Second Celtic Trip - July 2012 - Cornwall and DevonTopics: Cornish culture, language, heritage, coastline, Sir John Betjeman, Ruth Rendell, Shakespeare on Cornwall, Sir Francis Drake, Agatha Christie, "Mayflower" and Plymouth, theology books, “The Duchy of Cornwall”, the Cornish Diaspora, comparison of the income of poets and "more astute" writers.
We continued our search for Celtic history and languages, which we had started in North Wales in early July, seeking out the Celtic minority languages and cultures partly out of interest and partly to identify similarities with the story of the (Celtic) Piedmontese peoples of north west Italy. This time we headed for Cornwall.
The British Celts originally seem to have had strong links with Iberian peoples and with Celts in mid Western Europe. We soon understood that names of towns in Italy have place names which resemble those in Celtic Cornish. For example, “Treviso” near Milan has the same Celtic “tre” prefix as so often occurs in Cornish. “Trevi” in Rome is Celtic, like “Treviglio” and “Trebia” (a river). “Tre” in Cornish means the “farm” or “homestead” of someone whose name is the second half of the name. The Celts spread from Europe and settled in England in pre-Roman times, probably suppressing the original peoples Britain who seem to have come north from the Basque region of northern Spain after the last Ice Age whose genes, apparently, British people still significantly carry -like those still in the Basque region.
When the Romans left Britain, the Romano-British, Celts spoke “Brythonic”, the root language of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The Celts were not much interested in weaponry and martial arts but instead were farming and fisherfolk, with a love of poetry and music.
Their language was musical and soft which suited lyrics. Shakespare calls the Welsh language "sweet". Not militaristic in inclination, the Celts could not keep the ferocious Picts (“The painted peoples” of Scotland) at bay - as the Romans had done by building and manning Hadrian’s Wall. So they possibly invited in Saxons from Frisia (northern Holland) and Angles (Germans) who stayed. As a result, the Celts appear to have been either forced west from their ancestral lands by the combined Anglo-Saxons towards Cumbria (a word meaning “Cymru” or comrades like the name for Wales), Wales and Cornwall - or they were “ethnically cleansed” from Anglo Saxon territories. So a cause of the Celtic migration west was probably the serious threat from the Picts.
The Romano-British Celts were Christian from the earliest times, alongside Christanised Romans, but they had been displaced in England by pagan Anglo Saxons. When St Augustine arrived to convert them, he begged the Celtic Bishops to adopt all the Roman Christian practices (e.g. same calculation of Easter and the same tonsure) and then help him convert the pagan Anglo Saxons. But the Celts refused, because St Augustine was not respectful enough of their Celtic Christian traditions e.g. he did not stand up, when they came into the room. If he had, they would have worked with him. As a result, it has been assumed the “Celtic Christianity” opposed to Roman Christianity. Celtic Christianity has some different roots from English Christianity - but it is essentially the same faith.
Some Brythonic Celtic tribes from Cornwall crossed to Brittany (“Little Britain”) and some remained in Cornwall. A second wave of missionaries crossed from Wales in the 6th century. St Petroc from Wales carried Celtic Christianity from Padstow through Bodmin to Fowey, crossing Cornwall (“Dunmonia”) along a trade and pilgrimage route which avoided the perils of sailing round Land’s End.
Other Celtic saints included St Perrin, whose black and white flag is now the flag of Cornwall. During this period, King Mark ruled Cornwall or “Dunmonia” (AD 570-585) known as “Marcus Quonomorus”. His son was possibly “Drustan” (Tristan) who inhabited a Cornish royal palace at Fowey and Tristan fell in love with fellow Celtic “Iseult” from Britanny (“Tristan and Isolde”). The Cornish held on to Exeter until the 10th century. They were called the ”West Welsh” - until as late as the 17th century.
