Cornwall – A Land And Language Battling To Exist

At the present time, I am writing my Masters dissertation on Cornish culture, identity and language. Below is part of the draft of my scene setting chapter about Cornwall and the reasons for its historical and cultural difference from England. As it is a draft, I would welcome any corrections and views from readers.

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“Den heb tavas a gollas y dir”

(Weatherhill: 2016)

Kernewek phrase which translates as “A man without language has lost his land”

Cornwall has had a historically complex and often tempestuous relationship with England. As the author and playwright Alan M. Kent observes, “It is and is not an English county. It is and it is not mentioned in the same breath as Wales, Scotland and Eire” (2000: p11). The territory had its own kings and spoke a different language. Evidence of this can be seen in Hereford Cathedral by examining the 13th century Mappa Mundi which identifies the four parts of Britain as England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

Throughout history, the Cornish people have fought battles against the people of England. An early example of this was seen in 1497 when thousands of Cornishmen, led by Michael Joseph an Gof (the Smith) marched to London in protest at the raising of taxes by Henry VIII to fund a war against Scotland – a country which the Cornish considered themselves to have a closer relationship with than England. During the English Civil War, Cornishmen joined the fight against Parliament. At this time, The Earl of Essex and the Roundheads were forced to retreat when invading the territory with the consequence that 6,000 out of the original 7,000 strong Essex army were killed or taken prisoner (Knight: 2016). There is also evidence to suggest that Cornwall has never been legally incorporated into shire England (Angarrack 1999, 2002 & 2008) and questions over whether or not, legally it is the Queen or Duke of Cornwall who has the final say in Cornish matters (Williams: 2004). Additionally, there are those in Cornwall who claim that their land has status as a quasi-independent ‘nation’ (Angarrack 1999, 2002 & 2008) due to Cornish Stannary Law. This, they argue gives Cornwall a power of veto over Westminster due to the fact that the Cornish Stannary Parliament, which last met in Truro in 1753, has never legally been dissolved (Rowe & Nute: 1996, Angarrack 1999, 2002 & 2008 and Kirkhope: 2014).

The very essence of what makes many Cornish people feel a race apart from those across the River Tamar border is the Celtic heritage that plays a central role in establishing the foundations for their identity. The fact that; “Celtic identities are in part about class and place-based differences within white identities and privileges” (McCarthy & Hague: 2004: p 389) is crucial to where Cornwall has found itself historically, and where it remains today. Arguably the most important example of this ‘place-based difference’ is the Cornish language, Kernewek. A language which ensures that Cornwall’s historic ties are with Celtic cousins:

“It was with the kindred Welsh and Bretons that we joined our forces in warlike enterprise…there was one event, of all others the most effectual in strengthening the alliance of the Cornish with their ancient friends, I mean the war against the infidels of the East (England)”

(Polwhele: 1806a: p 6-7).

Celtic languages are divided into two classifications. Kernewek is known as a Brythonic Celtic language in common with Brezhoneg (Breton) and Cymraeg (Welsh). The other Celtic languages are grouped as Goidelic Celtic and cover the indigenous tongues of Ireland (Gaeilge), Scotland (Gàidhlig) and Gaelg or Gailck (Isle of Man) – see Berresford-Ellis (2000). Whilst a recent study by Weatherhill (2016) has sought to emphasise a paper from Parry (1946) in disproving the long held theory that Kernewek died out towards the end of the eighteenth century, it is an inescapable fact that the imposition of the Common Prayer Book in English during 1549 did its best to eradicate the language. Unlike their Celtic cousins in Wales, where legislation was provided for the bible and Common Prayer Book to be translated into Cymraeg, this was never ruled permissible for the Cornish language (see Payton: 2004). The consequence was a major rebellion which saw the Cornish capture Exeter and hold it for a full month before Edward VI gathered an army of foreign mercenaries who slaughtered the Cornish army in a battle at Clyst St. Mary in Devon (see Rowse: 1941).

Additionally, the razing of Glasney College in Penryn a year earlier also had a detrimental impact in terms of academic and literary writing in the Cornish language. It was at Glasney that many medieval mystery plays such as The Ordinalia were believed to have been written. This work, published in around 1375 has been proven by Will Coleman (2015) to be among the oldest surviving play scripts in Europe, with the oldest remaining stage diagrams in the world. After the loss of Glasney, there were small, rare published literary works in Cornish but the written word virtually died out by 1650 (see Kent: 2000). Indeed it also meant that archival material of Cornish language texts were taken away from the territory to ensure their survival in the reformation period. Hawke (2001) and Coleman (2015) carried out intensive research which unearthed rare Cornish language mystery plays in the National Library of Wales and the Bodleian Library in Oxford which were written around 1500.

The maintenance of Cornwall’s Celtic heritage was the driving force to get more people speaking the language. Stoyle (cited in Spriggs 2005) identifies William Scawen, a Royalist Civil War soldier and MP for St. Germans & East Looe in 1640, as someone who was “among the first to see that it (Kernewek) was in danger of dying out” (ibid: p 99). Scawen delivered a manuscript of a ‘Passion Poem’ in Cornish, and a book in English detailing Cornish identity entitled Antiquities Cornubrittanic. Another important staging post in recognition of Cornwall’s separate identity came in Edward Lhwyd’s 1707 publication of the Archaeologica Britannica. In this work, he traced the Celtic languages and provided a dictionary of their terms. This was seen as a seminal text in its linguistic description of the Cornish language.

It was the early twentieth century which saw a concerted effort to raise the status of Kernewek. In 1904, Henry Jenner published The Handbook of the Cornish Language before establishing the Gorsedh Kernow, the Cornish group of bards in 1928. The Gorsedh closely mirrored the work of Welshman Iolo Morganwg, who similarly ‘invented’ a bardic community around his personal interpretation of a long deceased, ancient movement in Wales (see Morgan: 1983). Jenner’s work also included a Cornish-English dictionary in published 1938, which is still in use today. The revival’s bid to gather pace became increasingly bogged down in the 1980s and 1990s with heated arguments about what an authentic indigenous Cornish language should look like. Unified Cornish, established by Robert Morton Nance, had its supporters as did Ken George’s Kernewek Kemmyn (Common Cornish). Also appearing on the scene was Nicholas Williams’ Revised Unified Cornish. Public disputes and various factions developed (see George: 1995, Williams: 1996 & 2001, Grant: 1998, Everson: 1999, Mills: 1999 and Kennedy: 2001 & 2002). In the twentieth century, the work of MAGA (the Cornish Language Partnership) aided agreement on a Standard Written Form of the language, and by 2010, UNESCO altered its classification of Cornish to recognise that its prior description of being an extinct language was no longer true.

The consequences of these two events led to the profile of Kernewek increasing rapidly. Kenneth McKinnon’s research for the British Council estimated there were 300 people able to hold a conversation in Kernewek (See ibid: 2002 & 2004). By 2005, O’Neill & Texier’s survey revealed that the numbers had increased to 3,000 (2005: p 242). According to the 2011 census, 557 people in England and Wales stated that Kernewek was their first language (


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Coleman, W. (2015) ‘Plen an Gwari: The Playing Places of Cornwall’: Goldentree Productions: St. Buryan.

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