The Later History of Cornwall - Shining Land

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

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

Later History


Up 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 out the Romans 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 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 the early Christian saints, Celtic Christianity and a cultural and economic revival under a series of kings, some of whom were good rulers. Christianity entered Celtic lands early, grafting onto druidism and giving a new lease of life to old ways. There is a viable though unproven tradition that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathaea, a trader in metals, visited Penwith, Glastonbury and other places in the west country when Jesus was a youth. Tradition has it that Anne, mother of Mary and Jesus’ grandmother, was a Breton. Whether or not this was so, Christian influences percolated into Britain within decades of Jesus’ mission, not least with 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 from the 200s CE onwards, becoming Rome’s state religion by the early 300s, and in many instances adopting the pagan deities, festivals and rituals of the locals as it spread 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 philosophies. Pelagius became quite popular and caused big ripples, later to be branded a heretic and disappearing from view after being thrown out of Jerusalem.

In Saxon states Catholicism prevailed, having been adopted by the Saxons in the 590s to give themselves some Euro-respectability. Christianity 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 Cornwall and 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 around CE 1000. Often called the Dark Age, for Celtic peoples this was relatively a light-filled age. 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 Roman period and the other following it. Then came the Arthurian period around CE 500 – a time when the Britons were re-establishing themselves after the Roman occupation, while 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 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. Certainly, something was afoot during the Arthurian period and the British delayed the Saxon advance, yet their great war leaders were only vaguely documented.

The Matter of Britain,[1] framed around the Arthurian legends, concerning the nation’s heart and 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 could 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 had been 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 reach the river Tamar, taking over and anglicising Devon. 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 separate cultures, and their languages, already separate dialects, drifted apart.

Some see the Saxon invasion of England as traumatic for the Britons, causing westward migration to the European 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 the Cornish too. Cornwall gained new blood and some of these incomers continued to Brittany. Cornish is closer to Breton than to Welsh because many Britons migrated to Brittany at this time – though also 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 was much greater, and the Cornish weren’t doing well. In Penwith, church building took place on some former ancient sites, on lanns, ancient enclosures or Iron Age 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 this book.


[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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