Cornish - a dead language now being revived
Cornish as a monoglot language died out by the end of the 17th century. Cornish bilingual speakers died out by the mid 19th century, probably because there was no Bible in Cornish, like that in Welsh from 1588. This death of Cornish may have been a deliberate "murder" on the part of the English. Some find it amazing that the language lasted as long as it did since the Cornish were a “conquered” people.
Ironically, the supremacy of the English language over Norman-French in England by 1362 (when the English Parliament was allowed to debate in English) was a victory we owe to Cornish campaigners for English, John Trevia and Richard Pencrych, yet English was not their native tongue. The Wars of the Roses severely damaged the Cornish ruling classes and they were either killed or had their estates confiscated, taken over by English.
There were also battles with the English. Rebel Cornishmen Michael Joseph an Gof of St Feverne and Thomas Flaminck of Bodmin, marched in 1497 (under Henry VII) to Blackheath, south east London to fight the imposition of taxes on the Cornish to pay for wars against Scotland. The Cornish marched again two months later to join Perkin Warbeck. This may have provoked the English.
Unusually, Shakespeare writes nothing much about Cornwall. In "Henry V", he oddly calls “Leroy” a Cornish name, but it is French. In his Celtic play “King Lear”, the Duke and Duchy of Cornwall figure strongly - as if to recognise Cornwall’s Celtic history.
The Prayer Book Rebellion
The Reformation suppressed the Cornish language during “The Prayer Book Rebellion” due to the Book of Common Prayer being demanded in Cornish by its monoglot Cornish speakers. As someone recently said, bitterly: “It may have been cheaper to dispatch a few thousand rebels than translate the Bible into Cornish at Exeter”. The massacre of thousands of Cornish at Exeter just trying to preserve their native language is a severe "blot" against the Reformation - and Edward VIs otherwise educational government.
Linguists have been trying to revive the Cornish language - in spite of Cornish not having a strong, extant literature. As a result, there are now Cornish Bards and a Grand Bard who meet among themselves and with the Bretons from Brittany at “Gorsedd Kernow”. Ruth Rendell, the crime writer, who is a major donor to the Labour Party, is apparently a keen champion of the Cornish language. There are also various Cornish websites. “Minority language status” has been accorded to it. Cornwall Council ensured that The Cornwall Renewables Energy Show 2012 translated its main articles into Cornish.
Due to the Cornish language having finally been wiped out due to the mass emigration of Cornish mine workers and engineers (and former Cornish smugglers) around the world in the 19th century, many resident Cornish people have lost their Celtic roots and folk songs, though these have been collected.
There is a “Cornish Diaspora” (millions strong) which carried Cornish pasties, Methodism and rugby around the world. There is a huge annual Cornish festival in South Australia. “Sons of Cornwall” are in Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, USA (2m), Canada, South Africa and Brazil. Traditionally the Cornish ran the UK’s naval base at Devonport, Plymouth. Many Cornish went to London and the North to find work and left behind descendants often with names starting with “Tre” or “Pen”. Famous British people with Cornish genes include Lord Byron, the Brontes, Julian Huxley, Elizabeth Arden and Australian PMs Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke. Shakespeare via the Ardens and Webbs probably had Celtic Cornish and Devon ancestors.
There is still a “Celtic spirit” in peoples with Cornish genes even if they do not realise it. Today, Cornwall’s main outward culture is maritime - fishing and sailing, alongside a heritage of mining. Above all, Cornwall seems a playground of the English, French and Germans, a place to enjoy the wonderfully romantic coastline and perfect fishing villages. But below that, distant memory lingers in Cornish names.
The Cornish language robustly survives today in place and surnames. About 400 people can actually converse in Cornish. The rationale of Celtic surnames are set out here. Celtic Cornish place names survive listed here. Perhaps, it is most fascinating that Cornish scholars who have reconstructed the language and those who have addressed Bretons in Cornish in Brittany have been completely understood. Until the Reformation, many Catholic Bretons lived in Cornwall, with their Cornish cousins for they come from a common “stock”. Today, there are nearly 750,000 Breton speakers in north West France . Clearly the “Cornish” language fared better in France though there too, the Bretons have endured minority status.
