Excerpts From 1934: ‘The Story of Cornwall’  by A.K.Hamilton Jenkin

History before books were written

The Tamar valley is quite narrow here, but a few miles farther down it widens out, and the river makes a double bend like the letter S.  Soon afterwards Saltash bridge comes into sight.  This was built by Brunel, the famous engineer, and carries the railway over from Devonshire into Cornwall.  Just beyond Saltash lie the dockyards of Devonport, where ships for the Navy are built and repaired  

A Cornish river, called the Lynher, joins the Tamar opposite this, and together they flow into the sea at Plymouth Sound.  Cornwall, therefore, is very nearly an island.  It has the sea on three sides of it, whilst the Tamar almost completely divides it from Devonshire on the fourth.

The result of this was that for many centuries the Cornish people were largely cut off from the rest of England.  They dwelt apart, living as fishermen by their rocky coves, or searching for tin in the moors and valleys around the granite hills.  Within the last hundred years there were Cornish people who would tell you that they had never been to England.  This may sound strange to-day, but really such people were being quite correct.  Cornwall is not England, nor is a Cornishman of the same race as an Englishman. The Cornish, like the Welsh, are British people.  In other words, they were inhabiting this island called Britain long before the English came.

The Reformation, The Civil War, And After

Henry the VIII. died in 1547, and was succeeded by his son, the boy king, Edward VI.  During the latter’s short reign the government fell into the hands of the nobles, who had already enriched themselves with the spoils of the monasteries and were now seeking further power.  The result was that the  king was made a tool for carrying out the reform of the Church to far greater lengths than the people as a whole desired.  By means of varying decrees the old Latin services were abolished and others introduced in accordance with the English Prayer Book of Common Prayer.  The ancient festival days of the Church were likewise done away with, and images and other ornaments in the churches themselves were ordered to be removed.

The wrath and indignation of the Cornish people at this interference with their religious life was so great that it promptly led to an insurrection.  In the summer of 1548 Mr.Body, the king’s commissioner, whilst attempting to remove images from the parish church of Helston, was set upon by a man named Kilter and others, and stabbed to death.  In the following year six thousand Cornishmen rose in arms, and under the leadership of Sir Humphry Arundell of Lanherne and Henry Boyer, mayor of Bodmin, began to march up the country.

Helston Church

Carved Benches, Mullion Church, near Helston

Although they professed loyalty to the young king, the “petition” in which the Cornishmen set forth their grievances reads more like a threat.  “We will not receive the  new Service,” they wrote, “because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have our olde Service of Mattens, masse, evensong and procession in Latten, as it was before.  And we the Cornyshe men, whereof certain of us understande no Englyshe, utterly refuse thys newe Service.”  To this they further added, “We wyl have holy bread and holy water made every Sundaye;  Palms and ashes at the tymes accustomed; Images to be set up again in every church, and all other auncient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore by our Mother the holy Church.”

Two things are particularly interesting about this petition.  One is that it shows that many Cornishmen at that time could only speak the old Celtic language and knew no English, and the other the passionate love which they felt for the ancient forms and ceremonies of the Church.  the king wrote a reply to the demands of his Cornish Catholics, but not in such a way as to satisfy them.   Accordingly they marched on and, joined by many supporters in Devonshire, laid siege to Exeter.  Here at length they were defeated, but only after a display if such “valour and stoutness,” that as Lord Grey, who fought against them, remarked, “he never, in all the wars he had been in, did not know the like.”

The rebels were beaten, and their punishment soon followed.  Sir Humphry Arundell was executed in London, Boyer was hanged outside his own house at Bodmin.  Another leader was hanged at St. Columb Major from the signpost of one of the inns.  The story is told that when the king’s commissioner reached St.Ives he ordered the mayor, one John Payne, to erect a gallows, and then invited him to dinner at the old “George and Dragon” Inn.  When the meal was over, the mayor, who no doubt hoped that his part in the insurrection had been overlooked, inquired whom the gallows was for.  “For yourself, Mr. Mayor,” replied the commissioner, and the wretched man was straightaway taken out and hanged in the market-place.

