West of Wessex: Britain’s Other Nation

We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land; the Severn is no stay.
With ‘one and all,’ and hand in hand, and who shall bid us nay?
And shall Trelawny live? Or shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why!

The Song of the Western Men

I

One and a half millennia ago, Celtic Britons occupied the territories of what were later known as Wales, England, and Cornwall. Then came the Saxons, the Angles, the Danes, the Normans, the Irish, the Roma, the Huguenots, the Sephardim, and all the other peoples since. As the first of these – the Germanic peoples we now refer to as ‘Anglo-Saxons’ – settled and expanded west across Britain after the Roman withdrawal in c. 410, the British Kingdom of Dumnonia (today Devon & Cornwall) held out until the 8th and early 9th centuries when the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex finally conquered Devon and pushed the Britons west of the Tamar – the river which to this day draws the land border of Cornwall. The proto-English speakers of Wessex referred to these Britons as the ‘West Welsh’, and to Cornwall as ‘West Wales’. Donyarth, the last King of Cornwall, died in 875; his death may have been a punishment for collaboration with the Vikings in a failed attempt to assert British sovereignty in the face of Germanic expansion.

The last true hopes at resisting continuing English expansion came with the Danish conquest of Wessex in 1013. Cornwall then enjoyed self-rule until at least 1035. Thereafter were the hopes of Dumnonia to enter a terminal decline. Under the final kings of pre-Norman England, Cornish landowners were expropriated and replaced by English nobles, and the territory was absorbed into England entirely. Cadoc of Cornwall – a perhaps fictional heir to the throne of King Donyarth – is said to have been appointed Earl of Cornwall by William I following the Norman Conquest, and much of the territory of Cornwall was transferred into the holdings of the Norman royalty and aristocracy. Thus followed several centuries of continuing Anglo-Norman colonisation of Cornwall. In 1336, Edward, the Black Prince, was made Duke of Cornwall – the title still held by the eldest son of the British Sovereign today. Cornwall – now part of England – retained a unique constitutional status: a Duchy, not a county; accountable not only to a Parliament in Westminster, but also to its own Stannary Parliament, whose palace still stands today in Lostwithiel. Yet, in time, power over their own affairs began to ebb away.

The centralisation of administration that occurred under Tudor rule saw the erosion of Cornwall’s separate status within the English Constitution. The former practice of distinguishing between laws that applied to England and laws that applied to England & Cornwall ceased. This prompted the Cornish Rebellion of 1497. The rebels were defeated on the Thames, their leaders executed. This was followed in 1549 by the English-language Prayer Book Rebellion – a reaction to the imposition of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer on a Cornwall that was mostly Catholic and Cornish-speaking. Yet this rebellion was defeated too, and it is worth noting that its leader, Sir Humphrey Arundell, was a Norman landowner. As much as 20% of the Cornish population perished.

One last-ditch attempt at regaining self-government for Cornwall came in the English Civil War. Cornwall’s distinct place within the English Constitution, being bound in the Duchy and the Stannaries, was guaranteed by the King and his eldest son; among an otherwise Parliamentarian south-west England, Cornwall was Royalist. Hopes that the Cornish people might be rewarded for their loyalty with an increased measure of independence, however, were not to be met. One last uprising was attempted, but failed to take off, in the 1715 Cornish Jacobite uprising. Its leader, James Paynter, claimed his right under the Stannary Law to be tried not in London by an English jury, but in Cornwall by a jury of his Cornish peers; they acquitted him.

II

It was to be nearly 300 years until the issue of Cornish self determination again reared its head, but as the 21st century rolled about, the Cornish dream had a brief resurgence. From 1997 onwards, the British constitutional settlement was successfully opened up for the first time in decades and, as Scottish and Welsh devolution were finally achieved after years of trial and error, other parts of the UK seemed open to such reforms. London was the next to follow, with the London Assembly and a directly-elected Mayor marking the first major step towards devolution in England. Other regions of the UK were less opposed to the idea however. Scottish and Welsh devolution was largely a product of the Labour Party and had been a long standing Labour goal but was spurred on by the emergence of the centre-left celtic nationalist parties: the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. What failed to surge, however, was their lesser known Cornish brother, Mebyon Kernow, the ‘Sons of Cornwall’. MK was founded half a century prior in 1951 and advocated the creation of a Cornish Assembly. With Plaid and the SNP on the rise, and devolution seemingly fully backed in Westminster, such a proposition didn’t just seem possible, but probable.

