Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash
When the ice finally retreated about 10,000 years ago, a shadow fell across the land. It was the shadow of the first human. With him or her (history does not record which) came the first stirrings of culture. S/he was part of a small band of hunter gatherers who scoured around looking for berries and the odd rabbit or the fire. They were most often cold. And wet. For the land in which they roamed, was a long, thin peninsula sticking its nose out into the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean, which on three sides of the land is the father and mother of gales and salt spray wind which howls over cliff tops, bending trees and whipping up depression and insanity in those who survived among the granite stones. For the best part of 8,000 years life was endured without anyone bothering to write stuff down. There were no pencils, no paper, no Facebook. We do not know what they ate because they left no pictures of their dinners. We do not know what they looked like because they left no selfies, and we don’t know where they went on holiday or what their feet might have looked like sticking out over Dozmary Pool. Not until around 100 BCE did anyone think to record daily life. The absence of domestic pets like dogs and cats doing funny things, and no hand held cameras to record the antics, meant we have no record of what was important to them.
They probably ate the dogs and cats in any case.
Then, at about a quarter to six in the evening in Spring of 98 BCE (months had not been invented), Denzil picked up a bit of charred wood from the fire and playfully etched some marks on a pale stone nearby.
“ ‘ere, missus, take a look what I have gone an’ done…bewdy innit?”
Denzil stood up proudly and pointed to the rough marks on the stone. His female companion, Bianca, waddled over, raised a hairy hand to her brow, belched, scratched her arse, and gazed for 5 minutes at his efforts.
“Wasson?” she grunted.
Denzil’s pride took a minor blow. This was the first artefact of human culture for nearly 10,000 years and as far as Denzil knew, he was the first Leonardo da Vinci, the first Shakespeare, or the first Barbara Hepworth, and all he got for his efforts was ‘Wasson?’
“ ken’t teach pork” he thought. But he kept that thought to himself.
“Christ, I’m going back to me stone work, Men-an-Tols don’t make themselves”.
Artists are often not appreciated in their own time. Denzil’s work of chipping a hole in a stone with the jaw bone of a hedgehog went unnoticed. He was in fact the first Barbara Hepworth, who centuries later, lets face it merely copied neolithic sculptors like Denzil.
“Wassa Menantol then?”
“Never mind, done they pasties ‘ave ‘ee?”
Not knowing what a ‘pasty’ was, Bianca sat down near the fire to continue gathering head lice from her 12 children. Head lice were often used as the main ingredient of neolithic risotto as a rice substitute. There was no rice anyhow in neolithic Kernow.
Denzil and his family were part of the tribe of the Dumnonii. However rather embarrassingly for Denzil, the border at the Tamar had not been written in charcoal on a sheepskin map anywhere. This meant the Dumnonii ranged into Devon and even Somerset! There would have been ‘ell up about this but everyone was too cold, hungry and wet to argue over such things.
A bit drekly, the land of the far west was briefly visited by the Romans who upon noting the lack of grapes, sunshine and table manners, retreated back to Exeter, which at that time had no cathedral, christian civilisation or cider. Only pigs and mud. Another branch of the Dumnonii tribe lived there in a few huts by the river. It was called ‘Isca Dumniniorum’ by the Romans, who were thought of as ‘pretentious twats’ by the locals for speaking Latin. Funnily enough, this is a trait taken up by modern day ‘pretentious twats and out of touch toffs’ today. The locals called the small settelment ‘Exe’ which was brief but to the point, for in their language it merely means ‘the water’.
“Lets not waste energy on thinking up new words for where we live, bey”.
This approach of naming a village after its geographical topography worked well for tribes living near forests, mountains or in sheltered valleys. Their dwelling places ended up with charming names according the beauty of their immediate surroundings or the functionality of the place, hence ‘ford’ or ‘hurst’. It did not work so well for everyone. Denzil’s village was called ‘Druth’, meaning ‘shitpit’ in the Britonnic language, due to its proximity to the open sewer. Many centuries later, the stream became a depository for the detritus of tin mines, turning the water red. The age old habit of naming where you live by what you saw resulted in the evolution of Denzil’s village name.
Nothing at all happened in the far west peninsula for the best part of 1300 years after the first scribbling of history in the year 0. Nothing much at all was written. A bit of gorse grew, pilchards swam in huge shoals offshore and gulls were bored, for they had no pasties to steal. The pilchard shoals were so big and dense it was possible to walk from what would have been Porthminster beach to Godrevy on the back of the fish. Fish so dense, you would be keeping your feet dry as you walked. The sea was dark with their number. In fact this is how Jesus performed his ‘miracle’. Denzil had done it years before Jesus had a go, but had not written about it or been crucified because of it. That is why we do not have any Gospels written about Denzil.
“ ‘ere minnit, Bianca, see! I’m dancing on the water” shouted Denzil one morning. The sea off Hayle estuary was black with fish.
“Gisson, will ‘ee, I’ve got pig scrubbing to do, I ain’t got time to watch silly buggers doing the flora dance on the sea!”
“ Flora Dance? eh?”
