Maps of Cornwall (Kernow) showing a Celtic or Distinct Identity

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Historically the Cornish have always viewed themselves as a nation with their own identity who were largely autonomous and had their own language and culture. Much evidence exists in legal documents, maps and quotations to back these claims up and it is recognised that before the 1960's there was little difference between Cornwall and Wales in constitutional terms.

Before 878 AD, when the drowned King Donyarth is recorded in the Annales Cambriae as Rex Cerniu (King of Cornwall), Cornwall was known as West Wales and recognised as having a distinct autonomous identity. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred, attacked the south western Celts in 927, forcing their withdrawal from Exeter. There is no record of him taking his campaigns into Cornwall and it seems probable that Hywel, King of the Cornish, agreed to pay tribute thus avoiding further attacks and maintaining a high degree of autonomy. In 936 Athelstan’s settlement had fixed the east bank of the River Tamar as the boundary between Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Celtic Cornwall. The river still marks the division between Cornwall and Devon.

Up until 1066, Cornwall retained its own indigenous Celtic Earls. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror installed his half brother, Robert, Earl of Mortaigne, as the Earl of Cornwall. He did this because he recognised the Cornish to be very close to their Celtic speaking brothers across the sea in Brittany and Robert was a Breton. This was a skillful appointment because William knew that this would be a relatively popular appointment and one which was less likely to cause him problems. The Cornish were clearly regarded by William as being different and distinct from England and the English.

So, the Earldom of Cornwall (Kernow) was formed in 1068 and existed until 1336 to maintain a form of independence for Kernow from Wessex (England). The sovereignty of the Earl was founded on, and replaced that of, the British Cornish princes, the representatives of the Cornish people themselves. In 1337 the Earldom of Cornwall was made into a Duchy, the Duke obtaining greater rights over Cornwall than the Earls had previously exercised.

Numerous maps show Cornwall as being separate from England right up until the mid 16th century, the most famous being the 1290 Mappa Mundi now in Hereford Cathedral. Some maps of the Isles prior to the 17th century showed Cornwall (Cornubia / Cornwallia) as a nation on a par with Wales: examples include the maps of Sebastian Munster, Abraham Ortelius and Girolamo Ruscelli.

The phrase "England and Cornwall" (or the Latin equivalent Anglia et Cornubia) remained in use after the Norman Conquest and before the Tudor period laws were typically designated as taking effect in "Anglia et Cornubia". In 1485 Polydore Vergil, an Italian cleric commissioned by King Henry VII to write a history of England, states that "The whole country of Britain is divided into four parts, whereof the one is inhabited by Englishmen, the other of Scots, the third of Welshmen, the fourth of Cornish people ... and which all differ among themselves either in tongue, either in manners, or else in laws and ordinances."

Cornwall's legal right to its own Parliament was confirmed and strengthened by the Charter of Pardon 1508, granted by Henry VII, which added to its rights that of veto over acts, statutes, laws, etc., passed by the Westminster government. These rights were granted in perpetuity and cannot be lawfully rescinded.

Henry VIII even listed England and Cornwall separately in the list of his realms given in his coronation address and, interestingly, Elizabeth I stated that she did not rule Cornwall (but Cornish was among the languages she was reputed to speak).

The Act of Uniformity in 1549 which established the Book of Common Prayer as the sole legal form of worship in Cornwall and England proved to be a turning point in Cornish history which led to the 1549 Cornish Uprising. (not "rebellion" as some state, as one can only rebel against a legitimate authority and London authority (Seymour and Cranmer in particular) were seen as being far from legitimate authorities west of the Tamar). Up until then churches had continued to use the Latin-language missal with slight alterations. The Act was highly controversial and only just passed into law, with the House of Lords voting 10 to 8 for it. With the imposition of this Act, the rights that had been granted by Henry VII in the 1508 Charter of Pardon to the Cornish were totally trampled on. (Cornwall's legal right to its own Parliament had previously been confirmed and strengthened by the Charter of Pardon 1508, granted by Henry VII, which is still fully valid at law even today).

The forced introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in English on Whit Sunday 1549 (in 1548 the Book of Common Prayer in English replaced the four old liturgical books in Latin) was widely unpopular especially in Cornwall where the population at the time only spoke their native Celtic Cornish language. For the Cornish populace, this assault on their autonomous Cornish identity was a step too far. Aggravated by the assaults on their legal rights and culture, the extinguishing of their religion, and ever greater tax demands an uprising began.

The roots of the uprising can be traced back to the Cornish uprising of 1497 and the subsequent destruction of the Cornish monasteries from 1536 through to 1545 which 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 significant part in fermenting opposition to forthcoming and 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 to a time before the present imperial overlords achieved ascendancy, back even to the Christianised paganism of their forefathers.

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 (author of the Book of Common Prayer) henchman William Body relished his task in Cornwall. After desecrating religious shrines at Helston, Body was stabbed by William Kylter on April 5th 1548 and finished off by Pascoe Trevian.

Immediate retribution followed when 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 so that English people might partake of the festivities.

