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How Cornwall Was Formed

cornwall coast

To understand Cornwall today we must first look at its history. We can learn a lot about the land by walking its shores and visiting its historical sites. But to go a little deeper, can be to unearth a county of fascinating history.

Why is it named Cornwall? From where does its people originate? Just how did the Cornwall we know and love today, come to be formed.


The name Cornwall comes from a combination of languages. The county has had influences from different tribes, factions, and nations throughout history, and its name resembles this fact. The first part of the name ‘Corn’ comes from the original name of the Celtic people who have had such an influence on the land since the Iron Age — the tribe’s name being Cornovii. The second part of the name ‘wall’ derives from the Old English word ‘w(e)alh’ which means ‘foreigner’ or ‘Welshman’.

Cornish historian, novelist, poet and playwright: Donald R. Rawe – a trustee of the Cornwall Heritage Trust – says the following regarding the Cornish name for the county:

“The Cornish name for Cornwall is Kernow. ‘Cornwall’ itself is a Saxon name denoting ‘the Welsh or strangers who live on the horn of Britain’.”

The Bronze Age


There are vast quantities of megalithic structures in Cornwall, more than in any other county except from Wiltshire, but it wasn’t until the Bronze Age where the beginnings of Cornwall as we know it today started to take shape.

Along with Devon; Cornwall became a large mining resource for tin which was mined by the mysterious Beaker people. The excavating of this resource, which is necessary when making bronze from copper, allowed Cornwall to experience huge growth in trade, exporting this precious resource across Europe.

The changing climate of the time, and the fact that it was becoming wetter, also contributed to significant change in the area, causing farming to become less intensive and therefore creating a society more focused on war.


historical buildings

Eventually Iron replaced bronze in the areas of farming and weaponry. Many forts were also built throughout this period of British History, and during this time, around 900 – 500 BCE, the Celtic peoples started spreading throughout the land, bringing with them their language and culture.

Cornwall would come to be inhabited – like much of Britain – by these very same Celts who would be known as Britons. These would become a hugely influential people. In fact, the current day language of Cornish was developed from the Celtic language of the Britons, named Common Brittonic.

Relics of this age, places like Carn Eun – an iron aged village – and Castle an Dinas, one of Britain’s most impressive hillforts, can still be seen today. The evidence found at places like these have shown us just how these Celtic people lived, how they cherished structure, tribalism and were founded on military strength.



“Until the 9th or 10th centuries the land we know as Cornwall today was part of the south west Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia” – Donald R. Rawe (Cornwall Heritage Trust).

The Roman Empire had a profound impact on this country but not so much on the county of Cornwall. For one reason or another, Cornwall remained fairly unaffected by the Roman occupation.

The History Files, an eminently useful online historical resource, says this about the relationship between the Dumnonians (Cornwall) and the Romans:

“The Romans clearly found the Dumnonians to be fierce in their resistance to invasion, and it is thought that the two sides reached an understanding whereby the Dumnonians would be cooperative clients if the Romans left them alone”.

And after Rome’s withdrawal from Britain in around 410 AD, peoples such as the Saxons and Germanic tribes were able to fill that vacuum and conquer much of the land that was left behind.

However, in the west, Cornwall and Devon resisted invading forces and became the British kingdom of Dumnonia. The Dumnonia were strong and dominated the south west. These times were incredibly interesting but also particularly nebulous, as certain myths permeate Dumnonia’s history such as that of King Arthur.

Using the West Atlantic Trade Network, Dumnonia – centred in modern day Devon but at this time indistinguishable with Cornwall – had close contacts culturally with Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Byzantium. The castle at Tintagel – the supposed home of the aforementioned King Arthur – has strong archaeological evidence of such trade.


historical drawing

At this point in History, the Saxons of Wessex were a dominant force, approaching from the east and expanding their territory. The kings of Wessex were then in turn causing all kinds of problems for the Kingdom of Dumnonia. In this early part of the 8th century, there would come to be a battle between Geraint – the King of Dumnonia — against Wessex and their king, Ine.

The last recorded battle between The Cornish and Wessex was in 838. This was a defeat for the Cornish however, and resulted in their loss of independence. However this is likely the period that the distinction between Devon and Cornwall was definitively made.

Then in 986 AD, as Donald R. Rawe puts it, “the West Saxon King Athelstan conquered Cornwall and imposed its border along the east bank of the River Tamar”.

11th Century

Lands End

In this century, Cornwall was allowed self-rule by the Vikings in exchange for annual payment and thusly by the time England was under the reign of Edward the confessor in 1042, Cornwall was absorbed into the rest of the country.

The Cornish language remained however, the culture surviving to this very day. A lot may have changed since the arrival of the Celts, but Cornwall is still Cornwall and a Cornish holiday to these parts is an attractive proposition as ever.

The history of this land, the war, trade, and myths that comprise it, have all made the county we know today. Therefore creating one of Britain’s most attractive destinations for food, sightseeing, culture and adventure.

Image Credit: Bkwillwm    Keven Law

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