There was a bit of a kerfuffle in about 900 AD when the kingdom of Wessex, led by the ‘Great British Bake Off’ failure, King Alfred of ‘Shaftesbury’ (‘bury’ meaning fortified place, and ‘Shafte’ in Anglo Saxon meaning ‘penis’ – what?) thought they would control this little bit of wind swept, gorse scented land. Little did Alfred know, but by now Denzil’s descendants had developed their own language and culture called ‘Cornish’. They did not take kindly to the ‘English’ coming down imposing new rules and insisting on draconian measures like taxing cider, issuing blue passports for crossing the Tamar and ‘cream first’ tomfoolery.
In 1337, the post of ‘Duke of Cornwall’ was invented in a thinly veiled attempt to sell biscuits to the locals in far away places such as ‘Red of the Druth’.
“t’aint right, taint fair, t’aint proper” snorted the 14th century version of Denzil, while chewing on pig gristle and a bit of ‘hevva cake’.
“they aint’ got no right coming down ‘ere telling us how to live and what to eat, I’ll wash my scrotum on Christmas day and not a day before, and if they bleddy English don’t like it, I’ll tell ole Trelawny”.
“You silly old tuss, it’s only 1337 and Trelawny aint’ even been invented yet. You’ll ‘ave to wait ’til the late 17th century before you can go marching and complainin’.” The voice of reason, as ever, belonged to Bianca.
But she was wrong. Denzil’s descendants had a chance to march and complain before that. In 1497, An Gof, ‘the blacksmith’, fed up with King Henry VII insisting on the extraction of tax so he could trot off up north to try and subdue the rebellious Scots, organised the Cornish Rebellion. It was doomed to failure.
“What ‘appened was..”, a previous King, Edward 1st, granted local power for raising tax to the Cornish Stannary Parliament, but Henry thought otherwise. He suspended the Stannary Parliament and insisted that Cornish tin miners paid 20% vat on every pasty, every cream tea and every room they used as a holiday let. Ale house singing was taxed, as was fishing, rugby and going up Camborne Hill, which had a toll imposed halfway up (or down – depending which way you were going).
Not for the first time did the inhabitants have a grievance about those from ‘up country’. The Romans, the Wessex Anglo Saxons, the Normans and now the bleddy Tudors! What next? Cornish identity, language and culture being suppressed during a religious conflict between King and Bishops?
Well, yes actually. Wait for it.
Religion was a bit different in Kernow. Being so close to the world’s end, in between the sea and the sky and battered by wind and rain, the locals saw the Gods in varying guises. Christianity existed of course, it had arrived around 400-500 AD. An educated clerical Irishman, known as Ciarán, paddled over to Perranporth at that time. He stepped out of his coracle onto the beach, knelt down and kissed the golden sand, to be greeted by an incredulous Denzil.
“Maidin mhaith a dhuine uasail!” (Good Morning Sir)
“Right on pard.”
“Inis Dom” said Ciarán “cá bhfaighidh mé roinnt bia agus dí?” (tell me, where can I get some food and drink?)
“spec ‘ee ’ll be wanting a pasty and a pint of rattler?”
“post ceart!” (proper job!).
They got on famously after three pints, so much so that Denzil thought Ciarán would make a “bleddy ‘ansum saint”. Not being able to speak Irish, and thereby mangling Ciarán’s name, Denzil decided to call him Piran (Denzil could not spell ‘Perran’) after the beach where he first met him. Christianity had arrived but due to the characteristics of the Cornish and the land they lived in, it took various forms and intermingled with pagan rites and customs (sun worship and sacrificial turnip burning) so as to become unrecognisable as Christianity by Tudor times.
So, indeed the scene was set for another ‘up country’ interference over religion and language.
In 1549, the Book of Common Prayer was introduced but there was ‘ell up as a response. It was later called ‘The Prayer Book Rebellion’. Denzil and Bianca hated the new book, because it introduced English into the liturgy. Churches all over the county had to use the new, and to some dangerous, new words in a strange tongue. For a start ‘drekly’ was replaced by many different English words. The Book of Common Prayer used ‘immediately’, ‘very soon’, ‘in a bit’ ‘later on’, ’whenever’ and ‘half past five’ for ‘drekly’. For example, in the book of Revelation, Jesus said “Look, I am coming soon!”. Well when was ‘soon’ ? The book should have said “I’ll be over drekly” then Denzil would have understood. As it turns out, Jesus was a bleddy liar because 2000 years later he has still not turned up, which even to a Cornishman is stretching the meaning of ‘drekly’ to beyond breaking point. So, no one in Cornwall then knew when anything was going to happen. They knew where they were with ‘drekly’ but the plethora of neologisms caused no end of confusion.
This confusion with language was not helped by living conditions. The Cornish were not exactly rich, in fact they existed on a diet of beetroot, tree bark, and the odd lick of a damp potato. They drank gallons of cider, lived in a one room ‘cottage’ and in the evenings played games in the dark such as ‘name that lesion’ or ‘Splat-a-Rat’ involving a broom handle, goose fat and the resident family of long tailed vermin. To the injury of poverty was added the insult of an English prayer book.
