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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

 

 

MapCornovii (Cornwall)

The Celtic tribe of the Cornovii may have been a splinter of a scattered Cornovii tribe found also in the Severn Valley and Scotland, but this group was certainly under the domination of the greater and far more powerful Dumnonii tribe. They occupied the extreme south-western tip of Britain during the first centuries BC and AD, bordered to the east by the Dumnonii, with the Scilly Isles a few kilometres off the rocky Cornwall coast to the west. Quite often the Cornovii are lumped together with the Dumnonii in descriptions or maps, and can even escape mention altogether.

The region's earliest mention in history is one of the earliest for the whole of the British Isles. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who was born in the Sicilian colony of Agyrium, wrote around 60 BC of 'foreign merchants' visiting 'Belerion' in Britain (ie. Land's End) to buy tin mined and prepared by the natives. He was paraphrasing Pytheas of Massalia from about 325 BC. The earliest of these merchants are commonly believed to be the Phoenicians, although it cannot be proved. The tribe appear to have survived the Roman period in some form, perhaps because the peninsula west of Isca (Exeter) was never heavily infiltrated by Rome. The Dumnonii seem to have exercised a certain amount of self-government in their own lands (and may have been almost entirely self-governed during Roman rule), and this also guaranteed the independence of the Cornovii. Even so, the Roman road system entered Cornovii territory, and four forts are known to have existed (at Calstock, Lostwithiel, Restormel Castle, and Tregear near Nanstallon). A villa in the Roman style has also been found at Magor Farm near Camborne.

The tribe gained its name from the region, and Cornovii became the Latinised Cornubia by the fifth century. The name means 'people of the horn', ie. the Land's End section of the Cornish peninsula. In the sixth and seventh centuries that evolved into Corniu. To the English, who established a presence by the tenth century, it was Corn-wealas or Cornwall, 'the Welsh of Corniu'. Some scholars dispute the 'horn' meaning of 'Corn-', despite there being several examples of Celtic tribes adopting similar names when living in similar peninsula locations. Such naming suggests the possibility of a tribal connection between the Cornovii and the Caereni or Cornavii of second century Pictland, perhaps a splintering as the tribe was forced westwards by third wave Celtic arrivals in the country. Instead, they ascribe the name to cult names referring to a 'horned god', which may be the root of the identically-named Cornovii tribe in the Midlands. In all probability, no one explanation fits all instances.

FeatureThe Dumnonii and Cornovii both seem to have retained close links with the Celts of Armorica, in the form of the Veneti tribe. During the Roman period, those links were used as trade routes. During the more difficult periods of Roman occupation there was a drift of resettlement from this part of Britain into Armorica. This became much heavier in the late fourth century, and turned into a flood in the mid-fifth century.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson.)

4th century BC

The Castle Dore hill fort near Fowey in Cornwall is constructed, and consists of a circular bank and a ditch, with a second enclosure inside. Both enclosures have an entrance to the east, away from the prevailing winds. Thought to serve as an animal enclosure, it is first excavated by archaeologists between 1936-1937. Much of the surrounding valley is flooded at this time, and the view from the fort is impressive. A small village may exist outside the eastern gate in the fort's early days.

Castle Dore
The remains of the Castle Dore hill fort, constructed by the inhabitants of Cornwall in this period, possibly before the Cornovii themselves had arrived

c.325 BC

Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek geographer and explorer undertakes a voyage of exploration around north-western Europe. During his trip he visits Britain, which he names Pretania or Pritannia, and travels extensively, making note of what he sees, and also providing what may be the earliest written report of Stonehenge. He names the promontory of Kantion (land of the Cantii), the promontory of Belerion (land of the Cornovii), and Orkas (the Orkneys). Belerion is home to a civilised people who are especially hospitable to strangers, apparently due to their dealings with foreign merchants who are involved in the tin trade.