So the rebellion was put down, and the English Book of Common Prayer was substituted in place of the old Latin services.  Had the new prayer-book been translated into Cornish, as it was into Welsh, it is quite possible that the old Celtic language would still be spoken in Cornwall.  But this was not to be, and from the time when the Book of Common Prayer was introduced the Cornish language began to decay.

Memorial commemorating the Cornish Prayer Book Uprising

Note: The Cornishmen paid dearly in their attempts to protect their language.  Angarrack’s ‘Our Future is History’ published in 2002 describes the retribution that followed:
“Those actively resisting oppression had been surrounded in the village of Clyst near Exeter.  Commander of Tudor government forces Lord Russell, frustrated at 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 ten minutes, nine hundred bound and gagged prisoners had their throats lacerated.  The next day a further 700 were butchered.”

Update: 27th March 2015 

Sports And Pastimes


It is a true saying that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull fellow.”   The people of Old Cornwall were certainly hard workers, as we have seen; but at the same time they were not dull fellows.  They had their sports and pastimes, and although their holidays were few and far between they made good use of them.

One of the chief recreations of Cornishman in olden days was wrestling, a sport which still has an important place in Cornwall.   Wrestling, of course, was once a favourite pastime throughout the country generally. You will remember the famous match between Orlando and Charles which Shakespeare describes in As you like it.

From early times, however, the Cornishman were celebrated above all others as wrestlers. Drayton, an old poet, tells us that at the battle of Agincourt (1415) the Cornish contingent marched on to the field beneath a banner which proudly depicted two wrestlers “in a hitch.” In 1602 Richard Carew wrote: “You shall hardly find an assembly of boys in Cornwall or Devon where the most untowardly will not as readily give you a muster of this exercise as you are prone to require it.” In 1662 another writer says: “The Cornish are masters of the art of wrestling, and to give a ‘Cornish hug’ is proverbial.”

During Charles II.’s reign a certain Thomas Hawken of Cubert succeeding in throwing Lyttleton Weynorth, who was at that time the champion wrestler of England. Another famous Cornish wrestler of this period was the Rev Richard Stevens, headmaster of Truro Grammar School. As will be seen from this, the sport was enjoyed by all classes of Cornish people.

The custom of awarding money prizes for wrestling is comparatively modern. In the olden days the trophies consisted of gold or silver laced hats, leather breeches, gloves, silver goblets,pairs of candlesticks, and the like. A century ago the more important wrestling meetings often lasted for two or three days on end. At a match held at Bodmin in 1811 four thousand spectators were present, and we are told that the wrestling was continued by the light of the moon until nearly midnight,

Wrestling is scarcely a gentle exercise even to-day, but it is now a clean and manly sport. Formerly, the old Devonshire style was very brutal. Kicking was allowed, and the wrestlers used to wear heavy iron-shod shoes. By the end of a match their legs were often streaming with blood.

The last great match took place at Devonport in 1826.  Cornwall was represented by Polkinghorne of St. Columb, and Devonshire by Cann.  The match ended in a draw.

After that date wrestling declined in Devonshire, where it has now almost died out. In Cornwall, on the other hand, it has undergone a considerable revival since the War. Classes are now held in which boys may learn to become skilful at the sport, whilst the china clay district has produced many fine wrestlers who are living up to the old Cornish tradition.


The other chief sport of Cornwall in the olden days was hurling. This was played with a kind of wooden cricket ball, covered with a casing of silver.  Some of these balls bore mottoes in the Cornish language, such as Guare wheag yu guare teag, which means, “Gentle play is handsome play.”  Hurling was once practised in many parts of Europe, but more particularly in the Celtic countries of Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany.

