Cornwall History Overview

The history of Cornwall goes back to the Paleolithic, but in this period Cornwall only had sporadic visits by groups of humans. 

Continuous occupation started around 10,000 years ago after the end of the last ice age. 

When recorded history started in the first century BCE, the spoken language was Common Brittonic, and that would develop into Southwestern Brittonic and then the Cornish language. 

Cornwall was part of the territory of the tribe of the Dumnonii that included modern-day Devon and parts of Somerset. 

After a period of Roman rule, Cornwall reverted to rule by independent Romano-British leaders and continued to have a close relationship with Brittany and Wales as well as southern Ireland, which neighboured across the Celtic Sea.

  After the collapse of Dumnonia, the remaining territory of Cornwall came into conflict with neighbouring Wessex.

By the middle of the ninth century, Cornwall had fallen under the control of Wessex, but it kept its own culture.

 In 1337, the title Duke of Cornwall was created by the English monarchy, to be held by the king's eldest son and heir.

 Cornwall, along with the neighbouring county of Devon, maintained Stannary institutions that granted some local control over its most important product, tin, but by the time of Henry VIII most vestiges of Cornish autonomy had been removed as England and Cornwall became an increasingly centralised state under the Tudor dynasty. 

Conflicts with the centre took place with the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 and Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.

By the end of the 18th century, Cornwall was administered as an integral part of the Kingdom of Great Britain alongside England and the Cornish language had gone into steep decline. 

The Industrial Revolution brought huge change to Cornwall, as well as the adoption of Methodism among the general populace, turning the area nonconformist.

 Decline of mining in Cornwall resulted in mass emigration overseas and the Cornish diaspora, as well as the start of the Celtic Revival and Cornish revival which resulted in the beginnings of Cornish nationalism in the late 20th century.

Cornwall's Early Medieval history, in particular the early Welsh and Breton references to a Cornish King named Arthur, have featured in such legendary works as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, predating the Arthurian legends of the Matter of Britain.

Pre-Roman Cornwall

Stone Age

Cornwall was only sporadically occupied during the Palaeolithic, but people returned around 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic, after the end of the last ice age. 

There is substantial evidence of occupation by hunter gatherers in this period.

The upland areas of Cornwall were the parts first open to settlement as the vegetation required little in the way of clearance: they were perhaps first occupied in Neolithic times (Palaeolithic remains are almost non-existent in Cornwall). 

Many megaliths of this period exist in Cornwall and prehistoric remains in general are more numerous in Cornwall.

 The remains are of various kinds and include menhirs, barrows and hut circles.

Bronze Age

Cornwall and neighbouring Devon had large reserves of tin, which was mined extensively during the Bronze Age by people associated with the Beaker culture. 

Tin is necessary to make bronze from copper, and by about 1600 BCE the West Country was experiencing a trade boom driven by the export of tin across Europe.

This prosperity helped feed the skilfully wrought gold ornaments recovered from Wessex culture sites.

 Ingots of tin, some recovered from shipwrecks dated to the 12th Century BCE off the coast of modern Israel, were analysed isotopically and found to have originated in Cornwall.

There is evidence of a relatively large-scale disruption of cultural practices around the 12th century BCE that some scholars think may indicate an invasion or migration into southern Britain.

Iron Age

Around 750 BCE the Iron Age reached Britain, permitting greater scope of agriculture through the use of new iron ploughs and axes. 

The building of hill forts also peaked during the British Iron Age.

 During broadly the same time (900 to 500 BCE), Celtic cultures and peoples spread across the British Isles.

During the British Iron Age Cornwall, like all of Britain south of the Firth of Forth, was inhabited by Celts known as the Britons. 

The Celtic language spoken at the time, Common Brittonic, eventually developed into several distinct tongues, including Cornish.

The first account of Cornwall comes from the Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 BCE – c. 30 BCE), supposedly quoting or paraphrasing the 4th-century BCE geographer Pytheas, who had sailed to Britain:

The inhabitants of that part of Britain called Belerion (or Land's End) from their intercourse with foreign merchants, are civilised in their manner of life. 

They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced.

Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhône.

Claims have been made that the Phoenicians traded directly with Cornwall for tin. 

