Cornish identity, history and language emerged from the early Celtic Britons


Craig Weatherhill’s ‘Cornish Language & Placenames’ explains ‘Kernow’ is the Cornish name for Cornwall, meaning approximating to  “land of the promontory people”.  The modern name, Cornwall, was recorded as ‘Cornwalas’’, a hybrid name in which the early Anglo-Saxon/English language word ‘wealhas’ (their name for the Celtic Britons) was added to the then current form of Kernow (Corneu) and the word they also used to describe the Britons of Cymru – Wales. 

England’s ‘British Project’

Professor Philip Payton (Cornwall: A History) describes England’s ‘British Project’, the strategy by which the English state sought to establish the legitimacy of its expansion into Celtic Britain. England’s ‘divide and rule’ at the battle of Dyrham (Deorham) Down near Bristol in AD 577 drove an English wedge between the Celtic Nation of Kernow and Cymru, thus paving the way for imposing the institutions of the English state by which Payton explains, ‘Marginalised the histories of the Celtic Britons, either by ignoring them altogether or by co-opting them as subsidiaries of the central English theme’.  Today, Cornish history and language remains excluded as core subjects from England’s school curriculum in Cornwall.

It was England’s Athelstan, who in AD 936 set the east bank of the River Tamar as the border between Kernow and England; similar to his setting the Wye as the border between Wales and England.  

The spirit of independence among the Cornish nation arose again through Michael Joseph ‘An Gof‘ (‘The Smith’) of St Keverne, and Thomas Flamank of Bodmin, a lawyer, emerged as the leaders of the rising in 1497.  This followed England’s decision to raise taxes upon Kernow to fund their battles with Scotland. Flamank took a firm stand, arguing that it was illegal to tax the Cornish for the defence of the border against Scotland.  The Cornish, having no artillery and no cavalry, were put to flight.  The leader An Gov and Flamank were captured; drawn on hurdles to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  

The statue of Thomas Flamank and Michael ‘An Gov’ Joseph at St Keverne, Cornwall.

The 1540s saw England’s suppression of Glasney College in Kernow that was the focus for literary scholarship in Cornish language and history.  This was a significant catalyst that provoked Cornish opposition to England’s Reformation, and precipitated the Cornish rising of 1549 against the imposition of an English language prayer book upon a Cornish-speaking nation that attributed to the demise of Cornish as their mother tongue.

In 1994, the old Cornwall ‘County’ Council cited the existence of the Cornish Stannary Parliament in its submission to the Local Government Commission, a fact recognised by the Commission itself.  The Stannary Parliament became increasing confrontational of English agencies, notably English Heritage – whose prominent signage at Pendennis Castle, Tintagel and elsewhere was removed by Stannary activists. The case was set during 2002, to make an example of the Stannators. However, it was realising that a high-profile court case threatened to embroil Prince Charles (as Duke of Cornwall) and led to the jubilant defenders being merely bound over to keep the peace. 

In 2014, England finally recognised ‘The unique identity of the Cornish, now affording them the same status under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Welsh and theScots’.  However that recognition, unlike Wales and Scotland, is not extended to a return of a  Cornish Parliament. 

The politcal battle ground for Cornwall

Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) is the political Party for Cornwall. MK’s passion for Cornwall’s recognition through meaningful devolution remains unabated.   Party leader Dick Cole highlighted the 20th anniversary of the campaign for a Cornish Assembly:

“Over 50,000 declarations represented a massive statement of intent from the people of Cornwall. When the signatures were being collected, we were aware that the Labour Government had a position that, if a petition of 5% of voters was collected, it would allow a referendum on changes to local government in a particular area. Obviously, our demands were not about ‘local government,’ but having secured the support of more than 10% of the electorate we felt we had won the “moral argument” to put pressure on the UK Government to support devolution for Cornwall”.  

Those 50,000 declarations were delivered to the Labour government in advance of its White Paper on regional government.  When the White Paper was published in 2002, Labour excluded Cornwall, only plans for a ‘South West Region’, the usual bureaucratic template.

The Party for Cornwall recently confirmed that it has strengthened its own policy position on greater self-government by the creation of a Cornish Parliament:

“In continuing to seek parity with Wales and Scotland, we are pleased that MK members have chosen to give greater clarity to our ambitions for Cornwall by specifying that our demand for greater powers should be linked to the creation of a Parliament for Cornwall”

Cornish self-determination continues through MK’s campaign for a Cornish Parliament, and it will indeed be the political battle ground. Despite the centuries of Cornish resistance, there now exits an element of Cornish people who are prepared to reconcile themselves to the British/English state and the increasing English cultural dominance in many spheres of Cornish life. 

To quote Tom Nairn, the Scottish political theorist and academic: ‘Beyond the familiar Scotland-Ireland-Wales triad there now lies the question of Cornwall’. 

It does indeed. Support for Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall, can provide the answer.

2 thoughts on “Cornish identity, history and language emerged from the early Celtic Britons

  1. Because I’m worried that opponents will use every trick in the book to undermine the argument, I feel I should point out that, as far as teaching history in Cornish schools is concerned, the (English) National Curriculum is very open-ended and many Cornish schools do teach children about Cornish history. However, the same is not the case regarding the teaching of languages; the National Curriculum clearly focuses on languages from elsewhere. So much for minority status!

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  2. Hi Bodger, thanks for your comment.

    Professor Payton writes: ‘The idea of a Roman Britain that gives way to an Anglo-Saxon England, a view of early history that leaves little room for consideration of indigenous continuity (not least in Cornwall), encourages the erroneous equation of Britain with England’. As Professor Charles Thomas pointed out: ‘There are still others of us, west of Offa’s Dyke and the river Tamar, and north of Hadrian’s Wall’.

    There are children today who say they had very little, if any, Cornish history taught, as it remains a non-statutary requirement. Important that children are taught Cornish history in ALL schools across Cornwall, and in context with its progression throughout the history of this island. Cornish language should also be a statutory requirement. As you say, ‘So much for minority status!’

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