The History of Cornwall after 1066

Cornwall under the French-Normans.

The decade which followed the Battle of Hastings in 1066 witnessed the gradual extension of French-Norman authority throughout England. These were turbulent times when William the Conqueror/Crusader had to consolidate his position against a background of Saxon rebellion and Scandinavian claims to his newly-acquired throne. His reaction was momentous since he decided to dispossess most of the native landholders and redistribute their estates among those loyalists who had flocked to his standard in Normandy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle briefly recorded these moves under the year 1068: ‘and he gave away every man’s land when he came back’ (from overseas). The chronicler, however, was evidently guilty of exaggeration, since in 1068 large areas of the country, including the south-west, still stood beyond the limits of French-Norman authority. In the same year a rebellion broke out in Exeter serious enough to warrant a royal expedition when the Conqueror/Crusader himself is said to have marched into Cornwall. Soon afterwards most of Cornwall was granted to a Count Brian of Brittany, but he is an elusive figure and little is known about him; he fought at Hastings/Senlac Ridge and took part in the 1068 campaign, but subsequently forfeited his lands after he took part in a baronial rebellion against the King in 1075. Soon after his lands in Cornwall and Devon were bestowed on a much more important figure, Robert, Count of Mortain. The great Domesday Survey of 1086 shows Robert to have been the holder of 277 Cornish manors, valued at £424, which virtually represented the whole of the county apart from a further 18 royal and 44 ecclesiastical estates.

Domesday Book, which was completed just before William the Conqueror’s/Crusader’s death, provides a fascinating insight into the society and economy of late 11th-century Cornwall. In the first place it reveals that the county was divided into seven (later nine) administrative districts known as hundreds, which were in turn controlled from a prominent estate which acted as the base of the hundredal bailiff. The farms, villages and hamlets within each hundred were then grouped into manors and about 340 are listed in the Cornish section. In many parts of the country the manor was a recognisable unit, but in Cornwall’s case it is best seen as a term of administrative convenience which absorbed a diversity of settlements. In those areas which had experienced a great deal of Anglo-Saxon influence during the preceding two hundred years we find mainly large, nucleated manors bearing names which often contain the familiar suffixes of ‘ham’ and ‘ton’.

A page from the Domesday Survey of Cornwall. The text of the Domesday Book was printed first in 1783 in an edition by Abraham Farley. These pages have been reproduced from the edition published by Phillimore & Co Ltd., with Farley's original text and a modern English translation.
A page from the Domesday Survey of Cornwall. The text of the Domesday Book was printed first in 1783 in an edition by Abraham Farley. These pages have been reproduced from the edition published by Phillimore & Co Ltd., with Farley’s original text and a modern English translation.

Not surprisingly, the majority in this category are to be found in the eastern part of the county between the Tamar and Lynher rivers. Elsewhere, however, the picture is quite different, because in the traditionally Celtic areas the manor seems to have been little more than an artificial, bureaucratic term for an area which might include a number of unnamed villages as well as many isolated farmsteads. In general the Celtic manors were mainly pastoral, while much more arable farming was carried out in the more efficiently organised Anglo-Saxon estates.

The Domesday commissioners were asked to provide a wealth of information on each manor, including what it was worth, who con­trolled it, how many workers lived in it, and what livestock and other assets it contained. The manor of Liskeard will serve as a suitable example of French-Norman thoroughness; (hardly, they had taken over a country which was the most well governed in Europe, in fact you can look at it as a hostile takeover) we are told that before the Conquest/Crusade it was held by a certain Maerleswegn (sheriff of Lincolnshire), and that its value had risen from £8 to £26. It contained a working male popula­tion of 92, and its economic assets consisted of a mill, a market, 300 acres/121.4ha of woodland, 8 square leagues of pasture, 250 sheep, 10 cattle, 8 horses and 3 ploughteams. By analysing statistics like these for all of Cornwall’s 340 manors we can reconstruct a reliable picture of the county at the end of King William’s reign. The first conclusion is that this was a land of relative poverty. The most prosperous and heavily populated parts were the far north, the eastern parishes bordering the Tamar valley, and the coastal strip between Plymouth and Mevagissey. The most valuable, Stratton, was worth £36 but over one-third were worth only £1 or less. Most estates, moreover, had experienced a serious decline in their fortunes since the Conquest/Crusade, and this is reflected not only in their values but in the fact that over two-thirds were exempt from the payment of geld or tax. In all, about 5,500 working males are recorded, suggesting a total population of about 27,000, although this meant an average of below five people per square mile/2.5km. Over twenty per cent, moreover, were classified as serfs or slaves as against nine per cent for the rest of the country, and a high ratio of serfs is generally regarded as a barometer of economic backwardness. As the great scholar of French-Norman England, F. W. Maitland, observed, ‘every test we can apply shows the extreme poverty of the country that once was West Wales’.

