This site is no longer maintained
This website should only be accessed for School Messenger, SIS or planning agents information.

Early Mediæval AD 410 to 1066

Cornish Kings and Celtic Saints

From the 5th century, after Rome had abandoned its peripheral areas, Britain fragmented into a series of kingdoms, British in the west, Anglo-Saxon in the east. A handful of Dumnonian kings are known by name Constantine in the 6th century, Gereint in the 8th, Dumgarth in the 9th - but most are unrecorded or are lost in myth.

Continue reading

This obscure period saw considerable movement of peoples; as well as the migrations of the Anglo-Saxons, the Irish crossed to Scotland and Wales and their presence is attested in Cornwall by Irish names and the use of the ogham script on early Christian inscribed stones (eg. Lewannick). At the same time, a British migration to NW France was effected on such a scale that from the mid 6th century Armorica was known as Britannia or Brittany. The names of two Breton regions, Dumnonia and Cornouaille, point to the source of this migration, and continuing contact is shown in the traditions of the Cornish and Breton saints, and in a shared language, indistinguishable before the 8th century.

The sporadic conquest of the 'West Welsh' (Cornish) by the armies of the Kings of Wessex was under way by 710 when Gereint was obliged to cede territory in SE Cornwall, but this was followed in 722 by a Cornish victory. Egbert's campaigns in the 9th century, culminating in 838 in the defeat of a combined Cornish and Danish army at Hingston Down, left Cornwall a vassal kingdom. But only in the extreme SE and NE of Cornwall are there concentrations of English place-names, suggesting that actual English colonisation was on a small scale. Two Linear Earthworks, the Bolster Bank, St Agnes (still partly visible as a rampart between Trevaunance Cove and Chapel Coombe) and the Giant's Hedge (originally stretching between Lerryn and Looe, substantial sections of which are visible north of Lanreath), may have been territorial defences of the early part of this period.

The key archaeological site of this period is Tintagel, which is now thought to be a royal stronghold of the early 6th century. The occupation can be dated by large quantities of pottery, both storage vessels (amphorae) and fine wares, imported from the Mediterranean, an indication of western Britain's continuing cultural and economic links with Byzantium.

At the same time there is a little evidence for the reoccupation of Iron Age hillforts (Chûn Castle is the only good example), perhaps by the local aristocracy. Other important places are suggested by the place-name lis, 'hall' or ‘court', eg. Liskeard, Lesnewth, Lizard, Lesingey.

By the time of the Norman conquest the Cornish countryside was quite thickly populated. This is clear not so much from Domesday Book as from the place-name evidence. Places with the elements 'tre' (estate, farm, or hamlet) or 'bod' (dwelling), indicative of settlements of pre-Norman origin, are found in profusion throughout Cornwall and many may originate in the 7th century or before. Many other settlements with Cornish place-names are likely to be equally ancient; the pattern of settlements found in mediæval Cornwall (and later) is almost entirely pre-Norman in origin. just how far back this pattern goes has yet to be established; there was an, as yet, unexplained change, sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries when the rounds were abandoned in favour of the undefended, open settlements which became the predominant type.

Very little is known from archaeological excavation about the character of these early settlements. Excavated sites of the 5th and 6th centuries are mostly of Romano-British origin, such as the round at Trethurgy with its oval houses. Most pre-Norman farms have continued in use to the present day but one settlement of the 10th and 11th centuries, buried beneath the sand at Mawgan Porth, was found on excavation to be a hamlet of rectangular houses, and is a forerunner of the typical later mediæval hamlets.

If most of Cornwall's farms are probably of pre-Norman origin the same is likely to be true of the lanes and tracks that link them, and many of our Cornish hedges may be on the line of early field boundaries. The general pattern of land use found in the mediæval period and later is also an early feature. In most cases each farm or hamlet would have had access to an area of rough grazing, usually on higher ground, but this pattern has mostly been obscured by the enclosures of the 19th century and earlier.

A major force for change, in the 5th and 6th centuries, was the introduction of Christianity from Wales, the Mediterranean and Gaul. The earliest religious communities (or monasteries) took the form of enclosed settlements not unlike the contemporary rounds. Known as lanns, these may have contained a chapel, perhaps a burial ground and even a few houses. The form of these enclosures can still be seen in the outline of many churchyards (eg. St Buryan). These communities were supported by endowments of land, which in some cases (eg. St Petroc's of Padstow and Bodmin) became very considerable. But by 1086 most had dwindled or disappeared as their estates were seized first by the English (Anglo-Saxons) and then by the Normans.

Inscribed stones, commemorating important individuals of the 5th to 7th centuries, were set up in some lanns but also beside boundaries, tracks and fords (eg: Lewannick, St Clement). The names on the stones reflect the mixed cultural influences of the time - Irish, British and Latin names all occur, some inter-mixed: the stone in St Kew church is inscribed IVSTI (Latin: 'the stone of Justus') but the name is repeated in Ogham, the Irish stroke alphabet. The earliest Cornish crosses, finely ornamented with interlace designs, date from the late 9th century and served both as memorials and as churchyard crosses. Fine examples can be seen at St Neot, Sancreed and Cardinham. The Doniert Stone was probably erected by Dumgarth, the last Cornish king to be recorded, who drowned in 875.

By the 10th and 11th centuries many more religious sites had been established. Important manors had their own chapels and every small group of hamlets would have had its own burial ground, such as at Mawgan Porth, or Merther Euny in Wendron, where an abandoned Romano-British round was re-used. As the parochial system developed some of these cemeteries acquired a parish church, but many others went out of use.

Old pagan beliefs may have been assimilated as well as ousted by the spread of Christianity. This is suggested by the large number of holy wells. Most have mediæval superstructures but their supposed supernatural powers may well have pre-Christian origins.

Read about Early Mediæval monuments