Medieval Cornwall

Medieval Cornwall

The stability and order which had characterised the first half-century of French-Norman rule came to an abrupt end with the death of Henry I in 1135. His son and heir had died 15 years earlier and two principal contenders, his daughter Mathilda (whose is related to /king Alfred the Great through mother Matilda of Scotland) and nephew Stephen, crowned in December 1135, now laid claim to the throne and plunged England into a civil war which was to divide the nation for more than a decade. Throughout the country the baronial classes aligned themselves with one or other of the claimants, sometimes changing sides as their respective fortunes ebbed and flowed, and as Stephen’s position gradually became stronger. Although the position of Cornwall during these years is far from clear, several ‘adulterine’ castles were hastily built, including possibly the strongholds at Truro and Kilkhampton, which are usually taken as indications of disorder. Stephen appointed the important William fitz Richard of Cardinham as his county lieutenant, but William switched his allegiance to Mathilda and took Launceston Castle. The King responded by despatching a force to oust him and then entrusted the administration of the county to Count Alan of Brittany. Stephen died in 1154 and his successor, Henry of Anjou, found Alan unacceptable and granted the earldom of Cornwall to his uncle, Richard.

With the restoration of order under Henry II came great administrative advances and the increasing sophistication of government record keeping enables us to construct a much clearer picture of events in Cornwall during the late 12th and 13th centuries. The county was now an earldom, although uncertainty still surrounds the antiquity of this office and attempts to place it in the early French-Norman period or even earlier have been far from successful. In the Life of St Rumon, the patron saint of Tavistock Abbey, we are told that the abbey’s 10th century founder, Ordulf, was also ‘earl of Cornwall’, but this should

not be taken as anything more than a later attempt to add extra dignity to his person. As we have also seen in the previous chapter, equal uncertainty surrounds Brian of Brittany and Robert of Mortain who dominated the Cornish tenurial scene in the late 11th century. Both have been credited from time to time with the status of earl but the evidence is really very flimsy. At all events, the office had definitely become a reality by the middle of the 12th century and the title and lands were generally bestowed on a member of the royal family. In 1189 Prince John was granted possession of Cornwall, with the exception of Launceston Castle which remained in the hands of the king. In 1225 Henry III granted the earldom to his younger brother who was universally known as Richard of Cornwall, while from 1272-1300 the title was held by his son, Edmund. Edmund died childless and the earldom passed into the hands of Edward I and then to Edward II who bestowed it on his court favourite, Piers Gaveston, in August 1307. In 1312, however, Gaveston was executed and for the next 25 years the earldom saw a succession of holders which seems to have had an adverse effect on the prosperity of its estates; when Edward III came to the throne he resolved to carry out a major reorganisation. Accordingly, in 1337 in a full session of Parliament, he created the Duchy of Cornwall for the maintenance of his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, and the title was now automatically to pass to the first-born son of the monarch. The Duchy lands have never been solely confined to Cornwall, but during the medieval period the Cornish holdings were the main core, . consisting of 17 manors together with the boroughs of Camelford, : Grainpound, Helston, Launceston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Tintagel, Trematon and Saltash. The Duke was also given a variety of other : financial benefits including the profits of the county courts, control of wrecks, and the right to collect a duty of £2 on each 1,000 lbs/453kg. of tin.

Earls and dukes, however, were distant figures, often absentee landlords rarely, if ever, seen by many of the ordinary people of Cornwall. More important to them were the numerous officials who administered the everyday concerns of local government, justice and taxation. For these purposes the county was divided into the seven hundreds of Penwith, Kerrier, Pydar, Powder, East and West Wivel and Trigg. The latter was subsequently trisected to create the additional hundreds of Lesnewth and Stratton. Each hundred was centred on a dominant manor, some were in royal hands while others, like Penwith, were private hundreds; Richard of Cornwall granted it to John of Conarton and subsequently it passed to the Arundell family. Every hundred, royal or private, was administered by a bailiff who was responsible to the County Sheriff. In Cornwall the office of hundredal bailiff was hereditary and was associated with the tenure of a certain piece of land. The bailiff’s function was primarily to collect monies due to the King and to administer the hundredal court which usually met every three or four weeks. The duties of his superior, the sheriff, were considerable and had been steadily increasing since late Saxon times; he dealt with the arrest and custody of criminals, the summoning of the local militia, distraining of goods, collecting royal revenue from a variety of sources, as well as supervising the monthly County Court and the twice-yearly Tourn which dealt with petty offences. Not surprisingly, the execution of these duties often made sheriffs unpopular figures, particular1y as they frequently had to deal with offenders by distraining animals which were then kept in pounds until the account was settled. During the 1270s Roger de Carnyon operated the sheriff’s pound in Kerrier and had the right to demand one penny for each animal held.

