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Mediæval 1066 to 1540

Tin, fish and farming

The Norman Conquest saw the complete replacement of one ruling elite by another. By the time of Domesday Book (1086) only 67 poor manors were held by Anglo-Saxons (English) and these were held not directly but from Norman overlords. Robert of Mortain, the Conqueror's half brother, held 277 of the 350 Cornish manors; as well as displacing the English he dispossessed several of the ancient Cornish religious houses such as at St Neot and St Kew. Wealth and power resided in the holding of land; the Normans secured what they had taken with a series of formidable and intimidating castles. Robert had castles at Launceston and Trematon. Others belonged to his chief sub-tenants, as at Cardinham, Week St Mary and Restormel although these appeared perhaps a generation later.

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The castles of the 11th and 12th centuries are either of motte and bailey type, as at Launceston Trematon near Saltash, Cardinham and Kilkhampton, or are ‘ringworks' where the principal stronghold is a simple bank and ditch that would have contained a building or two (Upton Castle, Bossiney Castle, Restormel Castle).

From the 13th century the major castles, Launceston, Trematon, Restormel and Tintagel, now in the hands of the Earls and then the Dukes of Cornwall, were allowed to slide into decay; they were remote from the heartland of mediæval politics where the Earls and Dukes actually resided.

In the 13th and 14th centuries some of the leading Cornish families provided their residences with some form of defence. Little now survives of these sites; a broad, deep moat may still be seen at Binhamy, Stratton, the home of the Blanchminsters, though the buildings within are reduced to amorphous mounds. At Berry Court, Jacobstow, the layout of the moated manor has been revealed by excavation.

As in other parts of Britain the 11th to 14th centuries was a period of economic and population growth resulting in the development of Open Field systems, and the appearance of many small towns. In addition Cornwall had the basis for a very diverse economy with the development of trade, fishing, quarrying, the cloth industry and especially the tin industry.

By the early 14th century Cornwall would have been more densely populated than ever before. The county was already thickly covered with farms and hamlets at the time of the Norman Conquest and so the pressure on available land led to the colonisation of upland areas like Bodmin Moor as well as the growth and subdivision of existing hamlets.

After the Black Death of 1349 many of the hamlets on Bodmin Moor were abandoned as people took up holdings that had become available on better land off the moor; these deserted sites are our best evidence for the form of mediæval settlements. Most are hamlets, with from two to six farmhouses, though those in lowland Cornwall would have been rather larger.

In Cornwall mediæval houses very rarely survive in use and those that do tend to be the grander examples (eg. Cotehele). Typical peasants' houses are best known from excavation. These were normally 'long-houses', which provided accommodation for the family and for the wintering of stock under the same roof, but separated by a cross passage (eg. Lamlavery, Louden).

In the 13th and early 14th centuries most hamlets would have been surrounded by arable fields divided into strips - the local version of the open field system. These survive best on Bodmin Moor where the strips are divided by low banks of stone. As pressure on land was eased after the Black Death, holdings became amalgamated and blocks of strips were enclosed, sometimes preserving the strip-like pattern. A few open-field systems continued in use to the 19th century and one can still be seen at Boscastle - the Forrabury Stitches.

Although Cornwall was essentially rural in character, by the 14th century it was well served by a network of towns and markets. Only on the Lizard and on Bodmin Moor would country folk have had to travel more than six or seven miles to market. There has been virtually no archaeological excavation to examine the character of early Cornish towns, and only very rarely do mediæval buildings survive, but in most cases the original layout of the towns, the pattern of streets and house plots, can still be seen. Only Launceston was deemed important enough to have a town wall; the South Gate remains intact.

