Devon was the cornerstone of one of Britain's most significant
Celtic kingdoms (Dumnonia),
and retains a significant heritage from those days. Devon's people
are predominantly of Celtic stock, with the Celtic language (which
also resulted in Cornish) being spoken well into the Dark Ages, and
is retained today in place names, dialect, as well as in customs and
This is not to say that the Saxons, who 'conquered' Devon in the
eight and ninth centuries (and who militarily conquered Cornwall in
the ninth and tenth centuries), or the Normans who did the same to
the whole of England in the eleventh century, are without merit or
contribution. However the point of this introduction is to promote
that part of Devon's history which for some strange reason appears
to have been repressed - that of Celtic Devon.
The Cornish Celtic name for Devon is Dewnans, [and this is
becoming more acceptable to modern ears]. A possibly older name for
Devon is Dyfneint (meaning 'deep valley dwellers'). [This survives
from Dumnonia's few surviving records, and probably supplies the
root form of Dewnans - Ed].
Devon was one of the last areas of what is now known as England
to be conquered by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, and was not formally
claimed by the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex until the
early ninth century (AD 805 - only a couple of decades before
Cornwall was 'conquered', although Cornwall retained some degree of
independence thereafter). Even after this (as noted in Alfred the
Great's will in AD 900), Devon's Celtic people were called Wealcynn
(wealas being the Anglo-Saxon word for Celts, and literally
translates as 'foreigner').
Perhaps it is surprising that this history of Celtic identity is
not better known. How can this be so? A number of factors probably
came into play. The Victorian era prized all things Teutonic because
(for some reason) they equated it with civilised society. Even in
the mid/late twentieth century schools teach a 'unified' English
history with little focus on regional history. Devon's own Celtic
history has been overlooked and neglected. This story is not unique
to Devon. History, language and culture have been suppressed in many
parts of the Celtic world (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany -
to name a few). In Devon's case its proximity to Cornwall, with its
own rich Celtic ancestry, has probably also hindered recognition of
Devon's own history.
The question of Devon's Celtic identity is not new. In 1870
Professor Thomas Huxley, President of both the Royal Society and of
the Ethnological Society, and friend of Charles Darwin, stated that
'(Devonians) are as little Anglo-Saxon as Northumbrians are Welsh'
by which he meant that Devonians are genetically descended from the
Brythonic Celts, rather than the Germanic tribes of the Angles or
Saxons who give the term 'Anglo-Saxon' (and the term England) its
The 'pro-Teutonic' prejudices of the Victorian era were Huxley's
target, and sadly his views were not universally accepted. The
ramifications of this 'Victorian prejudice' continued well into the
twentieth century, and distorted the real history. However the issue
is now being revisited, and the truth is slowly emerging.
Recent genetic evidence (from the BBC 'Blood
of the Vikings' series) has indicated that the Celtic peoples in
South Western Britain not only survived, but that their gene pool is
predominant in the current population.
Norwegian-based research indicates that Devon (and Cornwall) has
a far greater proportion of black hair colour than other English
counties, a tendency also seen in Ireland and Scotland. Perhaps this
also provides evidence of a common Celtic background, and certainly
supports the theory that the Tamar is no 'racial' boundary.
This introduction isn't intended to be the full story, nor to be
a formal academic document, but it may open a few eyes and encourage
you to search further.