Over the Christmas period I got up to speed on the pile of books that I’ve been meaning to read. One of these was called Short History of the Anglo-Saxons (2018) by Giles Morgan; the book itself was a fairly limited read and I think I may have been better off simply reading related Wikipedia articles, however, it did make me think of the situation of Cornwall during this period.
The Dark Ages: the name itself evokes much in the imagination. This period from the decline of the Roman Empire to the invasion of the Normans in 1066 is indeed quite dark in my own understanding of historical chronology. I’m attempting to beef up my knowledge in order to prepare better for when covering the House of Wessex monarchs in the English Monarchs FA Cup series; and whenever I venture into this era I end up getting side-tracked on various other things, particularly the monarchs who are now forgotten to us. Edgar? Eadwig? Yes, me neither. But whenever I come across the monarch of Athelstan I instantly think of Cornwall.
Athelstan reigned a short time from 924-939, but yet his reign was important for the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon state. He managed to push back the Danes and to defeat the Scots, whilst in the south-west he also contained the Cornish. As Giles Morgan’s history explains:
‘Athelstan then set his sights on the kings of Cornwall who were often referred to as “the West Welsh”. According to William of Malmesbury he drove them from the city of Exeter and set a new boundary between Cornwall and Wessex at the River Tamar.’
Such a passage gives rise to a few questions, notably: who were these kings of Cornwall? How much power and influence did the Cornish have in the west-country before Athelstan’s involvement? What was the geographical and political spread of the Cornish prior to this? Did the Cornish control Exeter?
However, Morgan’s book – as noted above – is limited in providing a clear picture of the entire scenario. A quick look on a related Wikipedia article of Athelstan’s reign shows that there is considerable doubt about what Morgan describes, particularly the use of William of Malmesbury as a credible source.
It appears that the Cornish were not in control of Exeter and that their political power had been limited a century earlier by Athelstan’s predecessors. In a far deeper academic study Cornwall: A History (2004) Philip Payton outlines the relationship of Athelstan and the Cornish. He writes how Athelstan held ‘a great court’ at Exeter in 928, of which one of the probable attendees was Huwal, king of the West Welsh. This particular ruler of the Cornish appears to have held a semi-autonomous power, with the Cornish themselves having accustomed themselves to over-lordship by the Anglo-Saxons a century earlier.
The expulsion that Morgan writes about occurred several years after this in 936, in what appears to be Athelstan tidying up the boundaries of his flourishing Anglo-Saxon state. The expulsion could have been in response to a revolt from the Cornish during this period, and Athelstan reacted by restricting the rights of the Cornish in the town.
It is interesting to consider how the Tamar river – the clear boundary of today – was actually a construct of an Anglo-Saxon king. As Payton notes: ‘Athelstan had created the modern geo-political entity of Cornwall’. In many ways, this act preserved much of Cornwall’s heritage and culture, giving space for its own language to continue for centuries more. However, ‘the price was satellite status as an appendage of the emergent English state’.
All of this shows that the Athelstan settlement of 936 was a key date in Cornish history, establishing the modern Cornish state that existed through the centuries of the earldom into its transformation into the duchy. It is an period of history that I am to read into in more detail, and perhaps I can obtain more information to help build the thesis that Cornwall – not Wales or Ireland – was actually England’s very first colony.