The Duchy of Cornwall
Today Cornwall is often mentioned as a Duchy as in“The Duchy of Cornwall”. This is something of a recognition of Cornish "distinctiveness", inspite of Cornwall having been treated as a kind of cash cow, a source of income for the Crown since the 14th century. Indeed, it is still mentioned as such e.g. in the newspapers - "the income from the Duchy of Cornwall". Not all the Duchy is in the Duchy itself. It is all over the south of England - and in Wales.
The Prince of Wales promotes delicious organic “Duchy Originals” which are branded foods such as oat cakes, organic beer, preserves. There are Duchy body products (all listed here). (For body products use the “Site Map”. I would also recommend some of the ideas on their “recipes” page). Duchy Originals carry the PoW’s Cornish “crest” which is 15 gold bezants because his home, Highgrove House/Home Farm, belongs not to him, but to The Duchy of Cornwall - along with properties in Kent, Gloucestershire, Wales and London. These foods seems much healthier than Cornish clotted cream teas. Though good for Cornwall, this branding does not indicate that all products are sourced from Cornish farms. The contributing farms, operating organic farming systems are in England, Wales and Cornwall.
Cornwall has a high profile Duke - Prince Charles. The Duke must be The Sovereign’s son, not grandson. It also has Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Charles was invested “Duke of Cornwall” in the 1970s at rather ruined Launceston Castle. The Duchy of Cornwall website is translated into the Cornish language. It offers some interesting information on Cornwall’s ancient monuments. I google this website to inspect delightful interior design for Cornish and Welsh cottages, which is worthy of wider imitation.
Lanhydrock (“High Place of Hidrock” in Cornish - “Lannhedrek”)
We started our tour at magical Lanhydrock (National Trust) a magnificently romantic stately home near Bodmin (“dwelling of the monks - “Bosvenegh”). There is something “Celtic” in its fantastical gatehouse. It is the ancestral seat of the Earls of Radnor. Though restored as a fine Victorian house, it has the romantic allure of a Daphne du Maurier (Cornish novelist) fictional house, such as “Manderley” in “Rebecca”. Manderley is not clearly in Cornwall but it was clearly a very long drive away from London. At Lanhydrock, one can imagine dark and beautiful Rebecca, as treacherous as the Cornish coastline, in a 1930s silk dressing gown, brushing her long hair, at the dressing table overlooking the Jacobean gatehouse.
We were overwhelmed by the library of John Robartes, the first Earl of Radnor who was an independent-minded theologian and opponent of Charles1st, on theological grounds though did not support his execution. John Robartes worked out his theological understanding by thorough reading, making thoughtful margin notes in the great leather theology books which adorn the Jacobean gallery at Lanhydrock, its ceiling decorated with Bible stories in plaster, to teach the children. The library contains many beautiful preserved Calvinist theological books, as well as an early copy of the Geneva Bible. We would love access to this library....
Cornwall Renewable Energy Show at Delabole (Delabole is “Delyow” a stream in Cornish)
Bodmin seems to be a “capital of renewables” in England - surrounded by surprisingly handsome community scale wind turbines. At Delabole, which is the first wind farm in England, after giving a presentation on renewables, we inspected some “plug-in” cars which attract a 20% grants from the Dept for Transport.
Boscastle (“Botterels Castle” in English)
We visited Boscastle, a small former fishing village, which shockingly flooded like this in 2004 with many cars swept into the harbour.
(This photo is Polperro)
Boscastle seems a safe place on a sunny afternoon but it sits on the verge of dangerous waters - the turbulent sea and a deceptive brook. A beautiful walk up the right side of its harbour to the sea was evidence enough. It is hard not to be deeply entranced by this section of the north Cornish coast which is dangerous and dark and very romantic.
