Early history of Cornwall’s oppression and assimilation

Cornish identity is recognised under the ‘Framework Convention For The Protection Of National Minorities’ that includes:

‘The parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will’

Yet the assimilation of the Cornish in the past is continued today by the exclusion of their language and history by an English school curriculum imposed by the state, overseen by a subservient Cornwall Council.  Until the decision making powers are returned to Cornwall, the Anglicisation of Cornish people will continue.

The following is an extract from John Angarrack’s ‘Our Future Is History’. 

Written in 2002, it records the early history of Cornish assimilation by the English state:

Within Britain, the steady decline of Norman cultural domination had been inversely proportional to the rise of belligerent English supremacism.  It first became permissible to teach English in schools in 1349.  Thirteen years later, and almost 300 years after the Norman Conquest, Parliament was first opened in English.  Radical philosopher John Wyclif began translating the New Testament into English shortly after – but died in 1384 with the work incomplete.  Chaucer’s circa 1386 Canterbury Tales became the first English language book.  By 1413 English had reached a stage of acceptance that enabled it to become the official language of the Royal Court.  William Caxton’s 1480 edition of the old Western fable, The History of Troy, became the first printed English language book.  In 1549 the English language was forcibly imposed on Cornwall.

With English culture coming to the fore, a new mood of supermemacist-rooted antagonism towards non-English influence led to increasing isolationism from European affairs – and a re-focussing on ‘unfinished business’ closer to home.  Surviving non-Anglicised areas of the British Isles were to face a virtual explosion of English political ambition and cultural resentment.

Newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer worked closely with Thomas Cromwell, the most prominent English supremacist of his day.  Out of this meeting of minds came the 1534 Act of [Royal] Supremacy, a theory intended to repudiate papal authority and establish an isolated Church of England with Henry VIII as chief financial benefactor.  Other measures followed.  Acts of Parliament in 1536 and 1543 not only annexed Wales to England, but vowed to utterly extripe all and singular the usages and customs differing from the laws of this realm.  From that point on, no persons who used the Welsh language were to hold any office nor could they be landowners unless they spoke English.  Measures were also taken to suppress Celtic customs.  For instance Gavelkind, the system by which a Welshman’s sons inherited his land in equal shares was ruled unlawful and replaced by the English system of inheritance by the eldest son.

With the Principality of Wales annexed to England, the Duchy of  Cornwall was to become the  subject of attention.  Viewed as a constitutional intrusion imposed by continentals, this ‘anomaly’ was to be incorporated, absorbed and assimilated into England.

I should point out that following the assimilation of the Saxon/Norman influx, the fourteenth and fifteen centuries had seen a resurgence of cultural awareness.  Penryn’s Glasney College, the third oldest academic institution in Britain, had risen to become the centre for scholarship in the Cornish language and the hub of Cornish national consciousness. 

The upheavals that brought about the destruction of the Cornish monasteries from 1536 to 1545 also brought an end to the formal scholarship that had sustained the Cornish cultural identity.  The smashing and looting of colleges like Glasney and Crantock must have played a prominent part in fermenting opposition to forthcoming cultural ‘reforms’.  Apart from being sorely missed centres of indigenous cultural excellence, many would have seen these institutions as being a bridge to the Celtic past, a link before the present imperial overlords achieved ascendancy, back even to the Christianised paganism of their forefathers.

After the age of druidical paganism it was the Celtic monks who kept scholarship alive during the Anglo-Saxon terrorism of Britain.  It was monks who had established the early schools, provided hospitality for the traveller, fed the poor and nursed the sick.  Little wonder that the Cornish looked on with disbelief and abhorrence at the severance of this link to their ancestral roots.

It is no coincidence that the 16th Century harrying of Cornwall happened at the time of the greatest ever number of Cornish speakers.  The Cornish language remained as living proof of Cornwall’s difference, an everyday reminder of her roots, and a distinct mark of nationhood.  As it was, in the new mood of belligerent English nationalism, this linguistic feature of Cornish society came to be acknowledged as weakening the ties with England at a time when fears were expressed over impending invasion.  As well as being in possession of a different language, it had not gone unnoticed in London that Cornwall’s papal links and physical proximity to Spain made her an area of strategic importance.

When, in 1547, the warmongering megalomaniac monster of ingratitude died consumed by self-pity and vengeance his son was installed upon the throne.  Under the presidency of his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, and surrounded by the same clique that had created his fatherly role model, Edward pressed ahead with a programme of cultural aggression designed to ensure political conformity.

When religious processions and pilgrimages were banned, commissioners were sent out to smash all symbols of Cornish Catholicism.  Fresh from bloodily suppressing the Catholics of Ireland, Cranmer’s henchman William Body relished his task in Cornwall.  After desecrating religious shrines in Helston, Body was stabbed by William Kylter and finished off by Pascoe Trevian.  Immediate retribution followed.

