Cornwall emerges from the murk of prehistory courtesy of Classical writers such Strabo, who mentions a visit by the Roman official Publius Crassus who in the first century BC visited the Cassiterides (the Tin Isles), modern day Cornwall and Scilly, to organise tin trading with the Mediterranean. Diodorus, another such writer, thought the inhabitants of the peninsula of Belerion (Cornwall) remarkably sophisticated and civilised, the result of their extensive trading contacts with peoples from other lands.
Diodorus explained how the natives of Belerion extracted tin from the ground and then broke it up and smelted it, producing ingots which were taken to the off-shore island of Ictis. Ictis served as a trading post, the place where merchants from the Mediterranean and perhaps elsewhere would come to buy the tin they needed for their domestic markets. Many people think that Ictis is present-day St Michael’s Mount but others have suggested St George’s (or Looe) Island, further east along the south Cornish coast.
By this time Cornwall was Celtic-speaking, using a variant of a tongue which had emerged in continental Europe during the first millennium BC or thereabouts. Known to scholars as Brythonic or ‘British’, this variant was the forunner of modern Cornish as well as Welsh and Breton.
How, why and when Celtic became the language of Cornwall is a matter of some conjecture. The old idea that ancient times consisted of a series of mass invasions, with waves of newcomers arriving suddenly to expel or exterminate the existing populations is now open to doubt. Instead, historians now argue that these ‘invasions’ involved relatively few people who, because of their superior technologies or military prowess, were able to impose their ways (including language) upon the indigenous natives. The Celtic settlement of Britain as a whole is now thought to have been a long, drawn-out affair, perhaps starting early in the first millennium BC and ending with the arrival of the Belgic people not long before the coming of the Romans.
Certainly, the evidence of Iron Age Cornwall is of continuity rather than upheaval, the arrival of Celtic speech coinciding with the first use of iron for weapons and other artifacts. By the time the Romans came to Britain in AD43, the famous promontory and hill forts of Cornwall – Chun Castle, Warbstow Bury, the Rumps, the Dodman, and so on – had already existed for centuries, and some remained occupied (though not continuously) until as late as the sixth century AD. In the west of Cornwall, people were already living in so-called courtyard houses, of which several well known examples survive today. Chysauster, near Gulval, dates from the Roman era but Carn Euny (in the parish of Sancreed) is older, consisting of three interlocking courtyard houses and a remarkable underground chamber or fogou – from the Cornish-language word for ‘cave’. These fogous are now thought to have been underground storage larders, although other theories suggest they may have had religious significance or were perhaps hiding-places in case of attack.
The Romans built a fort at Isca Dumnoniorum (modern Exeter) in about AD55, and it was from there that they exercised their rule in the far west. In fact, there is very little evidence of Roman intrusion or activity in Cornwall. A small fort, probably used as a forward operating base rather than a garrison, was constructed around AD55-60 at Nanstallon, near Bodmin, and five Roman milestones have been found in different parts of Cornwall. At Carvossa, a large enclosed site near Probus, imported Roman pottery has been found, and the remains of a Romano-British villa have been uncovered at Magor, Illogan. Politically, it seems that Cornwall formed a pagus or subdivision of the Roman canton of Dumnonia (present-day Cornwall, Devon and western Somerset) but was very much left to its own devices.
When the last of the legions left Britain in about AD410, Dumnonia survived in name as a post-Roman Celtic kingdom but the reality (or so it seems) was increasing political and territorial fragmentation in the South West peninsula. Certainly, by the ninth century Anglo-Saxon sources were referring to Cornwalas or Westwalas, while texts in Latin spoke of Cornubia and Old Welsh had coined the word Cerniu – each of these referring to the kingdom of Kernow or Cornwall, the land of the ‘West Welsh’, as it had by then become.
It is no longer fashionable to describe the post-Roman era in Britain as ‘the Dark Ages’ but it is nonetheless a murky period in Cornish history. Half-legendary figures such as Cynan (or Conan) Meriadoc and King Mark appear tantalisingly from the mists, the latter entwined intimately in the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult. Ultimately a European medieval high romance, taken to France and beyond by way of Brittany, the story of the ill-fated lovers, Tristan and Iseult, has its roots in Dark Age Cornwall.
Near Fowey stands the so-called Tristan Stone, carved with the inscription DRUSTANVS HIC IACIT/CVNOMORI FILIVS – ‘Drustanus lies here, son of Cunomorus’. Drustanus has been indentified with the legendary Tristan, and Cunomorus has been equated with the sixth-century Marcus Cunomorus (‘King Mark’) whose fortress is said to be neighbouring Castle Dore.
In the several versions of the story that have come down to us, Tristan is the nephew (not son) of King Mark and is sent to Ireland to seek the hand of Iseult, the Queen’s daughter, for Mark. The Queen accepts, and the princess and her maiden Brangwayn set out on their journey to Cornwall. The Queen has given Brangwayn a special love-potion which Iseult and Mark are to drink on their wedding night but by mistake (or design) it is Tristan who sups the magic liquid. Inevitably, Tristan and Iseult fall hopelessly in love, and in the court of King Mark resort to a variety of deceptions to be together. Eventually, Tristan leaves Cornwall to fight for King Hywel of Brittany, where he meets and marries a second Iseult (Iseult of the White Hands). However, the first Iseult begs Tristan to return, and he does so, only to be slain by the angry and jealous King Mark who has uncovered the truth of the liaison.
Mark’s son Constantine is described by Gildas about AD560 in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae as the ‘tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia’. Even when he gives up his throne to retire to a monastery, Constantine continues his regime of corruption and murder, coldly disposing of rivals and opponents. Several generations later we find Geraint, altogether a more sympathetic figure, referred to in AD705 by Adhelm, the first West Saxon bishop of Sherborne, as ‘Geruntius, King of Dumnonia’. In fact, Geraint died heroically trying to protect his territory from the encroaching English kingdom of Wessex, struck down at the battle of Llongborth (perhaps present-day Langport in Somerset). Later, in the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) for the year AD875, we learn of the death by drowning of ‘Dumnarth rex Cerniu’ (Dumgarth, king of Cornwall), thought to be the ninth-century Doniert whose memorial stone can to this day be found near St Cleer. Its Latin inscription reads DONIERT ROG-AVIT PRO ANIMA – ‘Doniert has asked [prayers?] for [his] soul.’
The last king of Cornwall, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was ‘Huwal [Hywel], king of the West Welsh’ who was persuaded to recognise the overlordship of Athelstan, the ruthless and ambitious king of Wessex. Athelstan suceeded in welding the several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms together (to form the England we recognise today) as well as becoming the overlord of his Celtic neighbours. It was Athelstan who in AD936 fixed the River Tamar as the border between Cornwall and England, evicting the remaining Cornish from Exeter (and perhaps the rest of Devon) in an act in which, according to the later writer William of Malmesbury, that city was ‘cleansed of its defilement by wiping out that filthy race’.