Port Quin (“White Cove” in Cornish - “Porth-gwynn”)
Port Quin is a tiny fishing port completely owned by the National Trust whee one can stay in rented NT cottages, listening to the wild sea. Nearby is Tintagel. Its castle’s ruins are where “King Arthur”, probably, if he existed, a Cornish Celtic leader against the pagan Saxons, was born.
I wanted to see “Rock”, where the English young and well-heeled take their surfing holidays. It has a fine wide estuary view across to Padstow on the other side. I had hoped to locate poet John Betjeman’s grave, but failed to find the right church. He is, in fact, buried at St Enodoc’s Church, Trebetherick (his gravestone is here) because he died in a house at nearby Trebetherick, probably rented, as he did not own a house. He had loved “Rock” and Cornwall, since his childhood.
The sandy beach at Rock on the Camel estuary, facing Padstow
Padstow (“Holy Place of St Petroc” in English)
We also loved Padstow - which is like a film set - and connected to Rock by a pedestrian ferry.
Fowey (“Beechtrees” in Cornish - “Fow-wydh”)
We crossed Cornwall to its south coast as Cornwall is only about 20 miles wide, at this point. Fowey is part of the “Riviera of England” situated on a river. It has a delightful Parish Church, which follows the Book of Common Prayer - and follows a reformed theology. Daphne du Maurier's novels are all on sale opposite. She lived near here at Menabilly and adored the history of Cornwall.
Polperro (“Porth Pyrra” meaning a “Cove of Pyrra”)
Polperro’s Spanish-sounding name is rather misleading beause it is Celtic. It is the most typically picturesque Cornish fishing village if nearely ruined by some cheap and cheerful shops. Artists are everywhere painting bright fishing boats, bobbing against pretty, whitewashed walls. There is typical rich Cornish ice cream (thick with clotted Cornish milk) and Cornish "pasties” originally food for tin miners. We walked among many admiring Germans and French breathing in the salt air.
Cotehele (pronounced “Cote Heel”)
Cotehele (National Trust) is an ancient "summerhouse" on the river Tamar with many lovely Huguenot and Brussels wall tapestries. We sat in its lovely and simple “Chapel in the Wood” built as a thank offering by a 15th century ancestor who escaped from the murderous troops of Richard Third by throwing his hat in the Tamar - pretending he had drowned. Commendable, his built this chapel on the spot - to recognise that his prayers had been honoured by God.
On the way to Plymouth Hoe we found the oldest house in Plymouth. We took tea on taking in a breathtaking view over Plymouth Sound from Plymouth Hoe where Plymouth’s Mayor and England’s Navy’s second in command, Sir Francis Drake who is supposed to have played bowls while, in 1588, the Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel intent on re-converting England to Catholicism.
In fact, Drake was a Kentish sailor, having, aged nine, left Devon, due to The Prayer Book Rebellion with his Protestant farmer father who gained a living as a minister at Upnor Church near Rochester in Kent. This tiny village has direct water access to the Thames and soon Drake was apprenticed to a bargeowner. So Drake’s astounding global sailing career started on the River Medway. Elizabeth 1st knew what she owed him: she would even dine with him on this ship moored on the Thames. Drake harried the heavy Armada’s Spanish galleons up the Channel using "fire ships". A massive storm, attributed to the Almighty, wrecked much of the Armada and thus saved England for Protestantism, the Book of Common Prayer and for Shakespeare. There is a memorial to this event, interpreted as providential, on Plymouth Hoe. The Italian Ambassdor had thought that the Cornish would rise and fight Elizabeth 1st but this time, they did not.
Old Plymouth and The Mayflower Steps
We located “Old Plymouth”, an attractive quarter, with a few very old buildings. It is social centre for Plymouth’s nightlife - a nice night harbour filled with fine yachts.
