400,000 BC - 1066 AD

Find out more about Cornwall’s history through the Cornish timeline

400,000 BC - 200,000 BC

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Palaeolithic (Early Stone Age)

From 400,000 BC to 200,000 BC, the archaeological record shows us that people were beginning to make periodic visits into Cornwall. These were probably people who had settled in Devon. Archaeological examples include flint axes and blades.

By 40,000 BC (The Upper Palaeolithic) these modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) have spread throughout the South West. There is still no evidence of settlements in Cornwall at this time (as yet).

Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age)

This period begins at the end of the last glacial period. This is when water levels began to rise. Hunter-gatherer bands begin to settle around the coastlines of Cornwall. For example around the Lizard. These bands also have working sites on upland areas such as Bodmin Moor.

Neolithic (New Stone Age)

The Neolithic period is a time of great social and agricultural development. This can be seen through the adoption of farming and increased monument construction. This was brought about largely by an increasing population. Settlements begin to be fortified such as the one on top of Carn Brea.

During the Neolothic Age, the first Cornish hedges enclosed land for cereal crops.

Early Bronze Age

This period is defined by the introduction of metalworking, especially in bronze. This uses Cornwall's natural resources of tin and copper.
These sources are found by tin-streaming and open-cast mining for copper.

The period is also characterised by its ceremonial and burial monuments. These include:

  • stone circles
  • rows
  • standing stones or menhirs, and
  • the barrows with their kist graves

Late Bronze Age

The climate begins to get wetter during this period. This causes settlement movement to lowland sites such as Trethellan, Newquay. Settlements also moved to more seasonal and less intensive grazing on the uplands. As a result, population pressure creates a more warlike society. This society often sacrifices weapons to their gods.

Arrival of the first Celtics in Britain by 600BC.  Some recent scholarship suggests that it was before 1000BC, and possibly as early as 2000 BC.

Iron Age

Iron gradually replaces bronze for weapons and farming tools. People are starting to live in defended settlements called rounds. These are bank-and-ditch enclosures protecting a number of round-houses within. There are also economic and social centres. Here, manufacturing and trading occur. These are establishing on hill-tops and headlands, such as Trevelgue Head near Newquay.

A total eclipse of the sun is visible in Cornwall. (June 21st)

Romano-British Period

(AD 47 for Exeter / AD 55 for Nanstallon)

The late 1st century brings Roman military occupation, but no noteworthy civil presence. The Britain annexed by Rome is Pided among various tribes. The south west is occupied by the Dumnonii. These were Iron Age Celts who had held a large area for centuries. The rural society of the previous period continues. It is largely unchanged by the Roman influence in the rest of Britain. One fort is established at Nanstallon on the River Camel. It is occupied for 20 years. One villa at Magor, Camborne is established during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. This coincides with the increased trade in tin. This is used not only for bronze, but also to alloy with lead for pewter objects.

New trading posts are set up such as the one at Carvossa, Probus. A new style of housing is introduced in Penwith: the courtyard house, at villages like Chysauster.

The reign of Gordian III. A milestone inscribed with the Roman's name is found at Menheer, Gwennap, in 1942. It is the earliest example in Cornwall.
Later Roman geography indicates that there are territorial sub-groupings. What is now Cornwall may survive as one such sub-group. This group is distinguished by its Late British name, Cornouia, the land of the Cornovii. Welsh sources point to a succession of Dumnonian Kings right through to the 9th century. A 10th century memorial to King Ricatus stands in the grounds of Penlee House, Penzance.  By this time Cornouia has become:
  • Cornubia (Latin)
  • Cernyw (Welsh) and
  • Kernow (Cornish)

The British language evolves in Dumnonia into what becomes Cornish.

English invasion. This is the period of Arthur, Doniert and other Celtic kings. 'The age of the Saints'

Battle of Deorham Down near Bristol. This results in the separation of the West Welsh (the Cornish) from the Welsh. This separation is caused by the advance of the Saxons.

Earliest Christian church opens at St. Piran's Oratory. By now, the Saxons, have destroyed the remains of Roman civilisation in eastern England. In the west it is almost forgotten.  The Saxons are established as the most important tribe of invaders. They are converting to Roman Christianity.

The Synod of Whitby determines that England is again an ecclesiastical province of Rome. It has a formal structure of dioceses and parishes. The Celtic Church of Dumnonia is not party to the decision. The Cornish Church remains monastic in nature.

English reach Bristol Channel. The Celts of Cornwall are cut off from Celts of Wales

Saxon westward advance is renewed. By 710 Exeter is occupied.

Ina, King of the West Saxons, attempts to destroy the kingdom of Dumnonia.  Until 766 several battles took place. The Saxons are mainly victorious, except in 722 when, according to Annales Cambriae, there is a British victory at 'Hehil apud Cornuenses'. 

Viking Danes visit the coasts of Wessex. They form an alliance with the Cornish against the Saxons in 807.

The Saxon Ecgberht of Wessex conquers Cornwall. It is unsuccessful in subjugating the Cornish people despite having "laid waste the land from east to west'.

Cornish send army into Wessex (under attack from Mercians) but to no effect.
The Cornish rise against Ecgberht only to be defeated at Gafulford. This is now Galford on the River Lew, West Devon

A Cornish-Danish alliance is initially successful in a number of skirmishes with Ecgberht. It is eventually defeated in a pitched battle at Hingston Down, near Callington. This is the last battle against the Saxons.

Dumgarth, King of the Cornish, is drowned. He is identified as Doniert in Saxon records. Doniert's Stone stands in St. Cleer parish.

Athelstan, eldest son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred, attacks the south western Celts. This forces their withdrawal from Exeter. There is no record of him taking his campaigns into Cornwall. It seems probable that Hywel, King of the Cornish, agreed to pay tribute to Athelstan, as did Alfred the Great. Thus the Cornish avoided more attacks and maintained a high degree of autonomy.

King Athelstan sets up a bishopric at St. Germans. It lasts until 1042 when the see is united with Credition. It is later removed to Exeter, after which Cornwall remains an archdeaconry until 1876. The church of St. Germanus is finally consecrated in 1261. This follows its reorganisation by Bishop Bartholomew as an Augustinian priory (1161-84). Eight centuries on, St. Germans displays more of Norman planning than any other Cornish church. However, two thirds of them have some Norman traces.  

Athelstan's settlement fixes the east bank of the Tamar as the boundary between Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Celtic Cornwall.

Norman Conquest. Robert of Mortain becomes Earl of Cornwall. He builds a castle at Launceston. Earl Ordulf is in charge of Moresk Castle, Truro.