In 2003, a MORI poll found a 55% majority in favour of a devolved Cornish Assembly with only 13% opposed.[1] This streak of reformism hit an abrupt halt in 2004 however as North East England voted decisively against their own devolved assembly. Even this did not douse the hopes of the Cornish, however, and, up until 2015, devolution continued to be a real possibility. The Cornwall Council had backed it, as had the local Liberal Democrats and the Mebyon Kernow, Cornwall’s only notable regional party. The past five years, however, have not been kind to the Cornish cause. The 2015 General Election saw a wipeout of non-Tory MPs in Cornwall; Mebyon Kernow are relegated to but a handful of seats in the Cornwall Council and both major devolutionary parties languish in opposition until at least 2024. The political opportunity simply is not there at present. Glimmers of hope remain, however. The Liberal Democrats increased their vote if not their seat share in 2019 and several of Labour’s leadership candidates have endorsed further devolution, even federalisation.

Putting aside the current likelihoods, how feasible is a Free and Independent Cornwall?

Imagining a devolved Cornwall, nevermind an independent one, is a difficult task for many. With a population of barely 500,000 and a total area of just 3,546 square kilometers, it would certainly be one of the world’s smallest nations. This sort of size isn’t unthinkable for a nation state however; Cornwall’s population would be higher than Iceland, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Barbados and Brunei just to name a few. All in all, 54 of the 233 nations and areas recognised by the World Population Prospects would be smaller. Likewise, 28 of the 193 nations recognised by the UN come in at a smaller total area. Whether Cornwall could make a success of nationhood, however, is a different matter. Its economy revolves primarily around tourism and agriculture and, while packing plenty of unique attractions and businesses, it is firmly integrated with the economy of Devon and of England as a whole. Not to mention Cornwall faces some of the worst levels of deprivation in England, though the Cornish Council have focused on resolving this in recent years. Nevertheless, smaller countries reliant on tourism have made a success of it and Devolution, rather than being contingent on wealth already existing, is a chance for regions and nations to build up more independent economies and more effectively. Indeed, since the millenium Cornish politicians of persuasions have lamented the missed opportunity of devolution and still ponder how much of the present destitution and poverty the county faces could have been avoided by the reform.

The opportunities of the past have almost entirely been missed but the present and future still hold a few glimmers of Cornish hope.

III

In 2014, the Cornish people were granted minority status and protection by the UK Government.[2] This may be cold comfort for those who have seen their dreams of self-government unfailingly denied. Instead, the process of English colonisation that began a millennium ago continues unceasingly, except instead of expropriation of landholdings for the benefit of Norman nobles, the Cornish now contend with holiday homes and absentee landlordism for the benefit of London’s rich.

Cornwall’s borders are older than that of any state in Western Europe. Its people are proud, and its flags are flown high. They have the right to determine their own fate as much as any other people. The Duchy has always occupied a unique position within the Union, and this remains true, despite many centuries of suppression. Theoretically, the Cornish Stannary Parliament could be reconvened, just as the English Court of Chivalry sat again in 1952 after two centuries in abeyance. But a system of devolution based on the Scottish or Welsh example has been denied, and Cornwall has been unjustifiably excluded from devolution and the right to its own Cornish Assembly.

Cornish nationalists might still allow themselves to dream. Though Cornwall has long been held in union with England. In the result that the United Kingdom collapses – more plausible now than for a long time – there is another future possible. Scottish Independence and Irish Reunification both seem more likely now than at any point for a hundred years and, though still distant, Plaid Cymru’s more radical members remain devoted to an independent Wales. Cornwall shares ancient cultural links with Ireland, Scotland, and Wales particularly. Cornwall sits now as a part of the Celtic League alongside the aforementioned countries, Man and Brittany. The League encourages self-government, independence, and cooperation between the Celtic nations and, if their greatest dreams are achieved, could Cornwall turn from the English and instead throw in their lot with a Pan-Celtic Union? It seems unlikely, but if the UK does lose Scotland and Northern Ireland, momentum might just start rising. Devolution, at least, might not be off the agenda for good.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-guernsey-14629297

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cornish-granted-minority-status-within-the-uk