Source: Western Morning News
Just who are the Cornish and why are they different?
"With last week’s decision to include the Cornish people on the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Craig Weatherhill poses the inevitable question.
The news that, on April 24, 2014, the Cornish people were finally recognised as a national minority by the UK Government and included on the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, throws up the question: Just who are the Cornish and why are they different? The answers may be surprising.
Communities minister Stephen Williams stated: “The Cornish, with the Welsh, are the oldest people in Britain.” This fact was drawn from the ongoing nine-year genetic survey of the peoples of Britain being undertaken by the University of Oxford, which concludes that the Cornish and Welsh people are descended from the original post-Ice Age colonists of Britain, 12,000 years ago. It even finds that the Cornish are genetically distinct from people in Devon right next door.
Those people, from the Atlantic fringes of what are now France, Spain and Portugal, entered a completely depopulated island, and have been here ever since. No-one was displaced, for there was no-one to displace.
No-one knows what language they spoke, although one intriguing theory is that it might have been an early form of Euskara (Basque), a pre-Indo-European language of very great antiquity.
In the Neolithic period, from 4,500 BC, more people, from the very same areas of Atlantic Europe, arrived bringing agricultural skills to Britain for the first time. From then until the Roman invasion in AD 43, there was relative continuity, although minor movements to and from the European mainland must have occurred, each bringing new technology, expertise and implements.
So, why did these people come to be defined as Celtic? The term is not one of race, but of language and culture. Over the last two decades, wholly new findings have emerged about the origin of the Celts and the 18th-century idea of a Central European origin and a Celtic invasion of Britain at the start of the Iron Age after 800 BC has, at long last, fallen by the wayside.
It now appears that the Celtic language was developed from Indo-European in the western part of the Iberian peninsula, possibly around the Tagus estuary, which was a centre for prehistoric innovation and within the same area from which many of those early British colonists had come.
Today, we think that “Atlantic Arc trading” is a new concept but, in fact, it’s incredibly ancient. By the beginning of the Neolithic period, around 4500 BC, an Atlantic sea-trading route from western Iberia to Britain and Ireland was already established and, in time, Celtic became the common language of the trading nations along that route. The language became established in Ireland and Western Britain by 3000 BC, and across the rest of Britain by 2000 BC. Current work by leading archaeologist Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe and archaeo-linguist Dr John Koch is attempting to pin down those dates even more closely.
This was the language from which all the present-day Celtic languages, including Cornish, descended and perhaps the best definition of a Celt is “a person who speaks, or whose forebears spoke, as their native tongue, a Celtic language”. This would certainly include the Cornish people.
West Cornwall was the very first place in Britain ever to have been written about, following a visit by a Greek explorer and geographer called Pytheas of Massalia, around 325 BC. From his account, the native Cornish were described as “courteous” and “civilised” and their expertise in tin production and smelting was also described.
Roman occupation of Britain had little effect upon the Cornish people and their way of life. Cornwall did not become absorbed into the expanding Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, their king Athelstan placing the east bank of the Tamar as a revised border between his own Wessex kingdom and the independent Kingdom of Cornwall (it had previously been the Taw-Exe line for several centuries), grabbing our then territory of Western Devon for himself in 926 AD.
Saxon settlement was small, late (no evidence suggests any earlier than the 10th century) and confined to a few small areas close to the Tamar. Cornwall retained its own status as an independent kingdom whose royal line continued until the 11th century. This – under Norman rule – became an Earldom and then, in 1337, the Duchy it remains today, giving Cornwall a peculiar constitutional and legal status which remains unique in the UK. Not so much a “county” as a Crown Dependency.
The early Celtic Christian church in Cornwall (predating St Augustine) had its own doctrines and practices, and Cornwall was the last of the Celtic nations to hold out against demands for change and conformity by Rome.
The Cornish language continued, with major literary production in the 14th century and again in the 16th. The relationship with England became fraught under Tudor rule, with two major uprisings in 1497 and 1549, the second resulting in a five-week siege of Exeter, five horrific battles – some of the bloodiest engagements ever fought on British soil – and savage reprisals resulting in the deaths of an estimated 11 per cent of the Cornish population. Refusal to allow a prayer book or Bible in Cornish struck a potential death-knell for the language, already retreating westward under the overwhelming influence of English.
Somehow, the language continued until confined to the Penwith and Lizard peninsulas by the 18th century. Isolated pockets of community use in remote parishes carried on throughout the 19th century, by which time a revival had begun among enthusiasts that continues today, securing official recognition and protection for the Cornish language in 2002, under the European Charter for the Protection of Regional and Minority Languages.
Today, the Cornish retain traditions and customs little known elsewhere, some of which derive from prehistory.
When the Cornish became known as Cornish (or the pre-English language equivalents) is also probably of pre-Roman date. The Cornish were one of three people known as “Cornovii” to the Romans, a name derived from native Celtic and meaning “horn or promontory people”. Around 400 AD, a Roman itinerary listing a route through north-east Cornwall included a place-name Durocornouio(n), “fortress of the Cornovii”, tentatively identified as Tintagel. In modern Cornish, that name would be rendered as “Din Kernowyon”, so the language hasn’t altered too greatly.
Cornwall’s King Donyarth, who drowned in 875 AD, was described in ancient records and in a strange mix of Latin and Celtic as “rex Cerniu, id est Cornubiae” (King of Cornwall, that is, of the Cornish people). In “Cerniu” and the “-cornou-” of Durocornouio(n), we can recognise the native name, Kernow, first spelt that way in 1400. The name “Cornwall” retains the Celtic word meaning “horns” or “promontories”, plus the West Saxon word “wealas” which they applied to Celtic-speaking Britons (hence “Wales”). To the West Saxons, the Cornish were the “Westwealas”; the Welsh, the “Northwealas”.
The Cornish were always an innovative people, blazing the trail for technologies from blood transfusion to the nationwide postal service; from road and rail transport to powered flight (yes, the son of Cornish emigrants to New Zealand achieved that feat eight months before the Wright brothers did so) and the screw propeller which drives most of the world’s shipping. And, of course, Cornish hard rock mining techniques and expertise, developed over 4,000 years, have been taken all over the world.
The Cornish have always been a special people. And now National Minority status is official.
Craig Weatherhill is a Cornish historian, archaeologist, writer and Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd.
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