Martin Geoffrey, the priest of nearby St. Keverne, 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 indescriminate barbarity only served to ferment even greater resentment in Cornwall.

A Cornish army gathered at Bodmin on 6th of June 1549 and proceeded to march east to Crediton in Devon before laying siege to Exeter and demanding the withdrawal of all English manuscripts. The conflict had an ethnic dimension as shown by the articles issued by the Cornish army at Castle Canyke, near Bodmin "And so we the Cornyshe men (wherof certen of us under stade no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh."

In London, King Edward VI and his Privy Council became alarmed by the news of the uprising and Lord John Russell was ordered to take an army, composed mainly of German and Italian mercenaries, and impose a military solution.

The English response was shameful, bringing in foreign mercenaries and becoming the first state to use them in a civil dispute. These arquebusiers from Germany and Italy killed a thousand Cornish fighters, then murdered 900 unarmed Cornishmen at Clyst St Mary, 1300 Cornishmen were slaughtered at Sampford Courtnay and 300 Cornish patriots died at Fenny Bridges. Some 4,000 "rebels" were killed by the mercenary forces who then moved into Cornwall and brought the slaughter up to 11% of the population. The royalists drove their victory home with some particularly regressive acts of punishment. Pour encourager les autres, one Cornish rebel - "bedecked in Popish apparel" - was left hanging in gallows from a church tower to die from exposure. His body reportedly remained there for three years.

The imposition of the book of Common prayer was enforced by the murder of priests and the populace, the destruction of texts and traditions, the beating of children and the use of English in church education. This went on for a period of nearly 150 years - long enough to force tens of thousands to give up their native language.

Many things changed after 1549. No longer do we find Anglia et Cornubia in official documents; the British Sea suddenly became the English Channel and Cornwall as a separate entity was omitted from the maps. No record exists of any formal annexation of Cornwall to England, nor was Cornwall party to the Act of Union in 1707.

Today many Cornish claim that Cornwall has a de jure status apart as a sovereign Duchy extraterritorial to England. A commonly cited basis for this argument is an 1856 court case in which Sir George Harrison successfully argued that the Duchy enjoyed the rights and prerogatives of a County palatine and that the Duke has rights over the whole territory of Cornwall befitting a King.

The Kilbrandon Report (1969–1971) into the British constitution recommended that, when referring to Cornwall official sources should cite the Duchy not the County. This was suggested in recognition of its constitutional position.

In 1977 the Plaid Cymru MP Dafydd Wigley in Parliament asked the Attorney General for England and Wales if he would provide the date upon which enactments of the Charter of Pardon of 1508 were rescinded. The reply, received on 14 May 1977, stated that a Stannator's right to veto Westminster legislation had never been formally withdrawn.

In 1997 the Liberal Democrat Andrew George MP attempted to raise a Duchy-related question but he was prevented by an injunction that disallows MPs raising any questions in Parliament that are in any way related to the Duchy.

Recently Lord Whitty, in the House of Lords, recognised that Cornwall has a "special case" for devolution and on a visit to Cornwall, Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott said "Cornwall has the strongest regional identity in the UK".

The Council of Europe has urged the Government to extend the cultural, educational and other benefits of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to the Cornish and a 2nd UK report was submited this year with a decision due in late 2006.

Some progress has been made with the inclusion for the first time of an ethnic code (06) for the Cornish on the 2001 UK Census and the Cornish language was at last officially recognised by the government in 2002, followed by some government funding in 2005.

Despite all of this at present Cornwall is the only Celtic nation (out of Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia, the Irish Republic, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) that has no form of effective self-government.


The Celtic Realm 2006

Map of United Kingdom



Settlement pattern 600AD


West Wales

West Wales 900AD

Europe 912

Mappa Mundi 1280-1290

Sebastian Munster 1540

Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and England - Sebastian Munster 1550

Britannia Insula - 1548 - George Lily

Girolamo Ruscelli 1561

Cornewallia Wallia 1564

1595 - Abraham Ortelius

Celtic Nations

Ethnography of Europe 1938

L'Atlas mondial du moyen age (1998)"

Britannia Saxonica

Stateless Nations of Europe

European Minorities, Native Peoples and Ethnic Groups

European Languages


Wikipedia's Celtic Nations

Burghs of Alfred's Wessex

Languages and Accents of the British Isles

Divisions of areas based on Ango-Saxon influence

The Celtic League

Celtic Nations

The Celtic League (American Branch)

Schematic map of the British Isles if unification had not occurred


Celtic Countries

Celtes et Celtie

Prof C B Fawcett's "Provinces of England 1919 !"

Cornwall Objective One
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Related Sites

Celtic Nations

Constitutional Status of Cornwall

The Celtic Realm

TGG Kernow

The Cornish Stannary Parliament

Cornish People

The Cornish: A Neglected Nation ?

Proud to be Cornish ?

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Cornish National Minority

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Celtic Britain

The Cornish Assembly (new site)

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The Cornish Assembly (old site)

This is Kernow

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