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Mesolithic Period 8000 - 4000BC: Hunters and Gatherers
Neolithic Period 4000 - 2500BC: Monuments of the first farmers
Bronze Age 2500-800BC: Settlement and ceremony: organised landscapes
Iron Age 800BC - AD43: Farmers and Fighters
Romano-British Period AD43 - AD410: Under New Management
Early MediŠval Period AD410 - 1066: Cornish Kings and Celtic Saints
Mediæval Period AD1066 - 1540: Tin, fish and farming

8000 - 4000BC Mesolithic Period: Hunters and Gatherers

Climate and vegetation changed rapidly after 8000 BC. From cold grassland and patches of birch woodland, the fuller wildwood of oak and hazel with some elm and lime had developed by 6000 BC. Upland areas, even during the forest maximum, had only sparse tree cover with grassland covering the highest and most exposed parts.

Sometime after 5500 BC Britain became separated from the continent by the rising sea; before this it was the north-westernmost extremity of a land mass that stretched east to Siberia and south to the Mediterranean. Cornwall at that time fits into a general 'Southern English' tradition of semi-nomadic hunting bands. In winter they hunted amongst the lowland woods, in summer, they followed the grazing herds onto their upland pastures; in spring they caught fish in the rivers and from boats at sea, and along the coast hunted seals and gathered crustaceans, shellfish, edible plants and seaweeds. Bushes and trees provided abundant berries, nuts and fruits in the summer and autumn. This was a way of life intimately bound up with the natural world: a world of woodland animals and birds, of the beaver, the red deer, wolf, bear and wild ox; a world regulated by the seasons - campsites abandoned when the herds moved on or the fish run was over; shelters, perhaps tents or teepees, made from hide stitched together with sinew or gut; fires for roasting meat and hardening wooden points; sheltered hollows in which to make the tools and equipment so necessary to the hunter - armatures (arrowheads, speartips etc) made from flint, fish spears from bone, and wood, nets from vegetable fibre, bags from skins, grinding stones for vegetable and dyestuff preparation; mocassins and clothes made from hard wearing but supple hides and skins. The raw materials were found close by; flint from beach pebbles around the coast, washed up from submarine chalk deposits (only rarely imported from South Devon and beyond); wood from the forest, skins and bone from the animals they hunted.

Towards 4000 - 3500 BC hunting bands began to use their environment more purposefully; burning woodland to flush out game and encourage the growth of lush pasture; the partial domestication of animals, similar to the relationship that Laplanders have with their reindeer today.

We have little physical evidence for this early period of Cornish prehistory, except for the scatters of imperishable flint and stone tools and waste flakes marking camp sites. The rising sea has covered many of the favoured coastal campsites, but in some areas (eg. around Gwithian, Trevose Head and the Padstow estuary) we can, through examining flint scatters in the ploughed fields, still catch a glimpse of a way of life familiar to us through early accounts of travellers amongst the Native Americans.

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4000 - 2500BC Neolithic Period: Monuments of the first farmers

Between 4000 BC and 3500 BC a new dimension in food provision was added to the already developing domestication of animals, namely farming: the deliberate cultivation and harvesting of food plants. There is evidence that the economy was a mixture of mobile pastoralism and hunting (but by 1500 BC this was in decline), small scale farming, with early enclosures (Tor Enclosures) acting perhaps as seasonal meeting places. Communities were now increasingly bound to the land they cultivated and much of the history of the succeeding millennia is concerned with the creation of agricultural land and pasture, its maintenance, its allocation, and later its defence in the face of a steadily increasing population.

