For many years, when I talk of how I self-identify as Cornish-British rather than English, I have been mocked. “Cornwall’s just a county”, “you’re English” and mostly “why does it even matter?”.
I have always been interested in my family history, especially the side with deep roots in Cornwall from where my middle name, “Trevarthan” comes. Delving deeper, I found a side of my family that was particularly poor, and even members of my family press-ganged into the navy, deported or hanged for piracy and smuggling.
For me, this heritage is a major part of my identity, just as it does for many who claim Irish or Scottish or Welsh (or any other) heritage. So for me, the recognition of the Cornish as a separate cultural group (they are also a genetically different group) is a vindication of that – recognition of my heritage being a special part of my identity, different to English.
Many have joked that Cornwall is “just another county” with a strong identity – I have had comments that Yorkshire has more of a claim, or Northumberland. But this denies the long and frequently sad history of the Cornish people, and their retained and district Celtic identify that is completely apart from the Anglo-Saxon identities of other regions, which have evolved from the English culture, rather than an Anglicized version of a fundamentally different culture.
This culture has survived despite (and possibly in spite of) continued, and in some cases severe, repression of Cornish culture. This may seem ridiculous, but the remnants of the old prejudices against the Celtic peoples by their Anglo-Saxon conquerors can be seen in anti-ginger sentiment, and historic anti-Catholic feeling.
The Catholic identity was integral to the overall Cornish identity, possibly due to the Irish origin of many of the original missionaries, and the Catholic Church fostered and retained many elements of Celtic culture. This came to a head in 1549 when, in the wake of 2 tax revolts 50 years previously, a Catholic revolt rocked the West Country when Henry VIII changed the prayer books from Latin to English (and revoking the authority of the Pope). This revolt was brutally crushed, with English soldiers undertaking a campaign of bloody retribution against the Catholic supporters, who were almost all Celtic.
At least 5,500 people were killed, and Catholism was purged from the county. Such aggression by the English is one of the reasons why the Cornish identity is fiercely resistant to Anglicization and proud of its non-English origin.
For this reason, while Cornwall is indeed smaller than many other recognised Celtic nations (i.e Wales, Scotland), it still retains a significantly different culture with unique cultural elements (and is far closer to Welsh than English).
Thus, if the Scottish, Irish and Welsh identities are to be recognised, how can we not recognise the Cornish?
Rowan Pearce is a Warwick Labour member.