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The Cornovii were a Celtic tribe who inhabited the far South West peninsula of Great Britainmarker, during the Iron Age, Roman and post-Roman periods and gave their name to Cornwallmarker or Kernowmarker.

The extreme western peninsula of Dumnonia came to be known as Cerniw in Welsh, "Kernow" in Cornish and "Kernev (Veur)" in Breton. The Celtic root word "corn-" (horn) and the suffix "wealas" being the Anglo-Saxon word, meaning foreigner, (which was also applied to the Welsh), hence the Anglo-Saxon name of Corn-wealas, that may mean the "welsh/foreigners of the horn". Although this theory is widely acknowledged it is also problematic, see the etymology of the tribal name Cornovii.

Kernow and the Cornovii

The general view is that the etymology of the tribal name derives from "people of the horn", or "peninsula". "corn*" is a common element in British place-name etymology, literally meaning horn, but in this context a horn-shaped peninsula. Nevertheless, this theory is also problematic. Graham Webster in The Cornovii (1991) cites Anne Ross' hypothesis that the tribal name(s) may be totemic cult-names referring to a "horned god" cult followed by the tribe(s). There is no direct evidence of this however Webster points out that it is interesting that at Abbot's Bromley the "horn dance" has survived from pagan ritual- Abbot's Bromley being only 55km north of the old tribal centre at Wroxetermarker (Viroconium Cornoviorummarker). In addition Webster quotes Professor Charles Thomas as having made a "good case" for such totemic ethnonyms in Scotlandmarker.

The Morris theory

The people who inhabited the very north of the Britishmarker mainland (modern Caithnessmarker), and the English West Midlands (NW Staffordshire & NE Shropshiremarker) were also known by the same name, Cornovii. In 1973 Oxford Universitymarker historian Dr John Morris put forward a theory in his work 'The Age of Arthur', that the Cornovii from the West Midlands migrated to Cornwall in 460 AD. A people of this name are certainly known, from Roman sources, to have lived in the Outer Powysmarker to Shropshiremarker area of the later Wales and England. John Morris suggests that a contingent was sent to Dumnonia in order to rule the land there and keep out the invading Irish seeing that a similar situation had occurred in North Wales.

Although not widely accepted by modern scholarship Professor Morris's theory is worth considering in that it deals with the perplexing hypothetical link between the Midlandsmarker Cornovii and later Cornwallmarker. Morris discusses the Wroxetermarker dynasty of Constantine whose name is found albeit indirectly, in a reference by Gildas to Constantine as tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia i.e. the current areas of Devonmarker, Cornwallmarker and part of Somersetmarker. According to Morris's theory, the principal Cornovian families of Viroconiummarker may have moved to Dumnonia, sometime around 430 AD, Morris' goes on to mention one Ducco, who is also known as Congar (d. 473 AD) as a monk on the estate that he had also established there. Morris asserts that the latter name is that which is preserved in the modern name of Congresburymarker, Somerset, south of Bristolmarker. The Cadbury-Congresbury fortification is the only major fortification in Walesmarker and "Dumnonia" to have produced reasonable evidence for continuous occupation from the third century to the sixth.

Despite being an innovative theory there is as of yet no primary evidence to confirm that these tribes were indeed related or that there was any contact between the two and it appears that the only connection is a name similarity. (The names of 'tribes' Dumnonii, Damnonii, Cornovii, Cornavii occur at several locations all over Britain and may simply reflect some language similarity in the eyes of the Romans). For instance there was a Damnonii tribe in Scotland (the Clyde Valley), whose name looks very similar to the Dumnonii tribe of South West Britain, so many have assumed that they must be the same people but again there is no evidence of any contact between the two.

Philip Payton, in his book "Cornwall - A History" says "Dr John Morris in his controversial "The Age of Arthur" postulates an ingenious theory - the Morris thesis is not widely accepted by archaeologists and early historians, and we may safely conclude that the Cornovii located west of the Tamar were an indigenous people quite separate from their namesakes in the Midlands and Caithness."

Pre-Roman history

The pre-Roman inhabitants were speakers of a Celtic language that would later develop into the Brythonic language Cornish. The first account of Cornwallmarker comes from the Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (c.90 BC–c.30 BC), supposedly quoting or paraphrasing the fourth-century BC geographer Pytheas, who had sailed to Britain:

The identity of these merchants is unknown. There has been a theory that they were Phoeniciansmarker, however there is no evidence for this. (For further discussion of tin mining see the section on the economy below.)

Roman Cornwall

During the period of Roman occupation in Britain, Cornwall was rather remote from the main centres of Romanisation. Neverthless, the Roman road system extended into Cornwall, yet the only known significant Roman sites are three forts:- Tregear near Nanstallonmarker which was discovered in the early 1970s and the remaining two found more recently at Restormel Castlemarker and Lostwithiel (discovered 2007) along with a fort near to St Andrew’s Church in Calstockmarker (discovered early in 2007). A Roman style villa was found at Magor Farm near Cambornemarker. Furthermore, the British tin trade had been largely eclipsed by the more convenient supply from Iberiamarker.