Cornwall's medieval towns and boroughs
Cornwall’s medieval towns and boroughs

At the local level the manor was the unit of administration and minor disputes were dealt with by the manorial courts. Here the chief official was the reeve who in Cornwall was elected on an annual basis. Finally, there came that uniquely Cornish institution, the Stannary Courts. During the second half of the 12th century the tin industry had enjoyed one of its periodic booms and in 1201 KingJohn granted a royal charter exempting tinners from normal laws and taxes, and allowed them the right to search for tin on common land. The charter divided the county into four districts or stannaries, which then held their own courts for those involved in the industry and maintained a separate gaol at Lostwithiel. Each stannary, moreover, appointed six stannators who met periodically in the so-called ‘Tinners Parliament’ to discuss issues of interest and concern; it last sat officially as late as 1752, and in recent years there have been attempts to revive it as a manifestation of Cornish nationality.

Throughout the early medieval period the centre of administration for the whole county was the borough of Launceston, where a castle had been built in the late 11th century. This structure was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged, and arrangements were made for it to be garrisoned by wardens who were assigned lands in return for serving periods of castle guard. In 1210, for example, John de Pencoit held 1½ acres/0.6ha as long as he performed his annual spell of 15 days on duty and arrived ‘with sack and lance’. During the mid-13th century, however, Lost­withiel came to challenge Launceston’s supremacy as it was chosen as the administrative centre of first the Earldom and then the Duchy. There was no castle at Lostwithiel itself, although these years saw the construction of a completely new stronghold at nearby Restormel, which was probably begun by Robert of Cardinham in about 1200. Earl Richard of Cornwall purchased the castle from Ysolda of Cardin-ham and his successor Earl Edmund made it his chief place of residence in the county. Trematon Castle, the home of the de Valletorts, also seems to have been rebuilt during this period which also saw the construction of Botreáux Castle at Boscastle.

Throughout the Middle Ages farming remained the mainstay of the Cornish economy and the manor the main agricultural unit. At the time of the Domesday Survey there were about 340 manors in the county but these varied tremendously in their size, populations and economic condition. The convenient administrative label of ‘manor’ also disguised important variations in the nature of medieval settlement. It has been traditional to envisage the medieval Cornish landscape as having consisted of two contrasting patterns of grouped and dispersed holdings representing the respective influences of Saxon and Celtic cultures. According to this model, nucleated villages were to be found in the Saxonised eastern parishes and around the larger towns, while  elsewhere manors may have contained hundreds of separate farmsteads which reflected the Celtic distaste for grouped communities. While there is undoubtedly much to be said for this contrasting image of the Cornish landscape modem research warns us against making too rigid a distinction. Professor Beresford analysed Duchy of Cornwall records for five representative parishes during the 13th and 14th centuries and, while he concluded that most villages were in or near Saxonised areas, the idea of the absolutely isolated holding elsewhere is fairly unrepresentative. Overall, only one house in 20 stood completely alone and the pattern was more of a landscape of small clusters of dwellings. Investigation into field patterns has also contributed to a clearer understanding of the medieval countryside. The emphasis of earlier historians on a supposed patchwork of isolated farmsteads led to an assumption that the open-field system of farming, whereby peasants worked several strips or ‘stitches’ irregularly distributed in large common fields, was not introduced into Cornwall. Recent research, however, has categorically shown that open-fields were common to the county, although the important qualification is that they were largely concentrated around the main boroughs where English influences were strongest. Fossiised remains of these strips can still be detected around the old boroughs of Grampound and Marazion, while the best examples are the Forrabury Stitches at Boscastle where 40 strips can still be identified. Place-name evidence is also instructive in this respect as the Cornish word guel, commonly written gweai and meaning an open-field, can be found in the vicinity of many old towns, including Truro, Penryn and Heiston. Again, detailed study by N. J. G. Pounds of over 250 land utilization maps, known as the ‘Lanhydrock Atlas’, also confirmed the adoption of the open-field system, and he found it even to have been a feature of remote western communities like St Just, where 31 ‘stitches’ were marked. Archaeologists, too, have made their contribution and investigation of the site of a medieval village at Garrow Tor on Bodmin Moor further reinforced the conclusion that open-fields could also be found well away from centres of English influence. Although, then, this pattern was evidently common, nevertheless it remains the case that many areas did not adopt it, and there is no record, for example, of open-field agriculture being practised on any of the 17 Duchy manors at any time during the medieval period. For many homesteads and hamlets the much older ‘in and out-field’ system operated, by which dwellings were surrounded by arable lands and meadow with belts of pasture lying beyond. While much research into Cornish settlement patterns remains to be carried out, the important point is that we should not be misled into envisaging a stereotyped picture of the medieval landscape.