It is from this period that our first monuments have survived. It is known from flint scatters and other artefacts that settlements developed throughout the county, often on the sites of earlier Mesolithic camps, there are no visible remains of these first farms to be seen today. As the heavily wooded landscape was increasingly cleared and farmed the growing population developed a social organisation and sense of territory that is reflected in their monuments. The massive 'megalithic' Chamber Tombs (Lanyon Quoit, Trethevy Quoit, Mulfra Quoit, Chûn Quoit would have required the co-ordinated labour of a sizeable community. Generally known in Britain as 'Portal Dolmens' these monuments of the fourth millennium BC would have served as ritual foci and marked the community's ancestral territory. Long Cairns are rare in Cornwall and appear to be contemporary with the Chamber Tombs (eg. Lanyon Quoit, Woolley Barrow as well as several on Bodmin Moor). It is clear that landmarks such as tors and hills with distinctive profiles were important and there is increasing evidence that structures were being built both to mimic and to view these landmarks In the fourth millennium tribal centres developed, perhaps controlling relatively large territories. There may be as many as seven Tor Enclosures in Cornwall, including Helman Tor and Carn Brea. That at Carn Brea is an astonishing achievement for such an early date. A series of massive defensive ramparts enclose 46 acres. These ramparts take the form of a 2m wide and 2-3m high stone wall faced with upright stones back and front and stretch over at least 3,750m; no less than fifteen stone-lined entrances have been found. Other enclosures at Roughtor and Stoweĺs Pound may be of similar date.

During the Neolithic period there is good evidence from Cornwall of an extensive trade in objects of increasing sophistication, of the developing art of pottery and of polished stone axe production. By examining the mineralogical characteristics of these artefacts it has been possible to establish that much of the pottery of Cornwall for this period was made from clay originating on the Gabbro rock of the east Lizard; there were also at least six axe factories, sited where suitable igneous rock (often greenstone) could be easily exploited (eg. St Just, Mount's Bay, SW of Camborne, W Hensbarrow, Balstone Down). Pottery and axes were distributed right across southern England. Axes were used for tree felling and wood-working but were clearly more significant than this: symbols of power and perhaps, magic, and were traded far and wide.

No farming settlements from this period have been located or excavated in Cornwall, but evidence from Carn Brea and elsewhere indicates that houses were rectangular. Fields cultivated with wooden stone-tipped hook ploughs (ards) or tipped hoes, began to have formal boundaries as a result of the never-ending struggle to clear them of stone, to keep the animals out, or pen them in.

Towards 2500 BC, henges, sites consisting of roughly circular areas enclosed by banks with internal ditches, were built across Britain. There are three in Cornwall - Castlewich, Castilly and The Stripple Stones. Their function is clearly not defensive and is assumed therefore to be social and ritual.

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2500-800BC Bronze Age: Settlement and ceremony; organised landscapes

Although the introduction of metalworking is an important cultural marker it was not for many hundreds of years (not until c1400 BC) that bronze was used for everyday tools and weapons, rather than being a rare metal used by an elite for objects of prestige and display. A more significant break occurs earlier in prehistory; the appearance of henges in the late Neolithic sees the beginning of a tradition of ceremonial monuments which stretches without a break through the Early Bronze Age. At first gold and then copper objects were made, but increasingly bronze (made by the alloying of tin and lead with copper) became the material most used for metal artefacts. During those early days (before 2000 BC) there is stylistic evidence for close contact and trade with Ireland. Four gold lunulae (crescentic collars) found in Cornwall are of Irish design. It is likely that Cornish sources of tin, copper and perhaps lead and even gold were used even at this early date - the tin lying as alluvial gravel in many streams and copper clearly visible as a green streak on rock outcrops and cliffs. The discovery of early artefacts within the tin gravels takes the tin industry back to prehistory. Over the succeeding centuries, technological advances allowed metalwork styles to evolve from flat axes (made in single moulds) to more complex weapons and tools (made in two-sided moulds) and sophisticated bronze jewellery.