There is no archaeological evidence for this and modern historians have debunked earlier antiquarian constructions of "the Phoenician legacy of Cornwall", including belief that the Phoenicians even settled Cornwall.


By the time that Classical written sources appear, Cornwall was inhabited by tribes speaking Celtic languages. 

The ancient Greeks and Romans used the name Belerion or Bolerium for the south-west tip of the island of Britain, but the late-Roman source for the Ravenna Cosmography (compiled about 700 CE) introduces a place-name Puro coronavis, the first part of which seems to be a misspelling of Duro (meaning Fort). 

This appears to indicate that the tribe of the Cornovii, known from earlier Roman sources as inhabitants of an area centred on modern Shropshire, had by about the 5th century established a power-base in the south-west (perhaps at Tintagel).

The tribal name is therefore likely to be the origin of Kernow or later Curnow used for Cornwall in the Cornish language.

 John Morris suggested that a contingent of the Shropshire Cornovii was sent to South West Britain at the end of the Roman era, to rule the land there and keep out the invading Irish, but this theory was dismissed by Professor Philip Payton in his book Cornwall: A History.

 Given the geographical separation between the three tribes known as Cornovii–the third being found in modern day Caithness– and the absence of any known connection, the Cornish Cornovii are generally assumed to compose a completely separate tribe.

 While their name may derive from their inhabitation of a peninsula, the absence of a peninsula in the other two cases has led to the postulation of a derivation from these tribes' worship of a "horned god."

The English name, Cornwall, comes from the Celtic name, to which the Old English word Wealas "foreigner" is added.

In pre-Roman times, Cornwall was part of the kingdom of Dumnonia, and was later known to the Anglo-Saxons as "West Wales", to distinguish it from "North Wales" (modern-day Wales).

Roman Cornwall

During the time of Roman dominance in Britain, Cornwall was rather remote from the main centres of Romanisation.

 The Roman road system extended into Cornwall, but the only known significant Roman sites are three forts:- Tregear near Nanstallon was discovered in early 1970s, the other two found more recently at Restormel Castle, Lostwithiel (discovered 2007) and a fort near to St Andrew's Church in Calstock (discovered early in 2007).

 A Roman style villa was found at Magor Farm near Camborne.

Pottery and other evidence suggesting the presence of an ironworks have been found at the undisclosed location near St Austell, Cornwall.

 Experts say the discovery challenges the belief that Romans did not settle in the county and stopped in east Devon where Isca Dumnoniorum became a flourishing provincial capital of the Dumnonii.

 Prof Barry Cunliffe notes that "in the southwest peninsula of Devon & Cornwall the lack of Romanization, after a brief military occupation in the first century, is particularly striking.

 West of Exeter the native socio-economic system simply continued unhindered".

Furthermore, the British tin trade had been largely eclipsed by the more convenient supply from Iberia although Cunliffe's excavations at Mount Batten and a recent find of tin ingots at Burgh Island in West Devon indicate that cross channel trade continued.

The Roman milestone in St Materiana's Church, Tintagel

Only a few Roman milestones have been found in Cornwall; two have been recovered from around Tintagel in the north, one at Mynheer Farm near the hill fort at Carn Brea, Redruth, another two close to St Michael's Mount, one of which is preserved at Breage Parish Church, and one in St Hilary's Church, St Hilary (Cornwall).

 The stone at Tintagel Parish Church bears an inscription to Imperator Caesar Licinius, and the other stone at Trethevy is inscribed to the Imperial Caesars Trebonianus Gallus and Volusianus.

 According to Léon Fleuriot, however, Cornwall remained closely integrated with neighbouring territories by well-travelled sea routes. 

Fleuriot suggests that an overland route connecting Padstow with Fowey and Lostwithiel served, in Roman times, as a convenient conduit for trade between Gaul (especially Armorica) and the western parts of the British Isles.

Archaeological sites at Chysauster Ancient Village and Carn Euny in West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly demonstrate a uniquely Cornish 'courtyard house' architecture built in stone of the Roman period, entirely distinct from that of southern Britain, yet with parallels in Atlantic Ireland, North Britain and the Continent, and influential on the later development of stone-built fortified homesteads known in Cornwall as "Rounds".