Cornwall: National history and myth

sparkey

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3/4 Colonial American, 1/8 Cornish, 1/8 Welsh
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The south-westernmost peninsula of Great Britain, Cornwall is de jure a county and unitary district of England. It lacks an administrative separateness from England, unlike Wales and Scotland, yet maintains a distinct culturally Celtic identity. So, many Cornish consider themselves to be ethnically "Cornish" as opposed to English, adopting symbols characteristic of a national identity, such as a flag and an anthem, and having cultural trends distinct from the rest of the country they are officially a part of. Cornish nationalists exist, a political party campaigns for a Cornish Assembly (like the Welsh one), and the Celtic League considers Cornwall a "Celtic nation," placing it as a peer alongside Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

But what is the Cornish national history outside of England? I am interested in opinions, and would like to explore a few topics:


  • Cornwall as a historically independent nation.
What would a semi-independent or devolved Cornwall be inheriting? To me it seems that an independent Cornwall existed only briefly in the dark ages. For a long time up to the 8th century, it had probably been exclusively part of Dumnonia, with all evidence (that I am aware of) to the contrary coming from later fables that assumed that an independent Cornwall was more ancient. For example, King Mark is almost certainly mythical. Yet there is evidence that once Dumnonia's ruling class was pushed out of modern-day Devon by Wessex to Cornwall and Brittany, Wessex ceased to expand at the Tamar, and Cornwall became an independent nation. The only King known with any certainty is Donyarth, who ruled until 875. Yet Cornwall had been certainly absorbed into the Earldom of Wessex by the 11th century, and was probably dominated by England around the same time England was founded (927). So, the Kingdom of Cornwall looks to have had maybe a century or two of historical independence.


  • Continuity of language and culture.
Can Cornish culture really be said to still be exclusively Celtic rather than, at least, a hybrid? The Cornish language, although revived, had a 200-year hiatus in which nobody spoke it, with the Cornish becoming exclusively English speakers. It opens a can of worms to ask whether Celticity is more of a language or cultural thing, but what continuity can be seen between the ancient Cornish people and modern Cornish people? Did they in any way "become English"?


  • Historical relationship between other nations and cultures.
DNA (if I recall correctly) has indicated a gradient in English genetics, with the Cornish being closely related to Devonians, except even farther along the gradient away from Eastern England. So, their Celtic genetics, shared particularly with Wales and Brittany, seem undeniable. But how close to the Welsh and Bretons can the Cornish really be said to be, as opposed to the English? Nobody is denying Devonians to be English, yet the Cornish are probably closer to them genetically and culturally than to the Welsh and Bretons. And on a related note, is the Cornish heritage of Cornouaille history or myth?



Full disclosure: I am matrilineally Cornish.
 
I really don't see the benefits of independence for Cornwall. Cornish Gaelic is a dead language. The region has little economy of its own apart from tourism (mostly from the rest of the UK). Genetically, Cornish people fit within the rest of Britain. There is no clear-cut separation between the English (presumably of Germanic descent) and Celtic populations like the Cornish or the Welsh. Instead there is an East-West gradient, so that people in eastern England tend to be the most Germanic, while those in western England are the most Celtic or "Brythonic". People from Devon, Dorset or Somerset might be just as Celtic as your average Cornish or Welsh person.
 
I really don't see the benefits of independence for Cornwall. Cornish Gaelic is a dead language. The region has little economy of its own apart from tourism (mostly from the rest of the UK). Genetically, Cornish people fit within the rest of Britain. There is no clear-cut separation between the English (presumably of Germanic descent) and Celtic populations like the Cornish or the Welsh. Instead there is an East-West gradient, so that people in eastern England tend to be the most Germanic, while those in western England are the most Celtic or "Brythonic". People from Devon, Dorset or Somerset might be just as Celtic as your average Cornish or Welsh person.

I agree with most of this, although certainly, genetics aside, the Cornish have maintained a greater degree of Celtic identity than their Devonian counterparts. I think that that may date as far back as the demise of Dumnonia and the subsequent independence of Cornwall, giving Devon a handful of centuries longer to "become English." There were also incidents like 927, when King Æthelstan of England expelled culturally Celtic people from Exeter in favor of culturally Anglo-Saxon people (per William of Malmesbury: "Exeter was cleansed of its defilement by wiping out that filthy race"). Added together, and they've ended up with very closely related people with distinct ethnic identities on either side of the Tamar.

Of course, the Celtic identity that many Cornish maintain does not mean that they should start campaigning for full independence... that position isn't seriously on the table to begin with. Although it hasn't been extensively polled, the Cornish tend to support a devolved Cornish assembly, similar to what the Welsh have (or at least had before the Welsh Assembly was granted full law-making powers... I'm not sure if that's what the Cornish want or need). I don't think that a devolved Cornwall is an unreasonable demand.
 
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