Throughout medieval Cornwall a system of mixed farming predominated, although in the eastern parishes there was greater emphasis on the keeping of livestock. The place-name element hendre, which came to signify a ‘winter farmstead’, indicates that transhumance was common with livestock being moved onto upland moors during the summer months and transferred to lowland pasture at the onset of winter. The main arable crops were wheat and oats while barley, rye and peas were also popular. Land used for cultivation was periodically left to lie fallow and to provide grazing which would then benefit from natural manuring. Fertility was also increased by the addition of sea-sand, rich in calcium carbonate, and by the practice of ‘beat-burning’, by which dry turves were piled up and burnt and the potash-bearing ashes spread prior to ploughing. On coastal farms it was also common to add seaweed and fish to the land, a practice still carried out in some areas. Woodland was also a vital element of the medieval economy providing fuel, charcoal, grazing or ‘pannage’ for pigs, and was accord­ingly regarded as an important manorial asset. Cornwall at this time had more woodland than it has today, although the Domesday commis­sioners only recorded its presence on less than 60 per cent of the county’s manors. Their record was not comprehensive, however, and later evidence considered in the light of place-names suggests that they noted only the largest and most valuable areas. Nevertheless, the wide­spread use of timber for building, fuel, fencing and tin mining had produced a shortage by the 15th century when Duchy officials were forced to initiate a conservation policy. Such a modem approach, though, met with only limited success, and it is clear that many tenants continued to fell trees and steal the Duke’s wood, as they also did his deer. Deer-hunting was a favourite sport of the feudal aristocracy, and in Cornwall the Duchy had seven deer-parks, the largest with 300 deer being Restormel near its Lostwithiel base. In practice, however, genera­tions of poachers seem to have made greater use of these parks than did the dukes and their attendants.

Under the medieval tenurial system the holding of land was linked to a variety of services and obligations, some military, others involving varying degrees of labour-service. At the top of the feudal ladder the large Honours like Launceston and Cardinham were expected to provide a quota of knights for the Crown which was determined by mutual agreement. Others, as we have already seen, held their estates in return for performing periodic spells of castle-guard. Further down the social order came a variety of tenurial categories which reflected an individual’s degree of freedom. On those lands belonging to the Duchy, tenants were grouped into three categories, conventionary tenants paid a fixed rent and were obliged to perform a variety of specified services but they had no right of automatic renewal of their tenancy. Then came the free tenants who paid a fairly low annual rental and their heirs could succeed them on payment of a small sum to the Duke. Finally there were the villeins who held their lands by hereditary right and paid a fixed rent, although their possessions technically belonged to the Duke. The villeins had become an increas­ingly servile class and the late 12th century, in particular, had seen the fairly rapid loss of peasant legal freedoms. Villeins could not, for example, give away their daughters in marriage without making a payment to the Duke, nor could they send their sons to school or into the Church without his permission. They were also expected to perform ‘week work’ which meant labouring on the lord’s lands for a fixed number of days each week, although as the 13th century pro­gressed the practice of commutation, by which a tenant could pay a cash sum in lieu of labour service, became increasingly common. The conditions of villeinage varied considerably throughout the country and local circumstances dictated different obligations on different manors; at Climsiand they were obliged to supply Launceston Castle with wood, while the villeins of Caistock had to carry mill-stones – no mean task – to the lord’s mill when required.

Throughout the medieval period farming remained the principal provider of employment and wealth. It has been traditional to regard the Cornish economy during these centuries as weak and to see the poverty suggested by the Domesday evidence as continuing throughout the Middle Ages. In his detailed study of the Duchy records, however, John Hatcher has warned against over-generalisation, pointing to the need to consider the numerous other sources of wealth which often lay beyond the scope of medieval taxation and so rarely figured in the normal returns. Little documentary evidence, for example, has survived of fishing during this period, although it is impossible to imagine that it was not widespread. The 16th-century antiquary John Norden noted that the Cornish waters had ‘greate store and manie kindes of verie excellent fishe’ and we know that a not inconsiderable £1,000-worth had been exported in 1438, not to mention that which was consumed locally or sent to other parts of the country. At this time hake was the most important species, although by the 16th century the fish had changed its migratory habits and had been replaced by pilchards. Oysters and salmon were also common, while freshwater fisheries were greatly coveted and many weirs were constructed along the river courses to trap eels, salmon and trout. The growth of the tin industry also illustrates the increasing diversity of the Cornish economy, although during the early medieval period west Devon was a far more important producer than Cornwall. The expansion of the industry in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, however, is associated with a progressive move westwards, and by the 1330s as much as 1,650 million lbs/748.440kg. of ore was being presented for coinage each year; there was also a flourishing black market in existence by this time. These were boom years for the tinners, but like everyone else their economic and social foundations were to be rocked by the traumas of the notorious Black Death.