We crossed its ancient quay, close to the “Mayflower Steps” from which East Anglian Puritans embarked The Mayflower to find religious freedom in The New World, From here, 150 years later, "convicts" embarked to found Australia, with the help of various British sea captains. Captain Cook also set out from this same quay - to discover New Zealand.
Plymouth, literally “the mouth of the River Plynn”, with its grand estuary, still feels like the gate to the world, a kind of launch pad of history. I had never realised before the glory of Plymouth on a sunny evening in July. These adventurers must have been very highly motivated or divinely led to leave such outstanding beauty. Plymouth is in Devon and lies across the Tamar from Cornwall, this was the end of our “Cornish adventure”.
Greenway - the summer house of writer Agatha Christie
We gradually made our way eastwards along the south coast of Devon, visiting Greenway, Agatha Christie’s summer home near Dartmouth. The interior is now open since Christie’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks, who lived there the last time I visited, died in 2006. She gave it to the National Trust.
The house is preserved exactly as it was when Agatha Christie lived there - for just 6 weeks each year. It is large, comfortable and with a large library. I was impressed by her feminine bedroom. Sadly, It lacks views of the wonderful Dart River meandering below it. The NT have agreed never to turn it into a “theme park” but to leave it as a kind of frozen snapshot of her affluent life. The Christies did not want “Inspector Poirot” walking about in full dress - or “murderous” weekend parties taking place.
Fascinatingly, many wealthy writers seem to be motivated by aspiring to own a fine house during their childhood. Agatha Christie saw Greenway from below, as a child and wanted it. Charles Dickens saw Gad’s Hill outside Rochester on a walk with his father and it motivated his writing career. William Shakespeare probably wanted New Place next to his school since childhood.
My advice to modern writers: pick a house, fall in love with it and write - to own it and then leave it to the nation!
Christie owned other properties in Persia, Wallingford and elsewhere. I pondered on Agatha Christie’s huge wealth compared with the poverty of Welsh poet R S Thomas and John Betjeman's old age in rented flats. He said "There is no money in poetry". R S Thomas was a deep and life-changing writer - which Agatha Christie would never claim to be - but the cost of being a poet is still high. Poets need patrons - more than ever. Poets have a real influence on the spread and strength of languages - and the ongoing value accorded to them.
I discussed this with one of the very informative guides at Greenway. She agreed with me and then wisely commented:
“Agatha Christie was a very astute woman: she gave people what they wanted”.
One could say the same for astute William Shakespeare’s offering his audiences poetry, but in a commerical context - adorning love, murders and ghosts. One could say it about hugely wealthy writers Maeve Binchy and Ruth Rendell.
I was informed that due to Agatha Christie’s wealthy American father, who had lived with her English mother in Torquay, losing most of his money, Agatha would have had to have earned her living as a trained pharmacist if she had not been successful as a crime writer. It is from this training that, as a crime writer, she drew her specialist knowledge of poisons. I also discovered that Sir Max Mallowan, her archeologist husband married his one time secretary (later an archeologist) immediately, after Lady Agatha’s death in the 1970s. Agatha was about 15 years older than Max and had married Max when she was around 40. Agatha was a Dame in her own right - as well as being, at Greenway always “Mrs Mallowan” or later “Lady Mallowan”.
Works on Cornish Language
Cornish Dictionary “Lexicon Cornu-Britannicum” - Robert Williams (1865)
Proverbs and Rhymes in Cornish - Williams Copeland Borlase (1872)
Glossary of Cornish Place Names - John Bannister
Handbook of the Cornish Language - Henry Jenner (1904)
Cornish Simplified - A S D Smith (1939)
LIving Cornish - Richard Gendall (1980)
Cornish Today - Nicholas Williams (1995)
Main literary works in Cornish:
Pascon agan Arluth (The Passion of Christ)
Ordinalia (a cycle of medieval mystery plays)