Paula’s People: John Fletcher, author of Cornish History

Please welcome my guest poster for today here on Paula’s People. John is a member of our facebook group Historical Writers Forum and I’ve invited him along to talk about his book on the birth of that beautiful British Province Kernow!

My name is John, like Paula I am a writer and reenactor although we currently sit in ‘opposing’ societies dedicated to Early Medieval Reenactment. Paula has kindly let me take up some screen space to introduce myself and to also showcase a short extract from my first book, The Western Kingdom – The Birth of Cornwall. The Western Kingdom is an examination of Cornwall and the far SW of Britain during the Early Medieval period. That is, roughly between 400 and 1100 CE. For all of Britain this was a time of immense change and upheaval, but also the solidifying of national identities that we would recognise today – The English, The Scottish, The Welsh and, though often forgotten, the Cornish.

Not only does Cornwall emerge as both a political and personal identity in this period, the actions of the Cornish allow this identity to survive despite coming under the political control of Wessex. How they managed that, when so many Brythonic entities were utterly eclipsed, is a fascinating story. Below is a short extract from The Western Kingdom, discussing the exploits of King Egbert and how Cornwall came to be defined both by its people and, potentially, by the modern borders for the first time.

“In 813 the Chronicle records that he is on the offensive in one of the most infamous, for Cornwall certainly, passages in the entire recording:
‘King Egbert spread devastation in Cornwall from east to west.’
This is frequently interpreted as a campaign that took the entirety of Cornwall into his dominion, or at least it suffered from his campaign [Kirby, 1992]; however, this is difficult to square with the longer-running conflicts we’ve seen over the preceding century. Additionally, if Wessex is able to so easily dominate the entirety of Cornwall, then we would expect the conflict to end here and potentially Cornwall’s unique identity to more or less vanish, in the way that Devon’s Brythonic origins are now only vaguely remembered. Obviously neither of these things occur.
Of course, even the Chronicle doesn’t actually state he conquered the region, only that he went raiding or harrying: ‘spreading devastation’. As such, it seems necessary to seek out alternative explanations.
The most obvious interpretation, and in this case the most likely to be correct, if we start from a position of conflict in mid-to-west Devon (as highlighted earlier), is that Ecgberht finalised the conquest of Devon around this time, pushing from the region around Exeter and Crediton towards the Tamar or north towards Launceston.
This may, in this case, be the first time that Cornwall corresponds to its historic boundaries, tying its longer-standing identity into the region that modern audiences will be most familiar with. Between this and the early eighth-century identification of the Cornish as a separate people, it is not entirely without merit to suggest that Cornwall is actually the oldest of the nations that make up the United Kingdom.
While questions around Cornish nationalism are fraught with both emotional and political stakes, it is certainly true that the Cornish as a people originate from outside the English state, and in this regard have as much claim to a national identity as the Welsh or Scots. The counter-argument to this, that Cornwall was absorbed by the English state, could also be made about those two nations, albeit on very different timelines.
Certainly in the early ninth century Cornwall is being referred to, by its own people, by a name we would recognise (Cerniu) while the concept of a singular English state is still not fully formed. Even at the height of his power, Ecgberht is not ‘King of the English’ – he is instead still King of Wessex, extracting tribute and acquiescence from those beneath him.
The same is true of Wales, where the many small kingdoms will not start formulating a singular shared identity – that of the ‘folk’ or Cymru – until the tenth century at the earliest.
Returning to Ecgberht and his exploits in Cornwall, the idea of a whole sale conquest is undercut in 825 when, in the same entry describing his victory at Ellandun, a fight is recorded between the men of Devon and the Cornish at Gafulford.
Gafulford was at one time thought to be Camelford in Cornwall; however, this is too far west to be taken seriously and for the most part seems to have been arrived at without considerable supporting evidence. More recent works, such as Higham [2008], have instead looked towards Galford on the northern section of the border between Devon and Cornwall, which seems to have the much stronger claim based on its location along the traditional border and the obvious place-name evolution.

Subsequent to the publication of The Western Kingdom I happened across another near-contemporary source (as is always the way!) which may have an interesting insight to offer regarding this clash at Gafulford. Inside the Codex Oxoniensis Posterior, a collection of Early Medieval manuscripts; many of which are Cornish in origin, is a Latin teaching text known as ‘De Raris Fabulis’ or ‘On Uncommon Tales’. In and amongst various short lines of text to help new monks learn Latin is the following:
“…there had been a great battle between the king of the Britons and the king of the English, and God gave victory to the Britons because they are humble as well as poor, and they trusted in God and confessed and received the body of Christ before they entered the skirmish or conflict. The English, however, are proud, and because of their pride God humbled them, for God did as it was said, ‘God opposes the proud but he gives mercy or victory to the humble’. A great combat (that is, hair) was ventured, and many of the English were struck down, but few of the Britons” – De Raris Fabulis
The dating of the text in the 9th or perhaps early 10th Century puts the tantalising possibility forward that this lengthy, and somewhat gloating, description of a victory recalls the conflict between Cornwall and Wessex in the 9th Century and provides, perhaps, support for the Cornish victory.
Gafulford wouldn’t be the last time that Wessex and Cornwall clashed, that would come later in 838 at Hingston Down. This is another battle that is usually sited much too far West, although discussing the many reasons why would require another blog post! Suffice to say the more likely location, in the Western fringes of Dartmoor, would see the fighting end in Devon and thus prove crucial in the ongoing preservation of the Cornish identity and, at least into the late 9th century, a Cornish monarch.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this window into Early Medieval Cornwall, if you’d like to learn more I of course encourage you to seek out The Western Kingdom at a bookshop near you!

John Fletcher is a local historian, based in the far SouthWest of Britain. He has also been an Early Medieval reenactor for sixteen years, with much of that being focused on recreating life in 8th-11th century Cornwall and Devon. He researches and gives talks on this period and the emergence of the Cornish state.

He has a Bsc in Environmental Sciences and focussed his dissertation on how climate change impacted Early Medieval settlement on Dartmoor.