The name Cornwall comes from combining two different terms from separate languages. The Roman term for the Celtic tribe, Cornovii, (which inhabited what is now Cornwall at the time of Roman rule in Britain), came from a Brythonic  tribe tribal name which gave modern Cornish Kernow, an area known as Corneu to the Brythons.

This could be from either two sources: the common Celtic root or the Latin Cornu both of which mean horn or peninsular suggestive of the shape of Cornwall’s landmass. There is a problem with this theory however. As at least two other known Celtic tribes bore the name Cornovii. One tribe in Caithness, which may also be considered a headland or horn-land, yet another - the principal tribe known to the Romans as Cornovii, lived in the West Midlands and Powys areas calling into question derivation of the name from a peninsula, however Celtic tries were not necessarily permanently settled in one place. Another theory suggests that the name of Cornovii tribes may well be connected to totemic worship of the horned god.

Nevertheless the Cornovii were sufficiently established in the present day area and recognised Cornwall as their territory which was recorded by Cornubia by AD 700 and remained as such in the Middle Ages. The Ravenna Cosmography, of around AD 700, makes reference to Purocoronavis as such in the Middle Ages. Which is almost certainly a corruption of Durocornovium ‘a fort or walled settlement of the Cornovii. Unidentified, but possibly either Tintagel on the north coast of Cornwall.

Or Carn Brea 1.6 km south west of Redruth in Cornwall.

Cornwall and the Cornovii

The Morris theory link to Cornwall.

Although not widely accepted by modern scholarship John Morris’s theory deals with the hypothetical link between the Midlands Cornovii and later Cornwall. In his book ‘The age of Arthur’, 1973, Morris discussed the Wroxeter dynasty of Constantine, whose name is found, albeit indirectly in a reference by Gildas to Constantine, as tyrant whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonie (i.e. current areas of Devon, Cornwall and part of Somerset). According to this theory the principal Cornovian families of Viroconium (Wroxeter) may have moved to Dumnonia, sometime around 430 A.D.

Morris goes on to mention Ducco who is also known as Congar died AD 473 as a monk on the estate that he had also established there. Morris asserts that the latter name is which is preserved in the modern name of Congresbury, Somerset south of Bristol. The Cadbury-Congresbury fortification is the only major fortification in the Roman canton of “Dumnonia” and in Wales to have produced reasonable evidence the continuous occupation from the 3rd to the 6th century.

In Roman times the settlement at Wanborough was known as Durocornovium and was a little north west of its current position, at a road junction mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary. Being the last vicus on Ermine Street before the scarp slope of the Marlborough Downs, Durocornovium was a site where horses were watered before the steep climb off the Oxfordshire plain. It is not obvious why his name was used as it is a long way from the territories of the two Cornovii tribes. Intriguingly, the tribal name Cornovii (or Cornavii) occurs elsewhere in Britain. In the north-west of what is today the English Midlands and in the far north of Scotland, in what is now Caithness, there were Cornovii and Dumnonii or Damnonii in west-central Scotland. This may reflect nothing more than the cultural and linguistic affinities between the various Celtic groups that inhabited Britain. Although John Morris in his controversial  book ‘The age of Arthur’ postulates an ingenious theory which has the Midlands Cornovii as a 5th century military unit (‘Cohors Primae Corniovorum‘) surviving from the then deteriorating Roman administration. Britain was under pressure from both Irish settlement and Saxon invasion. Morris suggests that the Cornovii were re-deployed from their Midlands base Dumnonia where their task was to contain and control the Irish arrival. Although there is indeed evidence of Irish settlement, the Morris thesis is not widely accepted by archaeologists and early historians.

Even before the Roman invasion of Britain, Rome was trading with Britain and tin was a vital and valuable commodity, especially important from the second century when the Iberian silver mines that also produced tin were in decline.  The widespread use of pewter tableware and tin-based alloys in Roman coins ensured continuing demand for Cornish tin in the Empire. Silver, gold and tin made the local chieftains wealthy and by the time the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain in AD 410 (to reinforce the Empire’s heartland), a new sense of insecurity and uncertainty was already leading to the re-occupation of old Iron Age strongholds in Cornwall.

Strong demand from Rome for Cornish metal made the local Chieftains able and willing to afford to pay ex-Roman auxiliary army Cornovii soldiers to protect them from Irish or Saxon raiders.

The very name of the coastal fortress and harbour of Tintagel makes one wonder. Recent excavations at Tintagel and near St Enodoc church in North Cornwall uncovered a wide range of late Roman metalwork and pottery -suggesting that there may have been an important harbour beneath Tintagel castle and on the Camel river estuary.

Christopher Pendred writes: A story handed down to me by my father, and seemingly from his father, talks of a family connection with Cornwall.

In twelve years of research into our family history, I have yet to find a Pendred living in Cornwall since records began. John Morris’s theory made me wonder if this story was an ancient reference to our being connected with the Cornovii tribe, based in the West midlands of Britain, only a stones throw from the heartland of my Pendred roots in Northamptonshire and the unique Cornovii (Cohors Primae Corniovorum) involvement with Hadrian’s Wall and its later protection of the southwest peninsular of Britain in the Dark Ages, following the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. Now known as ‘Corn’ (Cornovii) and ‘wall’ (of the wall).

This is just an idea. However, experience has shown me that most of my families stories, although being off the mark have had some basis of truth. And in nearly all cases the truth has been as interesting or even more interesting that the mixed up verbal story handed down.

Well, we shall never know!

The Morris theory link to Cornwall.

Further reading:

The Cornovii by Graham Webster