That Cornwall was once ruled by a separate and unique lineage of Kings is exciting is it not? It makes me think of Tolkien, of a lost land of legend and myth. It also highlights that this little nub of land is imbued with its own idiosyncratic but marginalised history.
Just the names of those who ruled – Constantine, Caradoc, Geraint, Conan (!) – conjures images of ancient, distant, wild, fierce and proud people roaming a landscape that was far more inaccessible, savage and sparse than Cornwall is today.
King Doniert’s stone, on the southern edge of the Moor, is a broken monument to that line of lost kings. It commemorates one King Dungarth of an 8/9th century Cornwall that was, by this time, the last failing remnant of the once ferocious and lore-inspiring Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia, now crumbling after centuries of independence to Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Dungarth is generally considered to be the last of the independent line of Kings and even he was possibly an under-king to Wessex. That said though Cornwall was generally allowed, up until the Norman conquest that is (although after that still to some extent) to retain its cultural character and independence.
There is a melancholic feel to Doniert’s stone, the last of a proud line, set in stone, now in two pieces. He is said to have died a fairly insipid death – drowning in the River Fowey which rises on the moor, flows over the ever popular Golitha Falls and runs, 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 a seriously inept swimmer. Nearby to Fowey town you can find Castle Dore, a large hillfort that is conjectured to have been a Cornish royal seat.
You may note I am forced to use many cautious terms when discussing the history of Cornwall (and Devon as they were intertwined) in the times after – and even during – the Roman occupation of Britain. The history is somewhat convoluted. To say the least. I suppose this would be why we refer to this span as the ‘Dark Ages’.
So despite that, I will try and eke out some clarity. 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. It is this Brythonic Kingdom that we refer to, and when we read the lineage of Kings of Cornwall, or read Gildas, then this what we assume was the land over which they ruled (confusingly, there was also a Scottish tribe called the Damnonii, to which Gildas may have been referring to at times…). Though, in sad old Dungarth’s time, Saxon encroachment had reduced Dumnonia to pretty much the borders of modern-day Cornwall.
It is also worth pointing out that 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 (perhaps many) a loosely affiliated bunch of tribes or communities, spanning the southwest, that naturally shared such things as language or farming/architectural practices due to their geographical proximity or kinship lineages. Thus, 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.
A principal reason the actual history of the Kings of Cornwall/Dumnonia is so difficult to objectively ascertain is simply the ever-expanding saga, legend and fantasy of the Arthurian Romance. A cycle largely starting with the Normans, it has infiltrated the facts to a startling degree and is possibly one of the most enduring and powerful mythic motifs in Western Europe. That is actually quite an impressive feat when you think about it.
So, what can say for sure is that there existed a series warlords, chieftains or Kings (perhaps a later label) of an independent and warlike people with a strong Brythonic 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 close, economic and cultural links with the Welsh, Breton and probably Irish Kings – of which there seem to be a shitload, ruled over by a High King – I love the term ‘High King’. Also, I guess there would be links with the Scots? But of that I am unsure.
The links to Wales and Brittany – and to a lesser degree Ireland – are most obvious and observable in the similarities of language. Welsh, Breton and Cornish all being Brythonic Celtic, very similar branches of the linguistic tree, as opposed to the Gaelic Irish language, which is still nonetheless Celtic., but perhaps more importantly, from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards, Christianity. The new, culturally binding religion spread 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 and influential Romano-Brittonic aristocracy. The Romans were not the unsullied arrogant overlords as we often assume them to be, rather, they empowered and mingled with many of the local tribes and indigenous power structures to ensure compliance. The resultant dynasties of powerful families and tribes were connected to, perhaps strongly, perhaps not, 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 romano-british warlord or prince that led a confederation of Britons, including Dumnonia, against the Saxons. A confederation that, according to the accounts at the time, won an important victory at the now-famous Battle of Badon which set the initial Saxon advance back a century it is said.
The Saxons gradually, inevitably came again, becoming British themselves, eventually organising England into something far more homogenous than the disparate Albion of tribal kingdoms. But the Kings and people of Dumnonia almost certainly played a part in the initial resistance and ultimately holding out longer than most areas, a fortitude that is still observable in the language and culture. Doniert’s stone, fittingly crumbled and broken, symbolises this perfectly.