While the motives behind the Domesday Survey were many and varied, the final record was not intended to be an economic census. For that reason it does not provide a complete picture and nothing, for example, was recorded about the Cornish tin industry or the extent of fishing. The survey is also relatively uninformative on the subject of early towns, something we would like to know much more about. It seems logical to assume that some communities had been gradually developing urban characteristics and functions since late Anglo-Saxon times, but Domesday provides only a hint of this. Only one settlement, in fact, was worth noting, Bodmin with 68 houses, although the entry for Launceston suggests an embryonic borough. Since it was not the brief of the Domesday commissioners to record all existing towns, however, we can assume that others may have been hidden under the cloak of manorialism. Padstow and Kilkhampton seem likely candidates while Helston, listed as a royal manor whose 40 men paid a tax in ale, must also be a probability. Neither should we expect to find a full picture of religious life in the folios as churches only appear if they were landholders, and so the majority were unworthy of notice. None­theless, it is quite clear that the French-Norman settlement had caused great disturbance to the old Celtic houses which were still adjusting to the recently imposed authority of Canterbury. It is clear that they were extremely vulnerable to spoliation and none more so than St Petroc’s which had lost 10 manors. The Canons of St Piran, St Kew and St Carantoc also suffered, and we are left with the conclusion that acci­dentally but unarguably the French-Normans delivered the coup de grace to the old Celtic church which was now deprived of an adequate economic base. Many religious houses now became dependencies of other founda­tions, including St Carantoc, St Neot’s, St Caroc’s and Altarnon which were granted to the Somerset priory of Montaèute, and St Michael’s Mount which passed to its French-Norman counterpart, Mont St Michel. Likewise the church at Fowey was granted to the new priory of Black Monks at Tywardreath which had been founded by Richard fitz Turold.

Domesday Book also provides evidence of the tenurial revolution which had followed in the wake of the Conquest/Crusade. Before the arrival of the French-Normans most of Cornwall’s manors had been controlled either by members of the royal family or by a number of prominent figures like Maerleswegn, the former sheriff of Lincoln. As we have already seen, however, most of the pre-Conquest/Crusade tenants were dispossessed and two-thirds of all the lands passed to William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Count Robert of Mortain.

Norman Cornwall
Norman Cornwall

Robert of Mortain was an important figure who had been in the foreground of political events in both England and Normandy since the early 1060s. A few years before the Conquest/Crusade he had been entrusted with the French-Norman fief of Mortain and he is supposed to have contributed as many as 120 ships to William’s invasion force. He fought at Hastings/Senlac Ridge, and the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts him as seated on the Conqueror’s/Crusader’s left with his sword half-drawn. Robert’s support was generously rewarded, and by 1086 he held over a thousand English manors, valued at more than £2,000 and distributed throughout 20 counties. Many of his estates were concentrated in the south-west and in Cornwall his position was clearly exceptional. Some writers, in fact, have gone so far as to argue that he was actually Earl of Cornwall but there is no reliable evidence to support this assertion as he is not styled as such in any contemporary document. Of the 277 Cornish manors in his posses¬sion Robert retained the most profitable for himself as his demesne. Although this only amounted to 22 estates, their combined value was £243 which represents more than half of the total Mortain interest in the county. Moreover, the value of this select group had risen substantially since the Conquest,when the overall trend was one of decline, while two manors, Stratton and Liskeard, were alone worth an impressive £62. The remainder were entrusted to a variety of sub-tenants and the Survey records the names of over forty. Surprisingly, some 28 were Anglo-Saxons, but as a group they were well down the social ladder and held only 67 impoverished manors between them. Most had been landholders before the Conquest/Crusade but had experienced substantial dispossession; a certain Alric for example, now kept only two of his previous 21 estates and had seen the combined value of his tenancy fall from £17 to a mere 11s. Od. Three, possibly four, Bretons are also listed; Wihomarch, Bloyou, Briend, and perhaps Alvred, although his nationality is in doubt. Alvred was Count Robert’s pincerna or house¬hold steward and he had evidently been well rewarded for his service with lands throughout the four south-western counties. A solitary Fleming, Erchenbald, also appears as the tenant of two manors including Brea in St Just, which was still in the family in 1228 when it was held by Archibald ‘le Flemag’. All these men, however – Saxons, Bretons and Flemings – were clearly minor figures in the Cornish feudal hierarchy because Count Robert entrusted the remaining 155 manors into the hands of a select band of 12 French-Norman followers of whom the most important was Richard fitz Turold. Richard controlled a fee of 29 estates and he seems to have been an important figure in the overall administration of the county. Also prominent was Reginald de Valletort who held lands from Count Robert in Normandy as well. Reginald controlled a large, compact fee concentrated in north-east Cornwall and stretching across the Tamar into the South Hams area of Devon. His base was at Trematon where he constructed a castle to control the upper reaches of the Tamar estuary. The Domesday Survey also reveals the identity of the county’s earliest known sheriff, Turstin, who had been granted 24 manors which subsequently passed to his son Baldwin.