In a community-wide reprisal similar to that carried out in Nazi occupied Europe, 28 Cornishmen were rounded-up and taken at gunpoint to Castle Terrible where many were hung, drawn and quartered.  One execution of a ‘traitor of Cornwall’ was carried out on Plymouth Hoe.  Town accounts give details of the cost of timber for the gallows and poles to put the head and quarters of the said traitor upon.  A chunk of the Cornishman’s torso was taken to Tavistock to that English people might take part of the festivities.

Martin Geoffrey, the priest of nearby St. Kerverne, was taken to London.  After being hacked to pieces his gored head was impaled on a staff erected upon London Bridge.  Intended as a warning to those who might resist English cultural imperialism, such indiscriminate barbarity only served to ferment even greater resentment in Cornwall.

Plans to impose the English language Book of Common Prayer upon Cornwall provoked general unrest.  In 1549, after first aspiring to a liturgy in Kernewek a list of articles grievances was despatched to the seat of English government.  Article 8 read, We will have our old service in Latin, not in English, as it was before. We, the Cornishmen, [whereof certain of us understand no English] utterly refuse this new English.   Article 10 read, We will have the whole Bible and all books of scripture in English called in again.  Article 13 limited the number of staff, or militia, local gentry could employ.  The reason for making this a requirement was to prevent the anglicised gentry from imposing their will on Cornish society.  Article 14 called for the restoration of monasteries.  

With Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer now openly rejected in Cornwall, the Duke of Somerset, as Lord Protector of the Realm, became both mystified and infuriated as to why the Cornish should take offence at the imposition of the English language.  When the plea for religious, social and cultural toleration was rejected, the well-armed force of 6000 encamped at Castle Canyke near Bodmin began their fateful journey.  These were the sons and grandsons of 1497 and many must have sought retribution for the sufferings of their forefathers.

For the purposes of illustrating the severity of measures taken to impose England’s cultural will upon the Cornish, and to enlighten those who today advocate in favour of the English Tudor Rose, I will give an account of events that occurred on Sunday August 4th and August 5th 1549.

Those actively resisting oppression had been surrounded in the village of Clyst near Exeter.  Commander of Tudor government forces Lord Russell, frustrated by his lack of success in open warfare, ordered the whole village to be torched.  One thousand insurgents sealed within the village were incinerated.  The following day, all prisoners taken into English custody were massacred.  Chronicler John Hayward records that in the space of just 10 minutes, nine hundred bound and gagged prisoners had their throats lacerated.  The next day a further 700 were butchered.

The military defeat, though inevitable, did not deliver Cromwell from the curse of persecution and bloodlust.  As a warning to potential sympathisers, over 100 prisoners were taken to Bath, Frome, Mells, Beckington, Shepton Mallet, Wells, Glastonbury, Dunster Ilminster and many other towns for public dismemberment.  Entries in the Parish records show payments for woods for the fire to burn the entrails and a pan trivet to seethe the limbs.

Cornwall was placed under Martial Law. Whilst thousands of Cornish households mourned their slaughtered menfolk, death squads under the loose control of Anthony Kingston were established.  To ensure future cultural conformity, and bring about complete obedience to English political ideology, this particularly sadistic Provost Marshal had orders to terrorise the Cornish into total submission.

Kingston duly consolidated the military victory by instigating a civil campaign of unmerciful barbarism against social, political, and cultural dissent.  Just as in the 20th century when an Iron Cross was drawn across Eastern Europe to bring about suppression and control, a 16th century Anglo-mailed fist of racial intolerance descended over Cornwall.  Dissenters were hunted down like vermin. Months of random evictions, burnings and summary executions accompanied widespread looting and land confiscations.  Cornish priests were excommunicated, those refusing to leave were buried alive, others were tarred, draped in their regalia and left chained from their own bell-towers.  Some were hung from road signs, sometimes for months, even years, as a warning to others.

With all Cornish priests now duly despatched, English Anglicans commandeered their churches.  Now Cornish religious festivals, plays and feast days were ruled unlawful.  The Cornish language was deemed socially unacceptable, its usage forbidden in matters of administration and religion.  An network of informants became the eyes an ears of state control with the Cornish being forced to attend the new English church service where, sidesmen patrolled the church to see that none crossed themselves or used rosary beads when praying.   The colleges and monasteries had already been ransacked, with irreplaceable  examples of Cornish art and literature confined to the bonfires of intolerance.  Now the lives of Saints were to be wiped from the Cornish collective memory.

The danger of free expression in a subjugated nation now run by a police state becomes obvious when we consider how these forbidding times gave birth to certain Cornish phrases. Similar expressions flourish in totalitarian regimes throughout history:

Cows nebas, Cows da, nebas an yevem yw an gwella.
Speak little, speak well, little of public matters is best.

Nyn ges gun heb lagas, ne kei heb scovern.
There is no downs without eye, nor hedge without ears.