That Cornwall was once ruled by a separate and unique lineage of Kings ignites a schoolboy-like excitement. It makes me think of Tolkien. It also highlights that this little chunk of land oozes with its own idiosyncratic history.
Just the names of the Kings brings to mind a wild, fierce and proud people roaming a landscape that was far wilder, more disparate and sparse than Cornwall is today: Constantine, Caradoc, Geraint, Conan (!).
King Doniert’s stone, on the edge of the Moor, is a monument to that lineage. It commemorates King Dungarth, the ruler of an 8/9th century Cornwall that was, by this time, a failing and faltering remnant of the once ferocious and lore-inspiring post-Roman, Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia. Crumbling in the 8th and 9th century, after centuries of independence, to Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Indeed Dungarth was probably the last of the line. He was also possibly an under-king.
This particular King, set in stone, is said to have died a fairly insipid death – drowning in the River Fowey which flows from the moor, over the Golitha Falls and, in a somewhat disappointing end to its moorland journey, through Trago Mills.
Presumably Doniert/Dungarth/Donyarth drowned at the mouth of the river, whereupon it is actually deep enough to drown without being seriously inept.
Nearby to Fowey town you can find Castle Dore. A hillfort that would have certainly been inhabited around that time. This castle, now a mere earthwork, was also possibly a royal seat.
The history of Cornwall (and Devon as they were intertwined) after – and even during – the Roman occupation of Britain is somewhat convoluted.
To say the least.
I suppose this would be why we refer to the departure of the Romans up to the arrival of the Normans as the ‘Dark Ages’.
Generally it is agreed upon that from what is now Cornwall, Devon and a segment of Somerset were homogenous in culture and practice enough to be called one thing: Dumnonia.
However History, being a somewhat modern invention, has a way of compartmentalising and taxonomising things for ease of understanding. So there is always the possibility that they were a (perhaps innumerable) loosely affiliated bunch of tribes, naturally sharing such things as language or farming/building practices due to their geographical proximity or kinship lineages.
It is feasible that the sub-Roman inhabitants of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, were they around today to be spoken to, might have obligingly raised their eyebrows at modern historians for suggesting their similarities and then smashed their head in with an axe. I suppose this somewhat like the modern Cornish in certain circles.
The reason the actual history of the Kings of Cornwall/Dumnonia is so difficult to objectively ascertain is simply the ever-expanding myth, legend and fantasy of the Arthurian Romance. A myth largely starting with the Normans, it has infiltrated the facts to a startling degree and is possibly one of the most enduring and powerful in Western Europe. That is actually quite an impressive feat when you think about it.
What we do know is that there existed a series warlords, chieftains or Kings (perhaps a later label) of an independent and warlike people with a strong Celtic past and identity.
We can also take the position that the Romans didn’t bother too much with them. Perhaps they were more trouble than they were worth, as there is little evidence of full-scale Roman occupation west of Exeter. Perhaps they just didn’t fancy it. Although it should be noted that some undeniably Roman sites have been discovered even as far west as Gweek, possibly indicating co-operation to some degree.
Another piece of definite knowledge would be that the Dumnonii had pretty strong naval, economic and cultural links with the Welsh and probably Irish kingdoms and Kings – of which there seem to be a shitload, ruled over by a High King. I love the term ‘High King’.
The links to Wales, and to a lesser degree Ireland, are most obvious in the similarities of language (Welsh and Cornish both being Brythonic Celtic, very similar branches of the linguistic tree, as opposed to the Gaelic Irish language, which is still Celtic), but perhaps more importantly, from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards, Christianity. The new, binding religion spreading out over the Celtic coastal regions, rather frighteningly effectively and rapidly, from the nucleus of St. Davids in Pembrokeshire which provided a real binding of what is now know as the ‘Celtic Nations’.
Lastly, following the departure of the Romans, we can also assume, from sources of the time (Gildas), that there existed a remaining Romano-Brittonic aristocracy (the Romans were not entirely arrogant imperialists, as we often assume them to be, they empowered and mingled with the many of the local tribes and indigenous power to ensure compliance) that were connected to, perhaps strongly, perhaps not, to the independent Kings of Dumnonia. This is where the seed of the Arthurian story is sown.
There was certainly a strong native resistance to the (pagan) Saxons, Angles and Jutes who started to move over incrementally through the open door left by the Romans – although probably ‘immigration’ is a better word than ‘invasion ‘for this process – and gradually pushed West. It is in this resistance that we find the only real historical possibility of Arthur, who might have been a warlord or prince that led a confederation of Britons, including the powerful Celtic kingdoms, against the Saxons. A confederation that, according to the accounts at the time, won an important victory at the now famous Battle of Badon.
The Saxons gradually won this century war of attrition but the warlike Kings and people of Dumnonia almost certainly played a part in this resistance and ultimately holding out longer than most.
Doniert’s stone, fittingly crumbled and broken, symbolises the last of his line and the last of the Celtic independence from and resistance to the Saxons. Or, maybe more accurately, resistance to change in general.