Cornwall is the most remote of English counties. Its eastern boundary, on the River Tamar, is some 320 km distant from London. Cornwall’s westernmost town, Penzance, lies another 130 km farther from London and close by Land’s End, the traditional southwestern extreme of Great Britain. The Isles of Scilly lie an additional 56km southwest of Penzance in the Atlantic Ocean.
During the early Stone Age period, there was little sign of human habitation in Cornwall, although there are signs of occasional visitors from elsewhere. The Mesolithic era – the Middle Stone Age from about 10,000 BC- was the end of the last glacial period when water levels began to rise. Hunter-gatherers began to settle around the coastline of Cornwall and evidence can be found around the Lizard, for example, and on upland areas such as Bodmin Moor.
Between 4,000 and 2,500 BC in the Neolithic or new Stone Age there was great social and agricultural development. Farming began and there was increased monument construction, as the population increased. Settlements began to be fortified.
The Early Bronze Age between 2,400 and 1,500BC saw the introduction of metal working. The use of bronze exploited Cornwall’s natural resources of tin and copper. These metals were found by tin-streaming and open-cast mining. During this period there were many more ceremonial and burial monuments: the stone circles, rows and standing stones or menhirs, and the barrows with their “cist graves” hollowed out of stone or timber.
From 1,500 – 600 BC during the Late Bronze Age, the climate became wetter causing movement of the settlements to lowland sites such as Trethellan, Newquay. The nature of farming changed to less intensive grazing on the uplands. As a result, a more warlike society evolved which often sacrificed weapons to their gods. Although it has long been believed that the first Brythonic Celts (ie, from Gaul or France, and not from Spain or Portugal) arrived in Britain around 600BC, some recent scholarship suggests this possibly happened as early as 2000 BC. Today Cornwallis recognised as one of the six Celtic nations, along with Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany, and the Isle of Man
Iron gradually replaced bronze for weapons and farming tools during the Iron Age from 600 BC to 43AD. People started to live in defended settlements known as rounds which were bank-and-ditch enclosures around a number of round-houses. Economic and social centres, for manufacturing and trading, were established on hill-tops and headlands, such as Trevelgue Head, near Newquay.
During the late 1st century AD, Roman military occupation of Britain began. At this time the part of Britain annexed by Rome was divided among various tribes. The south west was occupied by the Dumnonii, Iron Age Celts who had been in the area for centuries. The rural society in Cornwall was largely unchanged by the Roman influence. Trade in tin increased during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, not only for bronze, but also to combine with lead for pewter objects. Courtyard houses appeared at this time in villages such as Chysauster, Penzance.
During the 6th and 7th centuries there was an English invasion of Cornwall. This was the period of Arthur, Doniert & other Celtic kings including King Mark. It was also known as The Age of the Saints.
Many legends associate King Arthur with Cornwall. He was said to have been born in Tintagel, at the home of Gorlais, Earl of Cornwall. It was here that Uther Pendragon seduced Igerna or Igraine, Arthur’s mother. The castle ruins at Tintagel are 11th century, but there are signs of a much earlier settlement. There is a cave below the castle known as Merlin’s Cave as the magician is said to haunt it. Arthur is said to be reincarnated as a Cornish chough.
King Mark was said to have lived at Castle Dore, Fowey. Legend says that Mark sent his nephew, Tristan, to Ireland to bring back the fair Iseult to be Mark’s queen. However the young couple accidentally swallowed a love potion and fell passionately in love. Iseult married Mark and the story inevitably had a tragic ending. It is interesting that this story parallels the story of King Arthur sending his most loyal knight, Lancelot du Lac, to collect his new bride Guinevere from her home in Scotland. They, too, fall in love with tragic consequences.
In 577, the Battle of Deorham Down near Bristol resulted in the separation of the Cornish (known as the West Welsh) from the Welsh by the advance of the Saxons. By this time, the Saxons had destroyed the remains of Roman civilisation and it was almost forgotten in the west. The Saxons were established and they were converting their conquests to Roman Christianity. Not long after this the earliest Christian church opened at St. Piran’s Oratory.
St Piran became the patron saint of Cornwall and of tin miners. His flag is a white cross on a black background. St Piran’s Day is celebrated on March 5th. He is the most famous of the Irish saints who came to Cornwall and is said to have discovered tin and to have founded the monastery of Clonmacnois. Legend says the heathen Irish tied him to a mill-stone, rolled it over the edge of a cliff into a stormy sea, which immediately became calm. The saint floated safely over the water to land upon the sandy beach of Perranzabulo in Cornwall, where his first converts were animals.
In 936 Athelstan’s (King of the Anglo-Saxons and then King of England) 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.
The county’s isolation aided the survival of the Celtic language known as Cornish, although it has not been spoken as a living language since the 18th century. Celtic place-names are much in evidence. After the Norman Conquest (1066) the indigenous manors of Cornwall were taken over to form the basis of an earldom; since 1337 they have belonged traditionally to the eldest son of the English sovereign, who acts as duke of Cornwall – currently Prince Charles.
Tin was mined in Cornwall for at least 3,000 years. Since ancient times, Cornwall has been closely linked to the outside world, thanks to the export of tin. Historians suggest that Cornish tin powered the advancements of the Bronze Age, as tin was necessary to the smelting of bronze. In the Classical Era, tin from Cornwall reached the Mediterranean, while the Early Middle Ages saw tin exchanged for luxury goods from North Africa and the Middle East. In the 19th century, tin mining expanded rapidly, as the Industrial Revolution allowed for mining deep under the ground. . Despite periodic depressions in the industry, Cornish tin mining continued profitably until the 20th century, when the shallow tin deposits were exhausted and the deeper and more costly workings fell victim to cheaper foreign tin production. The number of working mines dwindled, and, with the world collapse of tin prices in the 1980s, the last few tin mines in Cornwall were allowed by the British government to close. In 2006 the copper and tin mines in Cornwall and West Devon were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kaolin, the product of eroded granite, is still mined around St. Austell and used to make medicine to stop bleeding and diarrhoea.
Cornwall was also closely associated with pirates in the Early Modern Period, inspiring The Pirates of Penzance. The Cornish were often accused of the villainous practice of luring ships to the cliffs to be wrecked and so their cargo could be salvaged. This has since been disproved, but those who lived along the coast of Cornwall assumed the rights to salvage goods from wrecked ships. In the past, Cornwall was a centre for smuggling of illegal contraband such as brandy, port and gin to avoid excise. Smuggling was an acknowledged Cornish pastime and reached its peak during the 18th century. At one time the Isles of Scilly were totally reliant on the smuggling trade. The only legal business was fishing, but at best that was seasonal. Mousehole is one of the many west Cornwall villages steeped in smuggling history.
The Cornish in Australia. There was a Cornishman who travelled to Australia with Captain James Cook and at least two convicts from Cornwall on the First Fleet. Cornish Australians are thought to make up around 4.3 per cent of the Australian population and are thus one of the largest ethnic UK groups in Australia and as such are greater than the native population in the UK of just 532,300. The Australian gold rush commenced at Ophir in May 1851, quite close to the Cornish Settlement, whose official name was Byng (on the Great Western Highway between Bathurst and Orange). These Cornish miners formed the first mining union in Australian and Cornish miners were instrumental in the formation of the Australian Labor Party.