Most market towns were set up by local landowners as a profitable source of revenue. Some like Week St Mary or Mitchell were scarcely more than villages and would have provided local farms and hamlets with basic commodities and a market for their produce. Others like Bodmin or Lostwithiel would have had populations of a few thousand and a wide range of craft specialists. Some towns were located on spine roads and routeways (eg Mitchell, Grampound, Camelford and Wadebridge) but most had connections with the sea, as fishing ports, trading ports or both. In addition to coastal trade, Cornwall exported tin, fish, slate and cloth and imported salt, linen and canvas from Brittany, white fish, cloaks and wood from Ireland, wine from France, wine and fruit from Spain. Smuggling and piracy were traditional supplements to fair trading. Piracy, of course, could also be a grave threat, There are numerous records of fishermen from Cornwall being taken by barbary pirates.

Mediæval Cornwall was remarkable for its diverse economy, based on a wide range of industries which involved thousands of people. The tinners and fishermen were pre-eminent but wool cloth manufacture, quarrying and ship building also grew in importance. Quarries such as those at Pentewan, Polyphant and Cataclews provided building stone on a local basis, but roofing slates had a wider market and were quarried (eg. Tintagel and Delabole) and exported from the end of the 12th century, for example to Dover and Southampton.

The tin industry had its own laws and privileges and the Stannary Courts (Set up by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall in the late 13th century at the Great Hall in Lostwithiel) administered justice in the four stannaries or tin producing areas - Penwith/Kerrier; Tywarnhayle (St Agnes); Blackmore (St Austell); Foweymore (Bodmin Moor). At this date most of the tin would have been dug from the valley gravels, into which tin ore, weathered and eroded from the lodes or veins, had been redeposited. The earthworks resulting from the systematic digging over of these deposits can still be seen as streamworks in some of the valleys on Bodmin Moor. During the 13-16th centuries the centre of tin production shifted from the streamwork-dominated eastern stannaries to the west where opencast and shallow underground mining was more common. The ore was crushed in water-powered crazing and stamping mills and the tin smelted in blowing houses. Twice a year the ingots were taken to the 'Coinage Towns' (Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Truro and Helston) to be assayed. To check the purity, the corner of the ingot was removed; the term 'coinage' is derived from quoin, French for corner. Then it was taxed before sale to national and international markets, mostly for the manufacture of pewter. There developed, inevitably, a strong tradition of smuggling untaxed tin abroad.

It is difficult now to appreciate the importance of the Church in mediæval Cornwall and its central place in everyday life. For example, in 16th century Bodmin in addition to the priory, friary, parish church, five chapels, two hospitals and two leper hospitals, a large proportion of the forty guilds were religious or charitable associations. Throughout Cornwall there was a profusion of chapels (eg. Roche Rock, Madron), holy wells (eg. Dupath, St Cleer) and crosses (eg. St Cleer) and important places of pilgrimage (eg. St Michael's Mount).

On the other hand, Cornwall's religious houses were mostly on a small scale; there were no abbeys, for example. St Germans and St Michael's Mount are the most complete survivals of priory churches, but fragments can also be seen at St Thomas, Launceston and at Bodmin.

Many of the parish churches are on sites that have been in use for worship since the 5th or 6th centuries. Most were extensively rebuilt in the 15th century, though many retain traces of 12th and 13th century architecture; fine Norman fonts are often a feature of Cornish churches.

Very little survives of the 700 or so mediæval chapels. Some were of pre-Norman origin but most were private chapels attached to the houses of the gentry (eg. Cotehele or Trecarrell). Others served a more public function, standing by bridges or fords or acting as a lighthouse or daymark (St Ives and Rame Head). Perhaps best known of all is the chapel at Roche Rock, served by a hermit. A particular characteristic of Cornwall is its wealth of granite crosses. Most are wayside crosses, marking the path to church, but some were set up as churchyard crosses, including the more ornate 'lantern' crosses which depict biblical scenes on their heads (St Neot).

By the mid-16th century Cornwall was relatively prosperous, but still very much a county with a distinctive identity. Cornish was still spoken widely in the west and communications with the rest of England were by sea or along difficult and often dangerous roads. The period closes with the Reformation, and the suppression of very many religious houses. Cornwall was a major area of rebellion against the changes brought about by the split from Rome. At the same time it was moving to the centre of the stage regarding the defence of England against France and then Spain.

Read about Mediæval monuments