tradition that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathaea, a metals trader, visited Penwith, Glastonbury and other places in the West Country when Jesus was a youth. Tradition has it that Anne, Jesus’ grandmother and mother of Mary, was Breton. Whether or not this was so, Christian influences percolated into Britain within decades of Jesus’ mission, brought by refugee Jews, some of whom might have arrived in Cornwall, following the Atlantic route from France and Iberia.

The Ancient British Church evolved with a life and a way of its own, peaking between the 300s and 500s CE. It was far from the evangelical kind of Christianity that developed as the Roman Catholic Church grew in influence, to penetrate Britain in the early 600s. The British Church formed a counterbalance to the centralised, institutional Roman Church, which had grown strong from the 200s CE onwards, becoming Rome’s state religion by the early 300s, and then spreading across Europe.

A neo-druidic theological fightback was led by the scholarly British monk Pelagius, who around CE 380 went to Rome and in 410 to Carthage, challenging Augustine of Hippo’s then mainstream philo-sophies. Pelagius became popular, causing big ripples, later to be branded a heretic and disappearing from view after being thrown out of Jerusalem. A feisty gentleman.

In Saxon states Catholicism prevailed, having been adopted by the Saxons in the 590s to give themselves some respectability. Christ-ianity in Britain came under its aegis around 664 following the Synod of Whitby, the Celtic church dwindling thereafter. The Roman Church was the EU of the time and affiliate states were independent but subsidiary to it.

Early British Christianity was closer to nature than Catholicism, surviving in the Celtic Fringe through to Norman times. Early medieval wandering saints or Culdees stimulated a cultural revival in the 400s and 500s, lasting up to CE 1000. Often called the Dark Age, for Celtic peoples this was an Age of Light. Many Culdees came from elsewhere, finding a home in Cornwall, following vows of voluntary exile – a leftover tradition of Bronze Age druids.

Celtic culture had two heydays: one preceding the Romans and the other following them. During the Arthurian period around CE 500 the Britons re-established themselves after the Roman occupation, also being under threat from incoming Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Whatever the veracity of the Arthurian legends, telling of the conundrums faced by Merlin, Arthur and other knightly and court characters, they symbolised a crucial post-Roman recovery of identity for the Britons, a process sharpened by the need to resist an increasing Germanic influx – another Brexit moment. Certainly, during the Arthurian period the British delayed the Saxon advance, yet their war leaders were only vaguely documented.

The Matter of Britain,  framed around the Arthurian legends, concerning the nation’s soul and how power was exercised, might well be a romanticised account of events of the time, yet the origins of its tradition and imagery might come from a more ancient body of beliefs arising during the Iron Age ascendancy a millennium earlier, finding new relevance in the turbulent 500s. These legends were romanticised and made famous by the Normans after 1100, partly to give themselves legitimacy as foreign rulers.

The cultural struggle of the Britons against various invaders from the Romans to the Normans all ultimately failed. This led, in the Middle Ages, to the founding of England and the final end of the old, more or less unified Britain of the Iron Age. Dumnonia was separated from Wales in the 700s by the Saxon occupation of Somerset. History is sometimes called a chronicle of compounded errors, and perhaps one such error, from the Celtic viewpoint at least, was the separation of Wales and Dumnonia, arrayed around the Severn Sea.

While the Saxons came as far as Exeter in the 500s, only in the 900s, in the time of Athelstan, did they take over and anglicise Devon to reach the river Tamar. The cultural cleansing of Somerset and Devon was surprisingly rigorous – the genetics and social patterns of Devonians and Cornish are now markedly different. The sundered Welsh and Cornish developed as separated cultures, and their languages, already separate dialects, drifted further apart.

Some see the Saxon invasion of England as traumatic for the Britons, causing a westward migration to the Celtic fringe, while others see it as a simple layering of Saxon culture over that of the British. Celtic historians prefer the former while English academics prefer the latter – the jury is still out, and both might be partially correct. There were indeed significant migrations to Cornwall, Wales and Strathclyde. Something serious caused it and the Saxon occupation was the main event of the time – though Irish raids were harassing the Welsh and Cornish too. Cornwall gained new blood and many of these incomers continued to Brittany. Cornish is closer to Breton than to Welsh because many Britons migrated to Brittany at this time – though Breton-Cornish contacts went back millennia.

In the medieval period, following CE 1000, Cornwall was infiltrated and incorporated in steps by Norman and Catholic powers in England. By 1500 penetration grew, and the Cornish didn’t do well. In Penwith, church building took place on some former ancient sites, on lanns, ancient enclosures or rounds, at places such as St Buryan, Ludgvan, Pen Sans, Paul, Madron, Sancreed, St Erth, St Ives, Hayle and St Just. Although Cornish culture was weakened by Catholicism and English influences, it survived – though the ascendant English were to prove very problematic for the Cornish.

But that story is not for telling here.


[1] A collection of literature from primary sources telling the early history of Britain. See www.edwinhopper.com/Mater%20of%20Britain.pdf

Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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