Belerion may be home to the people of the Celtic god, Bel. This name occurs in many tribal names among the Celts, including the Bellovaci in Gaul, Belgites in Illyria, Velabri in Ireland, and of course the various Belgae tribes. In Cornwall there is a unbroken tradition of celebrating Bel's day (Beltane) with large fires, cattle being driven between two such fires, and young men jumping the flames, but just when the people stop naming themselves after their god and became the Cornovii (whether this is derived from the name of a god or the tribe's location) is not known. Most likely, it seems that the tribe overall is the Dumnonii, while local peoples use the name of their god or location to define themselves, and it may be one of these smaller groups that Pytheas meets and records.

c.50 BC

The defences at Castle Dore are remodelled, perhaps as a result of the expedition to Britain by Julius Caesar. The Britons would know that, sooner or later, the Romans would return and perhaps some of them attempt to prepare for the event.

c.AD 55

Under their commander, Vespasian, the invading Romans build and occupy a legionary fort on a spur overlooking the River Exe in the territory of the Dumnonii. The Romans also inhabit a settlement near St Austell in Cornwall, which may be an ironworks. It is one of the very few instances of Romans venturing deep into the peninsula. They are known to provide guards for a few tin mines, but little else is generally found by later archaeologists. Castle Dore is abandoned around the same time and remains so for the entire Roman period.

c.75 - 80

The Roman legion based at Isca is withdrawn so that it can help in the conquest of the Deceangli, Ordovices and Silures tribes in the west of Britain (modern Wales). Some evidence of Roman military occupation remains in the territory of the Cornovii and on Dartmoor, thought to be protecting supply routes for resources such as tin.

c.140s

Writing around this time, the geographer, Ptolemy, notes the Cornovii centre of Durocornovium, or the 'fort (or walled settlement) of the Cornovii'. While the fort's location is unknown, the Carn Brea hill fort is a possible candidate. Some scholars are of the opinion that Durocornovium should be taken to refer to Corinium, the tribal capital of the Cornovii tribe of the western Midlands.

c.250

Roman occupation of the Cornovii site of St Austell is finally ended, for reasons unknown, making it possibly one of the last sites in the peninsula to experience Roman settlement of any kind. It is interesting to note that traditional claims of a re-emerging Dumnonian tribal aristocracy can be dated to not long after this point.

251 - 253

In this period, a Roman milestone is laid, or at least inscribed, in the region. It bears the names of emperors Trebonianus Gallus and Volusianus, a father and son who are proclaimed by their troops in Moesia and who are quickly murdered by the very same troops. The milestone is located at Trethevy.

308 - 313

Another Roman milestone is placed in the Tintagel area in the north, inscribed with the name Imperator Caesar Gaius Valerius Licinius Licinianus. In 313 he becomes Eastern Roman emperor, thereby narrowing down the period of his reign in which the stone could be inscribed. Other, uninscribed, milestones are also placed during the Roman period. One of these is near the hill fort at Carn Brea, another is close to Tintagel, and two more are close to St Michael's Mount.

337 - 343

The death of Roman Emperor Constantine, and then his eldest son, Constantine II in battle in 340, proves serious for Britain. Its early fourth century age of peace and prosperity begins to vanish. Constans makes a sudden and very unusual visit in early 343 and it is also suggested that the widespread refortification of cities which occurs in this century happens as a result of this visit. Units of Germanic laeti begin to appear in some cities, notably Venta Belgarum in the Belgae civitas, and migration begins from south-western Britain (notably the former territories of the Cornovii and Dumnonii) into Armorica.

MapCornubia (Corniu / Cerniw / Cornwall)

The former tribal territory of the Cornovii re-emerged after the Roman period as an apparent subsidiary territory of the greater Dumnonian kingdom to the east. The Isles of Scilly to the west, sometimes known in traditional sources as Lyonesse, appears to have been a Cornish sub-territory. Cornubia was first created a sub-kingdom either by the Dumnonian king, Constantine Corneu, or upon his death around 443. This may have been its first spell as a (semi-) independent territory since the first century AD. Penwith, the upper westernmost cantref (or district), was a principality in its own right for a time, being held by the sixth century King Tewdr Mawr of Armorica. Cornubia was the last British territory in the south of the country (outside Wales) to retain its independence from the English kingdoms. As Dumnonia was slowly squeezed westwards, it and Cornubia merged into a single, Cornish, entity.

Known as Cornubia in Roman and immediately post-Roman Britain, the name became corrupted by the dramatic changes in the British language in the sixth and seventh centuries, and also by being passed through Welsh hands. The name means 'people of the horn', ie the Land's End section of the Cornish peninsula. The English called them Corn-wealas, Cornwall (wealas being the Saxon word for foreigner or stranger, which is what they applied to all Britons in their own land).

