Abandoned mines at Botallack
Abandoned mines at Botallack

A Quick Walk Through Cornwall’s History

A Quick Walk Through Cornwall’s History

- March 3, 2021 -

Cornwall has a long and busy history. We think about it a lot, as we walk along the Cornish coast path, imagining all the others who walked these ways before us.

In this blog, we take a quick stank (hike) through Cornwall’s history, and we’ll recommend some walking tours that take in significant places.


Early Cornish Man

It seems it took a while for people to populate Cornwall, and we see the first signs of human life here from the Middle Stone (Mesolithic) Age, around 10,000 BC. This is about the time Cornwall separates from continental Europe (we’ll just leave that there).

There’s evidence that these early ancestors lived on the Lizard, probably sheltering inland in the winter then returning to the coast to fish in the summer. They started farming during the Late Stone (Neolithic) period, and incredibly, some of our Cornish hedges started during this period. That means that some of these boundaries we walk past date from 4,500 – 2,400 BC. This astonishes us more every time we think about it.

Try this walk around the Lizard to see where our early ancestors fished.

Tin and trade

The Cornish began mining as early as 2000 BC, and not only that, but we became world-famous for it. It’s likely that we were trading tin with merchants from the Mediterranean and exporting copper and tin across the known world. This may explain why our traditional saffron buns are made from an exotic spice – we were a cosmopolitan culture.

An Iron Age Greek merchant described his Cornish colleagues as “civilized, skilled farmers, usually peaceable but formidable in war”. We’ll take that.


Kingdom and Christianity

The Romans didn’t trouble Cornwall much, and the Cornish carried on mining, trading and farming, as well as building sophisticated settlements like Chysauster. Britain (to give it its current name) as a whole was experiencing a time of great change,

Cornwall’s name, Kernow, first appears in records in 400 AD. Cornwall and Devon formed the Kingdom of Dumnonia, with Cornwall emerging as a kingdom in its own right towards the end of the early Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, Christianity was reaching our coasts, with Celtic preachers arriving to convert the Cornish. Among them were future Saints Piran and Petroc.

St Piran's Cross
Mostly fighting

Records are pretty limited from the Dark Ages (hence the name), and because only exceptional events were recorded, it looks a lot more battle-heavy than it was. Certainly, there was a lot of fighting between the complex kingdoms of Saxon England, which also involved the Cornish and Welsh.

It’s from this period that we get the name “Cornwall”. “Wealas”, somewhat offensively, was a Saxon word for foreigners or strangers. This forms the “wall” part of Cornwall, as well as the English name for Wales. This gives you an idea of how well everyone was getting along.


The Normans arrive

And then it all changed… In 1066 the Normans conquered, with the new king installing his brother as Earl of Cornwall. Robert of Mortain wasn’t too bad – he was a Breton, and many of his countryfolk settled comfortably with their Cornish cousins.

The Domesday Book divides Cornwall into districts for the first time, including our own Penwith. But the most amazing fact from this period? A form of rugby first appeared in 1100, in Penzance. This is also about the time that St Michael’s Mount finally became an island.

The next few years are dominated by the Norman need for order, with laws and charters. We see towns and markets established, monasteries founded and stannary (tin) laws created.

This walk starts at Marazion, home of St Michael’s Mount.

Rebellion and war

In 1377, Cornwall became a Duchy, with Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, as its first duke. It was a turbulent period, and Cornish archers were sent to fight in the 100 Years War against France.

In the later Middle Ages, Cornwall provided a dramatic backdrop to scenes from Wars of the Roses, including the pivotal siege of St Michael’s Mount in 1473-4.

The victorious King Henry VII needed money to finance a war against Scotland. His “war tax” resulted in hardship for the Cornish, which resulted in the First Cornish Rebellion of 1497.

The rebellion failed – however, a few months later, the Second Cornish Rebellion was led by Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne. Warbeck played on Cornish frustrations to raise men for his rebellion, landing at Whitesand Bay near Sennen, then leading his army to London. Again, it failed, and Warbeck was hanged.

Visit Warbeck’s landing place in this far western walk.


Religious and civil conflict

Cornwall was unimpressed by Henry VIII’s new religion, and the 16th century was also a time of Cornish unrest. The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 was sparked by Henry’s son, Edward VI’s attempts to impose a new Protestant prayer book.

As well as the religious aspect, the Cornish objected to the fact the new prayers were in English, not their native tongue. The rebellion failed, and the prayer book is often seen as a turning point in the story of the Cornish language. On the plus side, we saw off the invaders during the Spanish Armada.

Sticking with the general theme of conflict… Cornwall was staunchly Royalist during the Civil War, with both battles and sieges occurring on Cornish soil. King Charles really did spend a night here, as everywhere claims.

The 18th century: Methodists and scientists

And breathe… Let’s step away from fighting for a while, and into a period of invention and discovery. In the 18th century, this small part of the world produced Humphrey Davy and Richard Trevithick, and Scottish engineer Robert Murdoch moved down here.

Deep mining is expanding, and alongside the scientific advancements, we see an increase in religious beliefs, with Methodism arriving in Cornwall. Tin and chapel will form the cornerstone of our communities for generations to come.

Walk through the industrial landscape of Hayle.


Industrial leaders

We’re just one year into the new 19th century, and already Trevithick has built his full-size steam road carriage. This sets the scene for the century: rapid engineering and industrial expansion. Much of West Cornwall’s landscape scars come from the early 1800s and the development of copper and tin mines. Walk along the west coast paths, and breathe that powerful heritage along with the sea air.

Cornwall was a global leader in mining and exports for many decades. Then the worldwide tin market changed, and mining began to decline. The impact on communities was – and is – devastating. However, the recent upsurge in lithium mining could see changes afoot…

This is one of the best walks for engine houses.


Arty Cornwall

As some were working underground, others were “on grass”, admiring the light. Cornwall’s stunning landscape and unique, fresh light started to attract artists. The first “colony” was in Newlyn, where the “picturesque” locals were as much an attraction as the scenery.

In the mid twentieth century, the modern artists came to St Ives; again, they were drawn by the combination of the light and the rugged landscapes. Walk around St Ives and look out for the Hepworth sculptures, bequeathed by the charismatic artist who made the town her home.

As well as the installations, this heritage is recognised by the world-class galleries in St Ives, Penzance and Newlyn.


And that brings us to the 20th century. Modern Cornwall has its own stories, which we’ll keep telling with our walks. To follow our paths is to follow in the footsteps of traders, miners and rebels. It’s one of the many reasons we love walking in Cornwall.

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