In Cornwall there were two kinds of hurling – “hurling to goal” and “hurling to country.”  The latter was the more exciting and also the most strenuous form of the game.  Parish often played against parish in these matches, using their respective church towers as the goals.

  On such occasions, Carew tells us, the hurlers would take their way “over hills, dales, hedges, ditches; yea, and through bushes, briers, mires, plashes, and rivers, so you shall sometimes see twenty or thirty lie tugging together in the water scrambling and scratching for the ball.  This game,he adds, “is accompanied with many dangers, for proof whereof when the hurling is ended you shall see them retyring home as from a pitched battaile, with bloody pates (heads), bones broken and out of joint, and such bruises as serve to shorten their days.  Yet all is good play, and never Attorney (lawyer) nor Crowner (Coroner) troubled for the matter.”

Hurling, so far as Cornwall goes, is now played only at St. Columb Major and at St. Ives.  In the latter town it takes place on the Feast Monday, and is played between goals which are erected on Porthminster beach.

The St. Columb hurling, which is played on Shove Tuesday and the Saturday of the following week, is a much more important affair. Hundreds of people frequently take part in the game here, and the doors and shop windows are barricaded as if for a siege.  The goals lie two miless apart, and the players are divided into “Town” and “Country.”  Helter-skelter they rush up and down the winding street, tumbling and tossing, now forwards, now back. Long before the game is over their clothes are torn to rags, sweat is running in their eyes, and they are covered with mud or dust as the case may be.  Yet, all the time, they remain good tempered and happy, like the true sportsmen that they are.  At last, perhaps, some swift runner gets the ball, carries it out of the parish, and so ends the day’s play.

  The origin of hurling is hard to trace, but it probably dates back to before the time of Christianity.  Some people think that the throwing up of the silver ball into the air was a symbol of the rising sun.  It is worth noting that the matches used generally to take place in the springtime when the sun begins once more to mount high in the heavens.  Even to-day the hurling ball is regarded as bringing good luck.  It is often handed round before the game begins, so that the woman and children may touch it.

It’s “Furry” Day not “Flora” Day

The coming of May was also celebrated with many interesting customs.  On May Day boys and girls would go out early in the morning to cut the green boughs of sycamore, which in Cornwall is generally known as “may”.  They would either bring these back to town, or take them to the farmhouses, where, as a reward, they would be given a breakfast of bread and cream.

At Padstow the celebrations of May Day still begin at midnight on the 30th of April.  As the clock strikes twelve a party of men and women assemble outside one of the inns, where formerly they used always to meet together for supper. From here they take their way round the town, singing verses from the old song:

“Unite and unite, and let us all you unite,

For summer is a-come unto day,

And whither we are going we all will unite,

In the merry morning of May”.

After retiring home to bed for a few hours, the singers gather once more at the inn. From here, about ten o’clock, the hobby-horse is taken out for its May Day excursion and into the streets.  The “horse” is a fearsome creature, constructed out of black tarpaulin. It has a tall painted cap, a ferocious face-mask, flowing plume, and savage-looking jaws or “snappers.” In front of the man who carries it dances another who is dressed in a comic costume.  In his hands he holds a painted “club,” with which he beats time to the music of the band as it strikes up the merry “Morning Song.”  The other men who accompany the hobby-horse are also dressed in fancy attire.  Most of them wear flowers in their hats, whilst the doorways of many of the houses are decorated with green boughs.  Throughout the rest of the day the hobby-horse “pares” continue their frolic through the streets, the “horse” itself making wild rushes into the crowd wherever it is thickest.

From Padstow our thoughts turn naturally enough to Helston, whose famous “furry dance” takes place a week later on the 8th of May.  The word “furry” simply represents a local pronunciation of the Latin Feriae (“a festival holiday”), from which it is derived. To call it “Flora Day” is really quite incorrect, and the sooner that name is forgotten the better.

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