Cerniw is not to be confused with Cernyw, which was the name for a kingdom that was formed in early fifth century mid-south Wales. The latter name had fallen out of use by the late fifth century. However, it seems highly likely that it was Cornubian emigrants who were responsible for colonising the region of Brittany that became known as Cornouaille.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, and from The Landscape of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe.)

c.430

FeatureA theory by Dr John Morris, not fully accepted by modern scholars, is that there are two periods in this century in which elements of the Cornovii of the Midlands are moved into the south-west of Britain. According to the theory, around this time, the leading nobles of Viroconium move to Dumnonia, transplanting their Cornovian name to the western peninsula and ruling over the Dumnonians (King Constantine of c.530 is unflatteringly described by Gildas as a 'tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia', suggesting, however obliquely, that he may not himself be a Dumnonian).

c.440 - 441

FeatureSaxon foederati and laeti (settled on the east coast and Thames Valley, and probably increased in number since the barbarian raids on Britain of 409) take advantage of the unrest and openly revolt. By 441, the Gallic Chronicles report large sections of Britain under German control following Saxon revolt. Communications between Britain and Gaul are disrupted, and the migration of Romano-British towards Dumnonia and Cornubia and from there into Armorica turns into a torrent.

c.443 - c.510

Dumnonia is divided by Constantine Corneu, with the main kingdom going to his son Erbin. Cornubia is governed as a sub-kingdom by Erbin's younger brother, Merchion. The Latin form of his name is probably Marcianus, which is linked to an official or governor of the same name in Cernyw at around this time, Marius.

443 - after 500

Marcianus / Merchion ab Custennyn

Son of Constantine Corneu, king of Dumnonia.

c.450

The Arthurian 'Duke of Cornwall' is Gorlois. More readily known in later Welsh as Gwrlais, this individual does not appear to be tied to the genealogies of any kings of south-west Britain, making it impossible to attempt to pin him down. According to later tradition, he is cuckolded by Uther Pendragon when the latter besieges his castle at Tintagel and tricks his way inside to lay with his beautiful wife, Igraine. The son born of this meeting is Arthur, the future battle leader and possible high king.

c.460

As a continuation of the theory by Dr John Morris, he suggests that at this time the majority of the Cornovii migrate from the Midlands, now within a territory known as the Pagensis, and settle in Cornubia. While in general this seems unlikely, it could happen as part of the general migration of people in southern Britain towards the comparative safety of the south-west and possible migration onwards to Armorica. It could also be due to a far earlier fracturing of the tribe, perhaps in the face of the arrival of Belgae Celts in the second and first centuries BC.

c.500

According to tradition, the territory of the Isles of Scilly (the kingdom of Lyonesse) is granted to Merchion's younger son(-in-law), while his elder son inherits Cornubia. It is around this time, in the fifth century, that the former hill fort of the Cornovii, Castle Dore, is re-inhabited as a royal residence. This is probably by Cyn-March who, by his appearance in later Arthurian stories, may be a ruler of some note. A large hall is built in wood within the fort's enclosure along with two other wooden buildings, although one school of thought regards this as a Roman-period occupation. Tradition, however, places Cyn-March very firmly at Castle Dore, the Lancien, a form of Lantyan, of Béroul. The name Lantyan still exists and is part of a farm to the south of Lostwithiel, and to a nearby wood beside the River Fowey.

fl c.500

Cyn-March ap Meirchion / Mark

Son. Prince of Poher. Brother-in-law of Meirchion of Lyonesse.

c.510

Cyn-March is best known for his appearance in early Arthurian literature as 'King Mark of Cornwall'. There, he is the uncle to Tristan (of Lyonesse), who falls in love with the king's wife, Iseult. Tristan manages to escape when the king discovers his treachery, and the couple are later forgiven. Unlike some later works, Tristan & Iseult portrays Mark in a sympathetic fashion. Later works paint him in increasingly darker tones, making him more and more evil and less of a sympathetic figure. One late version even has him going to far as to destroy Camelot (probably Cadbury Castle) soon after the death of Arthur.

Tristan and Iseult
The story of Tristan and Iseult is possibly one of the earliest of the Arthurian cycle of tales

In the Life of St Pol de Leon (St Paul Aurelian) completed in 883, there is a 'King Marc whose other name is Quonomorus', or Cunomorus, meaning 'hound of the sea'. This may be a confusion with the slightly later King Conomor of Domnonia in Armorica, with whom the Cornish and Dumnonian Britons would have had very close links in this period. However, it is more likely to refer to Marcus Conomari of Dumnonia, who had ruled in the early fifth century.

fl c.510

Salom / Salomon / St Selyf ap Erbin

Cousin. Father of St Kybi. Captain of the guard or sub-king.

