The End of the Conquest Period

It is sometimes argued that the influence of Breton lords in Cornwall is overstated, particularly as Brian of Brittany quits his estates sometime around 1075 and the earls revolt. However, as we have seen, even those lords in the south-west of Norman origin tended to be from the Breton Marches and they, or more likely their followers, are therefore more likely to carry several of the cultural traits we’ve discussed.

It is also noteworthy that Brian’s successor as earl, Robert of Mortain, the king’s half-brother, himself had several undertenants and sworn men who were Breton, including Judhael of Totnes who we have already mentioned.

In fact, when we look at the list of chief tenants for Cornwall in the Domesday Book there is only a single figure who is neither linked to Brittany or to a local religious institution [Thorn, 1979]. The only outlier, a man named Gotshelm, is also the smallest landowner, so can perhaps be safely regarded as something of an outlier.

One important change that Robert of Mortain did bring with him as earl is the construction of Launceston Castle. This effectively made Launceston the capital of the Cornish earldom and the town would eventually overtake Bodmin as the largest urban area in Cornwall.

As we have discussed previously, Launceston was the best connected town with the rest of England as the Tamar proved a formidable barrier for foot traffic heading towards southern Cornwall. Thus its use as the capital makes sense. Additional castles were built around Cornwall, but none of them seemed to see any particular action in the years that followed (at least from native Cornish forces) and their eventual loss of usage is quite reminiscent of the Roman marching forts that preceded them. They are there for a function, but one that is very rarely tested.

For the Cornish it appears this was another situation to be adapted to. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Anglo-Norman period in Cornwall would eventually come to an end with the founding of one of the most powerful symbols of a separate Cornish identity: the Cornish Stannary.

As we have described throughout this book, tin mining has always been central to the Cornish economy and that remained true no matter who was nominally in control of the territory. The Cornish tin miners, who had preserved their identity in the face of the Romans, Saxons and then the Normans, managed to leverage their specialised skills and the still increasing demand for tin into a series of significant concessions from King John in 1201:

The King to the Archbishops, etc., greeting … John, by the grace of God, King of England, etc., to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, judges, sheriffs, foresters, and to all our bailiffs and faithful people, greeting. Be it known that we have granted that all tin miners of Cornwall and Devon are free of pleas of the natives as long as they work for the profit of our ferm or for the marks for our new tax; for the stannaries are on our demesne. And they may dig for tin, and for turf for smelting it, at all times freely and peaceably without hindrance from any man, on the moors and in the fiefs of bishops, abbots, and earls, as they have been accustomed to do. And they may buy faggots to smelt the tin, without waste of forest, and they may divert streams for their work just as they have been accustomed to do by ancient usage. Nor shall they desist from their work by reason of any summons, except those of the chief warden of the stannaries or his bailiffs.

We have granted also that the chief warden of the stannaries and his bailiffs have plenary power over the miners to do justice to them and to hold them to the law. And if it should happen that any of the miners ought to be seized and imprisoned for breach of the law they should be received in our prisons; and if any of them should become a fugitive or outlaw let his chattels be delivered to us by the hands of the warden of the stannaries because the miners are of our ferm and always in our demesne. Moreover, we have granted to the treasurer and the weighers, so that they might be more faithful and attentive to our service in guarding our treasure in market towns, that they shall be quit in all towns in which they stay of aids and tallages as long as they are in our service as treasurers and weighers; for they have and can have nothing else throughout the year for their services to us.

The king’s charter, acknowledging the ‘ancient usage’ rights of the tin miners, can, in some ways, be seen as a reminder of the separate status that the Cornish had struggled to secure for themselves throughout the centuries. It represents a major disruption of the feudal social order in order to accommodate the rights and desires of tin miners. The land, the forests and streams of Cornwall remained exclusively for their use and it was only their own people who could regulate them.

Interestingly, it is also the birth of the stannaries that perhaps gives us one of the longest lasting, and most well-known, elements of the modern Cornish identity: St Piran.

Before the Stannary period, St Piran was just one of a number of Cornish saints, some of whom we have touched on in our earlier discussion. However, sometime in the fourteenth century, when the Devonshire Stannary was being negotiated, a monk at Tavistock Abbey completed a vita of the saint’s life that included the now famous story of Piran and his altar.

The short version of this tale is that Piran, praying one day at his stone altar, was amazed as the altar cracked and bubbling white metal formed a cross atop of it. This image of the white cross on black then became the inspiration for the Cornish flag itself, although the actual dating of the flag is difficult to ascertain (it is perhaps worth noting that the Breton flag, the Kroz Du, which is the inverse of Piran’s Cross, starts to appear around this same time period).

Thus did Piran rediscover tin mining, the implication of the story being that the knowledge had been lost some time after the Romans left. Of course, we have demonstrated there is no way this story is accurate, as there was no end of mining between the Romans leaving and the time the vita was written. It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the vita, in the form in which it survives, is actually taken from the life of an Irish Saint, St Ciaran.

So the tale of St Piran seems somewhat suspect when looked at in this light, at least this most famous part of it, and at least as a record of historical events. However, as a tale used to add ecclesiastical approval to the newly formed institutions of the stannaries, it perhaps makes much more sense.

As such, the cross of Piran, and the tale, remain an excellent symbol for the Cornish. It is a story that adapted itself to suit the needs of the people whoneeded it, just as the Cornish elites adapted to preserve their unique identity in the face of waves of invasion and strife.

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