A few Roman milestones have been unearthed in Cornwall, two recovered from around Tintagelmarker in the north (detailed below), one near the hillfort at Carn Breamarker, and another two close to St Michael's Mountmarker. The stone at Tintagel bears an inscription to Imperator Caesar Gaius Valerius Licinius Licinianus, and the other at Trethevymarker, is inscribed to the emperors Gallus and Volusianus."

According to Léon Fleuriot, however, Cornwall remained closely integrated with neighbouring territories by well-travelled sea routes. Fleuriot suggests that an overland route connecting Padstowmarker with Foweymarker and Lostwithielmarker served, in Roman times, as a convenient conduit for trade between Gaul (especially Armorica) and the western parts of the British Islesmarker. (Fleuriot 1982:18).

Armorica was already being settled by Britons long before the end of the Roman Empire, however. Traditionally, the colony in Brittany was established before (High King) Constantine's expedition into Gaul in 407-411. Magnus Maximus secured Armorica during his own earlier expedition, and as a reward for his support gave it to his wife's cousin, Conan Meriadoc, King of Dumnonia.

Post-Roman history

The Ravenna Cosmography

The Ravenna Cosmography, of around 700, makes reference to Purocoronavis, (almost certainly a corruption of Durocornovium), 'a fort or walled settlement of the Cornovii', (unidentified, but possibly Tintagelmarker or Carn Breamarker). According to professor Philip Payton, in "Cornwall: A History", the Cornovii were most likely a sect/sept or offshoot of the Dumnonii tribe/clans whose territory included modern day Cornwallmarker, Devonmarker, western parts of Somersetmarker and perhaps the fringes of Dorsetmarker. The Cornovii were sufficiently established for their territory to be recorded as Cornubia by c700AD.

Links with Brittany

Armorica, the western arm of northern Gaul, was the ancient domain of the Veneti. The area had been mostly Celtic for over 1200 years. During the second century BC, Gaul was considered a centre of Celtic culture in Europe.

By AD 400, the newly arriving Franks became the heirs to Roman Gaul and sought to retain their hold on the richest parts of the territory. However, during the middle of the fifth century, at a time when the former Saxon foederati were in revolt, a migration of Britons secured Armorica for Britain's Second Kingdom. This was accepted by the Franks as Brittany. By AD 450, most of the land north of the Loiremarker was under British control.

It is important to note that Armorica was being settled by Britons long before the end of the Roman Empire, however. Traditionally, the colony in Brittany was established before (High King) Constantine's expedition into Gaul in 407-411. Magnus Maximus secured Armorica during his own earlier expedition, and as a reward for his support gave it to his wife's cousin, Conan Meriadoc, King of Dumnonia.

Conan ruled much of what forms modern Brittany as the Kingdom of Vannetais, maintaining the local Celtic tribal, Veneti, name with a probable capital at Vannes, but in the usual Celtic practice of dividing territory between sons, an hereditary patchwork of up to a dozen smaller sub-kingdoms, or principalities emerged during the course of the fifth and sixth centuries.

In this early period before Dumnonia in southwest Britain collapsed from the seventh century onwards, the British of Armorica had very close ties with the home country, and may have recognised the authority of the High King.

Many kings are mentioned for Bro Erech, Cornouaille, Domnonia, Leon and Poher, in the later Lives of the Saints and medieval abbey charters. It seems highly likely that the sub-kingdoms continued to be ruled over by the 'High' king, or King of the Bretons, probably in much the same way as the High Kings of Britain governed.

The first Breton chieftain to recorded on the continent is Ivomadus who established himself in Bloismarker in 410 (Chronicles of Anjou). His activities take place outside of Conan's Vannetais, in an enlarged British occupied territory in Gaul. He and his men may have been the remainder of Constantine III's army which crossed the Channelmarker with him after proclaiming himself emperor in 406 AD. Although the records seem to name him as a king of Brittany, he may only have been acting in the king's name, or perhaps operating in Bloismarker as a sub-king.

As the Britons are said to have controlled most of the territory north of the Loiremarker by 450 AD, Bloismarker must have been part of an extended Armorican (Briton) kingdom until it fell to Clovis in 491 AD. From that date, Brittany reverts to its traditional borders.

See also


  1. Philip Payton. (1996). Cornwall. Fowey: Alexander Associates
  2. Charles Thomas. (1986). Celtic Britain. Ancient Peoples & Places Series. London: Thames & Hudson
  3. John Morris (1973) The Age of Arthur
  4. Alcock, Leslie (1987) Economy, Society & Warfare among the Saxons and Britons, University of Wales Press, Cardiff
  5. Revised edition Cornwall: a history, Fowey: Cornwall Editions Ltd, 2004 ISBN 1-9048-8000-2 (Available online on Google Books)
  6. Halliday, p. 52.
  7. Roman Fort Discovered - Were The Romans Using Cornish Silver?
  8. Romano-British Villa Magor Farm, Illogan, Redruth, Cornwall
  9. Roman Milestones Near Nanstallon
  10. "Cornwall: A History", by Professor Philip Payton (2004)

External links

Specialist bibliography

  • Webster, Graham (1991) The Cornovii (Peoples of Roman Britain) (Hardcover)
Sutton Publishing; 2nd revised edition (April 1991) ISBN 0862998778; ISBN 978-0862998776

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