c.510

The line of sub-kings appears to die out here, so the region seemingly passes back into Dumnonian hands, with a 'duke' of Cornubia nominally governing the land or being included within the titles of the Dumnonian kings. The first of these, Cado, may be the Duke Cador of Cornwall of Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is probably this Cado who is mentioned in connection with Arthur in the Life of St Crannog (of Ceredigion).

early 6th cent

St Piran is the patron saint of tin-miners, and is generally regarded as the national saint of Cornwall. While the saint's origins are open to debate, it is generally accepted that he is St Ciarán of Saigir who had been born and raised on the island of Cape Clear off County Cork in Ireland. His parents are Lughaidh and Liedania (father and mother respectively). After studying scriptures in Rome, he returns to Ireland to be made bishop at his monastic settlement of Saighir Kieran in County Offaly (the remnants of Uí Failghe). There is no reference to his death but St Piran is best known for landing on Perran Beach in Cornwall in the early sixth century and building the tiny St Piran's Oratory on Penhale Sands near Perranporth.

c.508 - c.530

Cado / Cadwy ab Gerren

King of Dumnonia & duke of Cornubia. 'Duke Cador'?

c.530

Cado is apparently the last to use the title of duke, and certainly no further dukes of Cornubia are known. The title probably persists, doubtlessly as one of the titles of the Dumnonian kings.

c.560

The diminutive territory of Lyonesse may be re-absorbed into Corniu at a time when the peninsula receives extremely little mention in history. Dumnonia firmly controls the entire south-west.

577

FeatureOnce the West Seaxe make the breakthrough of capturing Caer Baddan, Caer Ceri, and Caer Gloui, Cornubia is cut off from overland contact with Britons elsewhere in the country. During this and the next two centuries the Cornish language begins its divergence from central and northern Brythonic.

c.700

The Ravenna Cosmography, written at some point during this century, mentions Purocoronavis, which is almost certainly a corruption of Durocornovium, the fort or walled settlement of the Cornovii. The location of the fort is unknown, but the Carn Brea hill fort or Tintagel are possible candidates. The region is sufficiently established by now to also be recorded as 'Cornubia' around this date.

722

FeatureThe Annales Cambriae refers to three notable 'Cornish' victories in this year. The opponent is not named but as the 'Britons were the victors in those three battles', the opponent is clearly the West Saxons. The battles take place at Hehil, Garth Maelog, and Pencon. The first has been the subject of much speculation as to its location, with many scholars taking the mention of 'Cornish' too literally and placing it west of the River Tamar. Instead, all three battles are likely to be in what is now Devon, close to Dumnonia's eastern border. The victories are hugely important, as they appear to win the Dumnonians and Cornish a century of peace in which to cement their compressed but surviving kingdom, and possibly ensure the survival of their culture and language much longer than might otherwise be the case.

c.800 - 875

The kingdom of Dumnonia, so compressed by the inroads made by Wessex, effectively ceases to exist during the ninth century. Its final event of note might be said to be the death by drowning of Dunyarth, probably the last of its kings to be able to lay claim to any territory remotely resembling the former Dumnonian lands. The remaining British territory is known as the kingdom of Corniu. The English know it as Cornwall, meaning 'the Welsh of Corniu'.

MapCorniu / Cernieu / Kerniw (West Wales / Cornwall)

Corniu became a kingdom in its own right by the simple fact that its traditional overlord, Dumnonia, had been squeezed out of existence. Over the course of the previous three and-a-half centuries, Wessex had gradually pushed its border westwards, until all of the modern county of Devon had been captured. Only the formidable barrier of the River Tamar provided a defensive line for the surviving Britons who took shelter in the rump kingdom of Corniu. Those Britons were already becoming Cornish. Cut off from Wales, their language was evolving differently, retaining closer links to that of their relations in Brittany.

FeatureJust when Dumnonia ceased and Corniu took over is entirely unknown. Records for the region are very sparse once the Annales Cambriae ceased to record events to the south of Wales. There are large gaps in the known kingship. Some late names are mentioned only in the Book of Baglan, a collection of Welsh manuscripts compiled in 1600-1607 which contains a pedigree that relates to Corniu. The names in it may not be Cornish kings at all, especially as one name seems suspiciously close to Godwin, earl of Wessex, father of King Harold II. These names are shown here in green to differentiate them from kings who are known from other sources.