The Black Death, or ‘Great Pestilence’ as it was originally known, was caused mainly, though not entirely, by bubonic plague which originated in what is now Russian central Asia and was quickly carried by rats across the trade routes of Europe. It first arrived in England in 1348 by way of Melcombe Regis in Dorset and quickly spread through­out the south-west, reaching Cornwall in the spring of the following year. By 1351 tin production had fallen by 80 per cent and farm from a 16th.century tenants found themselves unable to meet their rents, with holdings falling vacant for want of takers; Moresk manor was typical with 23 vacant holdings out of a total of fifty. Landlords found themselves forced to reduce rents to increase incentive, but even then a shortage of labour meant that large areas of arable land were allowed to revert to pasture. Historians still argue over the national extent of fatalities but the traditional figure of about one-third of the total population is still generally accepted. The Cornish evidence is not particularly illuminating but a useful indication is provided by the numbers of priests appointed to new benefices since the clergy were as vulnerable as most; throughout the first 40 years of the 14th century an average of about ten priests was appointed each year but at the height of the Pestilence in 1350-1 the figure had risen to eighty. Some more remote communities were so badly affected that the combination of fatalities and consequent labour shortages forced the survivors to abandon them completely. Upland villages were particularly affected in this way, like Tresmorn on the north coast where 15 dwellings were left to the elements.

While the Black Death had obvious catastrophic human consequences, its long-term economic effects should not be exaggerated. The older impression of the late 14th and early 15th centuries as a period of economic decline, falling rents and urban decay is now treated with caution, and in Cornwall the Pestilence had drastic immediate effects but in the long-term its impact was marginal. Though a second out­break of plague hit the county in 1360-2, tin production had recovered by the 1380s and the population of 55,000 suggested by the Poll Tax returns suggests that there was enough work to attract new labourers from beyond the Tamar. It was this very diversity of the economy, in fact, which cushioned Cornwall from the worst effects of the catas­trophe. Apart from tin, fishing and slate-quarrying were making an increasingly important contribution, while the eastern parishes were beginning to benefit from the advent of textile manufacturing. During the first half of the 15th century the export of cloths from Cornish ports increased almost ten-fold and the proliferation of place-names like ‘Tuckingmill’ or the Cornish equivalent Melindruckya remain as a testimony to this expansion. A ‘tuckingmil’ was the west-country term for a fulling-mill, where the cloth was treated and prepared for market, and the Cornish historian Charles Henderson identified nearly sixty such sites by analysing place-name forms. The boroughs of Lostwithiel and St Germans were also renowned for their pottery production, and the growth of these non-agrarian sectors of the Cornish economy should not be underestimated, since any depression in farming would only have induced many people to pursue a number of occupa­tions, concentrating on one according to varying market demands. Analysis of ‘the Duchy tenants, in fact, reveals that many were also tinners, fishermen, blacksmiths and fullers, and with so many holdings under ten acres/4ha this sort of variation was an absolute necessity for many families.

In the countryside the Black Death had one beneficial effect for ordinary people, in that it contributed to a decline in peasant servility, even though in the short term the shortage of labour led landlords to assert their customary rights over their tenants. While this caused friction it was doomed to failure and the old villein class owing labour service to the lords was becoming increasingly reluctant to accept this servility. Money rents began to replace labour rents and the more secure form of copyhold tenure, by which the tenant was able to obtain a copy of his terms of service, had become the norm by the end of the 15th century. In Cornwall copyhold tenure normally gave security for three lives, the people preferring to negotiate by generations rather than by a fixed number of years. The pace of this transition varied from manor to manor, however, and it also took place against a background of economic fluctuations. The Cornish economy suffered another reversal at the end of the century as a result of a national trade slump which was immediately felt. The demand for land again declined with a consequent fail in rents, particularly in the far west where the Duchy was obliged to offer cash discounts to tenants prepared to repair their own farm buildings. Tin production again dropped although not by anywhere near the drastic levels of the 1340s. The conclusion, though few would have drawn it at the time, was that Cornwall and its economy had been drawn into the wider commercial orbit not only of England but of Europe. Centuries of virtual independence were unbeknowingly coming to an end and the process was about to accelerate as the eventful 16th century progressed.