Cornwall


CORNWALL   KERNOW (Cornish).

The southwesternmost county in England;  most of its boundary with Devon lies along the River Tamar, which rises very near the north coast and flows to Plymouth Sound and the English Channel. Cornwall lay in that part of the island that long remained separate from England, West Wales the English called it. Its placenames are quite different from most of England, being mainly Celtic.

The Dumnonii were the Celtic people living in Devon and Cornwall in Roman times.  The name of Devon comes from them, while Cornwall derives the first syllable of its name from the Cornovii, a Celtic people in the upper Severn valley, who it is believed provided rulers for Cornwall in the 5th century. The -wall ending was provided by the English;  it comes from the same word as Wales and indicates that the people there speak a language we (the English) don’t understand.

Devon and Cornwall were far from the main places of early English settlement and must have been insulated from them by the Dorset heathlands and the waters of the Somerset levels, but the gradual advance of the English brought Devon within their lands by 800.   The reign of Egbert in Wessex (802-39) saw Cornish power broken, and a century later, c.930, Athelstan either crushed a revolt in a Cornwall that had already been added to England or finally ended Cornish independence.

The Cornish language, closely related to Breton (there had been considerable emigration from the southwest peninsula to Brittany) and to Welsh, survived as the majority language into the 16th century but then declined until it disappeared early in the 19th century.   There are attempts to revive the language at the present time.

Since the Norman era, when the Conqueror’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, held considerable land in Cornwall, the county has had strong royal links.   Its mineral deposits had made it economically important from ancient times, and it was also strategically important because while it was remote by land from the centres of English power it was accessible, despite the occasional fury of the ocean, to other lands across the sea.

Cornwall provided the title for the first English Duke, Edward, the eldest son of King Edward III, in 1337, when the future Black Prince was still a child.  By the terms of its creation the Dukedom is heritable by the Heir Apparent to the throne, provided he is the son of the Sovereign. (What this means at the present time is that Prince William will succeed to the Dukedom when his father succeeds to the Crown, but if his father dies before the Queen, Prince William will never be Duke of Cornwall because he will never be the Sovereign’s son).

This royal link made Cornwall well represented in Parliament.   In 1821 it had 44 MPs:  two for the county and 42 for boroughs.   In that year Grampound lost its two members for corruption;  more were disenfranchised by the Reform Act of 1832.

As far as the Church was concerned Cornwall was for long subordinate to Devon’s Bishop.   There was a Bishop with his see at St German’s from before 870, but in 1027 the Bishop of Crediton (Exeter from 1050) added Cornwall to his diocese. It was not until 1877 that a separate diocese of Truro was created.

The county’s borders have changed little.  In earlier years Devon crossed the Tamar in three places.

  1. Edgcumbe on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound was in Devon until 1844.
  2. Devon also used to intrude into Cornwall  for several miles north of the River Ottery, a right-bank tributary of the Tamar, north of Launceston:  the border was straightened out in 1966 in this respect.
  3. The third, on the upper reaches of the river, has survived, so that Devon included the village of Bridgerule and extends to the upper right bank of a stream that reaches the sea at Bude.

Cornwall itself extends over the Tamar to the southwest of the small Devon town of Holsworthy.

The administrative links between the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall, never tight, have diminished since 1972.

No Cornish town was big enough to become a county borough under the 1888 Act; nor after a century of decline of old industries and of aging population, the result of Cornwall becoming a haven for the retired, was there anywhere remotely big enough to be a unitary authority in the 1990s.

Romantic revival of language, economic decline and the fall away of loyalty to major parties has led to a renewal of Cornish nationalism, but the flood-tide is probably years away.   In the 1997 General Election Mebyon Kernow contested four of the five Cornish seats, and won just 1906 votes.

The Duchy of Cornwall consists of the estates and properties of the Duke (as Duke).  Not all Cornwall belongs to the Duchy (the original grant to the Black Prince was of 17 manors) and the lands of the Duchy are not confined to Cornwall. There are properties in Devon and 21 other counties.   The lands and properties are an appanage that has survived:  they are properties that are specifically allocated to the heir apparent, provided he is the son of the Sovereign, to give him his income.

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