It proved to be the final indignity that the people could peaceably bear. Two decades of oppression were followed by two years of rampant inflation, in which cider prices had quadrupled, saffron was being rationed, and social distancing being imposed by English Landlords on those thought to be of rebellious nature. So, an army gathered at the town of Bodmin under the leadership of its mayor, Henry Bray. The aims of the rebellion were highlighted in the slogan “Kill all the gentlemen” leading to many of the gentry hiding away in castles such as that at Trematon and St Micheal’s Mount.
The eighth Article of the Demands of the Western Rebels stated: “and so we the Cornyshe men (whereof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe English”.Responding to this, however, Archbishop Cranmer asked why the Cornishmen should be offended by holding the service in English rather than Cornish, when they had before held it in Latin and not understood that?
This was lighting the blue touch paper, but it did not end well. Battles were fought at Fenny Bridges, Woodbury Common, Clyst St Mary and Exeter was put under siege. At Clyst Heath Cornish 900 rebels were captured, bound and gagged and their throats slit all within 10 minutes. At the battle of Samford Courtney the Cornish were so bloody minded that they did not give in until most of their number had been slain or captured.
This was known afterwards as the “Jam and Cream” Wars. The Red of the Jam symbolised Cornish Rebel blood spilled for freedom while the White of the Cream symbolised cream because the Cornish just liked cream. But preferably without the blood of Cornish Rebels splattered over it.
Christianity is a religion of peace. Jesus even said so. The Old Testament bits about smiting, floods and plagues was just God having a bit of a laugh and getting his eye in regarding managing his Creation. However, after learning that he was not good at the ‘hands on’ stuff God decided to leave it to Jesus to have the final say, and to then sit back, crack open a beer, wait for the internet to invent porn and Match of the Day.
Sadly in the 17th Century, the followers of Jesus – who had banged on about the ‘meek’ and the ‘peacemakers’ and the ‘merciful’ – decided enough bollocks was being talked about ‘how to go about living in harmony’. Catholics and Protestants differed in their understanding of just how peace should be promoted among men. They also differed on how religion should be practiced. Catholics liked a bit of dressing up, drinking and carnivals involving meat and orgies while the Protestants preferred to sit in the dark on cold damp stone floors trying not to think about masturbation.
No one would have cared except that Monarchs tended to favour one or the other, and as they did so they would favour rich men, landowners and their Bishops. This set up a tussle for Royal Patronage among the aristocracy. It came to pass that a certain English King was fond of orgies and wine while his bishops favoured self denial. Denzil and Bianca could not give a toss either way. They did not have the money for wine and there were so poor living in ‘Red of the Druth’ that self denial was a given. They could only dream of having a stone floor in the dark to sit upon.
In 1688, King James II (over fond of wine and orgies) and the Bishop of Bristol (licker of candles) clashed. Trelawny, as the Bishop was known, objected to James’ imposition of ‘Indulgence’ to Catholics. James was having none of his nonsense and so imprisoned Trelawny and 6 other Bishops who had dared to protest, in the Tower of London. Being born of an old Cornish family in Pelynt, whose father was 2nd baronet of Trelawne, Denzil and his mates took umbrage.
A plot was hatched in the ale houses of Penwith and Bodmin. And probably elsewhere. The detailed discussions about what to do about Trelawny, over several pints of Rattler, went something like this:
“Yeeew!” Boy Trevaskis.
“Right on?” Denzil.
“ ‘ess, yew” Boy Trevaskis.
“Matey’s been arrested”
“You know, Trelawny, used live up Pelynt way”
“oh, ‘ess, I know ‘un”
“madder do ee?”
“t’aint right, t’aint proper, taint fitty”
“you been watching Poldark?
“So, shall Trelawny live, or shall Trelawny die?”
“If ‘ee does, there’s twenty thousand of us who will know the reason why”.
“Don’t be bleddy daft, we’ve just got back from battles at Stratton, Taunton, Bridgewater and Bath. Bristol was a bit of bugger. Then we had to fight at Dorchester, Weymouth, Portland, Bideford, Exeter and bleddy Dartmouth!”
“….you’ll be wanting a pasty and piece of Hevva cake after all of that.”
“proper job me ‘ansum”
The rest is history. The bishop got off when William of Orange became King and restored the right of Protestant candle licking and the silent contemplation of masturbation in cold dark chapels. John Wesley later kept up Protestant privations urging the uneducated masses to sing dull songs on cold days when they should have been still in bed after 6 days work killing themselves down the mines.
Emmets on crossing the Tamar can feel this history weighing heavily upon the sea mist and the wind swept moors of Bodmin. They will read in the old place names, the defiance of the Cornish to the Roman, Norman and Tudor invaders. Today English culture faces resistance as Cornish pasties and Cornish beer have reversed the invasion. You can go into any pub or high street in England and you will find Cornish ale. When you are next in London, and you see a Cornish Ale on tap, and you wonder how it got there, you will know the reason why.