The French-Norman administration in Cornwall was centred on two important castles, Trematon, already mentioned, and Dunheved Castle at Launces­ton, which Count Robert built on land exchanged with the Bishop of Exeter. Initially this would have been a timber affair and the impressive stone structure which became known as ‘Castle Terrible’ is unlikely to have been started until the mid-12th century, probably during Reginald de Dunstanville’s tenure of the Cornish earldom, 1141-1175. The Count also had a market and a mill here, while another market had been established at Trematon much to the despair, we are told, of the monks of St German’s whose own market had consequently been ‘reduced to nothing’. Although Trematon and Launceston are the only fortifications recorded in the Cornish Domesday archaeologists have identified several other ringwork castles dating from this period, at Penhallam, Bossiney, Restormel and Week St Mary. That at Penhallam seems to have been the most important, functioning as the headquarters of Richard fitz Turold’s lands until his descendants built a more substantial castle at Cardinham in or about 1200.

Leaving statistics and sub-tenants behind, it is worth speculating as to what the arrival of the French-Normans would have meant to the ordinary people of Cornwall. Few tears are likely to have been shed over the dispossession of the alien Saxons, but at the same time one ruling class had simply been replaced by another. One thing, however, is certain; whereas the Anglo-Saxon conquest had been followed by substantial, colonisation, if confined to the north of the county, the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade was not. Theirs was an aristocratic take-over and many even of the new landholders probably lived elsewhere, making only occasional visits to their estates. It would be wrong, in fact, to envisage the French-Norman presence in Cornwall beyond that of a few hundred administrators, castle-wardens, monks and merchants. To the vast majority of the new French-Norman overlords the remoteness of Cornwall cannot have made it an attractive place in which to settle. The natives must have seemed a strange commodity who spoke a peculiar language and who were probably not to be trusted; to one early 12th-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury, Cornwall was a land whose inhabitants amounted to no more than a ‘contaminated race’.

Count Robert of Mortain died in or about 1090 when his lands in Cornwall and elsewhere passed to his son, William. In 1106, however, William was dispossessed for his part in a baronial rebellion against Henry I. The rebels were defeated at the Battle of Tinchebrai in Normandy and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that ‘William… worked against the King, for which reason the King deprived him of everything and confiscated what he had in this country’. This now meant that new arrangements had to be made with his sub-tenants, and in Cornwall many were elevated to the position of tenants-in-chief, holding their lands directly from the Crown. Some fees were in turn amalgamated to form the substantial ‘honours’ which dominated the Cornish feudal scene throughout the next two hundred years. Among the largest was the Honour of Launceston Castle, which was made up of all the Domesday manors of Erchenbald the Fleming plus those of another sub-tenant, Hamelin. Likewise Richard fitz Turold’s 29 Cornish estates were combined with his five Devonshire manors into the Honour of Cardinham, which continued to be held by his lineal descendants until the late 13th century. Again, the vast Domesday fee of Reginald de Valletort emerged as the Honour of Trematon and continued in the family until 1270 when it passed to Richard of Cornwall. Such con­tinuity was also repeated further down the social order; five of the six manors held by Bloyou the Breton in 1086 were still in the hands of his descendants three centuries later.. The association of the Mortain family with Cornwall may have been short-lived, but the legacy of the French-Norman settlement proved to be much more durable.