Thanks to the variances in pronunciation and spelling in the Middle Ages, the kingdom was known by a large raft of names. To the Britons of the time, it was probably Corniu or Cernieu, an evolution of the earlier Cornovii tribal name and the Latinised Cornubia of the fifth and sixth centuries. To the Welsh the people here were South Britons, while to the English the land was Cornwall or, more usually, West Wales.

833 - 870

At some point between these dates, during the incumbency of Ceolnoth as archbishop of Canterbury, the independent Cornish bishops submit to the English church. Corniu is included within the diocese of Sherborne. The first bishop of Cornwall is Kenstec.

fl c.880s

Eluid ap Fferferdyn

Son of Alanorus ap Eluid of Dumnonia.

fl c.890s

Alanorus ap Eluid

Son.

fl 927

Huwell / Huwal

'King of the West Welsh'.

927

Dumnonian Corniu acknowledges Ćthelstan of Wessex as its overlord and becomes a vassal state, with its rulers subordinated to the rank of earl by the English. Much removed from the more important political happenings to the east, it is not actually conquered. Instead, it manages to retain independence in all but name until the middle of the eleventh century. Some scholars discount this mention of Huwell as a confusion with Hywel Dda of Deheubarth.

River Tamar
The broad expanse of the River Tamar proved to be Corniu's last and best defence

Also during Ćthelstan's reign, a colony of Britons seems to occupy its own quarter in Exeter until it is expelled by the king in, or immediately before, 928. These are likely to be a remnant of the free Britons of Dumnonia, perhaps collected together in the way any foreign population does in a city, forming its own ghetto district.

fl c.930

Conan

'Rebel' king who probably denies the overlordship of Wessex.

fl c.940s

Rolope ap Alanorus

Son of Alanorus of c.890s.

fl c.960s

Vortegyn Helin ap Rolope

Son. 'Vortigern the High Lord'. 'Duke of Cornwall & Wessex'.

fl c.980s

Veffyne ap Vortegyn

Son. 'Duke of Cornwall & Wessex'.

up to 1000

Ricatus / Rygys?

Land's End area only (Corniu). Only the Latin form is known.

c.1000

Only the Latin form of this king's name is known, from an inscription on a carved memorial stone cross that has been dated to this year. The inscription reads Regis Ricati Crux ('The cross of King Ricatus'). However, a Cornish drama written in the native language and entitled Beunans Meriasek ('The Life of St Meriasek') mentions four Cornish kings, the second of which is one Pygys. This may be a misreading of Rygys, which is the probably the Cornish form of Ricatus.

fl c.1000s

Alured ap Veffyne

Son. 'Duke of Cornwall & Wessex'.

fl c.1010s

Godwyn ap Alured

Son. 'Duke of Cornwall & Wessex'. Earl Godwin of Wessex?

fl c.1054?

Prince Alef

Prince or king of Corniu.

c.1054

The Gesta Herewardi, a Latin work written around the period 110-1130, recounts the life of Hereward the Wake. At the age of eighteen he is exiled by his father and is declared an outlaw by Edward the Confessor of England. He spends the early part of his exile in Scotland, Cornwall (Corniu), and Ireland. Whilst in Corniu he takes refuge at the court of the otherwise unknown Alef. The Gesta Herewardi is generally regarded as being a work of fiction in regard to much of its coverage of Hereward's exile, and all other records of Hereward are brief, contradictory and enigmatic.

? - 1066

Caradoc / Cadoc / Condor

Earl of Cornwall, within the earldom of Wessex.

1066

Although the existence of Caradoc as the last native Dumnonian earl of Corniu is only attested four centuries later by William of Worcester, it is at this point that he is deposed by William the Conqueror of England. By this time Corniu is part of the earldom of Wessex, but is not directly part of England, a status it has since retained (and which has been confirmed in a court of law in the 1850s and by the Tamar Bridge Act of 1998).

Claimed as a descendant of Dunyarth, the last king of Dumnonia, some sources state that Caradoc is appointed or retains the earldom, while others show a new earldom of Cornwall being created by King William around 1068, with Brian of Brittany being appointed to the title. It is also claimed that Cadoc's daughter, Avice, marries William FitzRobert de Mortaigne, which allows the earldom to pass through succession to the Normans.

The earldom is recreated a further eight times over the course of the next three hundred years. In 1337 it is recreated as the duchy of Cornwall for Edward, the Black Prince, and from that point is a title that is conferred upon the heir apparent to the English throne. Corniu's name evolves along with the Cornish language, with the 'c' becoming interchanged with a 'k' to produce the modern version of the name, Kernow (Cornwall to the English).