The late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c2500-1400 BC) is characterised by its ceremonial and burial monuments, the stone circles, stone rows, standing stones (menhirs) and barrows or cairns. A local variant of barrows, the entrance graves are found in Penwith and on Scilly where they may have originated. A kerbed stone mound contains a simple passage or chamber of drystone construction capped with massive slabs. Whilst not as sophisticated as Stonehenge, the Cornish circles are nonetheless beautiful and evocative (Merry Maidens, Tregeseal, Fernacre, Trippet stones, the Hurlers). They are best interpreted as places for the public performance of ceremonial and ritual. Even more enigmatic are the stone rows, though their form hints at use in processions; they are straight alignments of stones, usually either all large or all small, some closely, some widely spaced. These, with standing stones (menhirs) were originally much more widespread, and as with stone circles they survive today largely in upland areas; there are seven stone rows on Bodmin Moor and one, the Nine Maidens, on St Breock Downs. Standing stones: many in West Penwith eg. Goon Rith and on Bodmin Moor eg. The Pipers. The standing stones were probably marker stones: the burials sometimes found by them suggesting that they were memorial stones, grave markers, way markers or territorial boundary stones, as well as the focus for rituals.

We get our best glimpse of Bronze Age life and death on Bodmin Moor, on the Lizard, and in West Penwith. During the 2nd millennium BC these areas were densely settled (eg. Roughtor area, Stowe's Pound areas). The foundations of hundreds of stone round houses (none dated before 1500 BC) and many hundreds of acres of fields, now defined by low stone banks, lie scattered across these upland plateaux and valley sides. Some appear to be permanently occupied settlements, complete with fields, but others may have been used only seasonally during summer grazing of the uplands. Close by are stone circles, standing stones, stone rows, and the barrows and cairns (the former being mounds of earth, the latter of stone) although most are dated before the period of permanent settlement. In some parts of Britain these are first and foremost burial mounds, but in Cornwall excavation has shown them to be complex and varied sites where burial was only one of the rites performed; many do not have burials at all. Most date from the period 2000 to 1600 BC. The variety in size and shape is remarkable. Diameters range from 2m to 40m. Some are simple mounds of earth, turf or stone; others have a revetting wall or kerb; some incorporate a natural outcrop or tor, and a few are doughnut-shaped 'ring-cairns'. Many have a stone burial box (cist) as a component. The dead were usually cremated and the ashes buried in an urn, sometimes with other personal objects such as beads, a dagger, or a bone ornament such as a pin or archers' wrist brace. Some mounds are probably burials of important people. The largest barrows are in prominent locations on hilltops and ridges. The smaller barrows, which do not normally survive in lowland Cornwall, are inconspicuously sited amongst the fields and near the contemporary settlements. It is only in these upland areas that it is possible to examine the spatial and chronological relationships between the settlements, burials and ritual monuments in their contemporary setting. We can conclude that the many barrows found elsewhere in lowland Cornwall (eg. Cubert Common, Veryan Beacon) would have had round house settlements close by which are not now visible. Settlements of Middle Bronze Age round houses (c 1500-1200 BC) have been discovered and excavated at more than five sites in lowland Cornwall, including Trevisker (St Eval), Trethellan (Newquay) and Penhale (St Enoder), The houses were typically built with their floors sunken a little beneath the surrounding ground level. In looking at the area around Roughtor we are looking at the upper edges of a 3,000 year old farming landscape which has elsewhere in the lowland Cornwall now been largely ploughed away.
These farms consist of large curvilinear fields attached or accreted on to each other with round houses accessible via trackways through the fields. They are usually separated from their neighbours by open areas of common grazing or perhaps woodland. As the population increased so farms began to crowd closer together. There is evidence that at some time after 1700 BC there was a pressing need for a more systematic organisation of the landscape. On Dartmoor this took the form of Reave systems where very large areas were subdivided by a regular pattern of fields and major pastoral boundaries. On Bodmin Moor, grazing blocks were defined by substantial stone boundaries, and in Penwith and probably over much of the rest of lowland Cornwall the countryside was divided into regular small arable fields. The rectilinear net-like field systems laid out during this period underlie the modern field pattern of parts of the northern part of West Penwith. The pastoral boundaries on Bodmin Moor may indicate that, after a widespread early attempt at arable farming, soil degradation and deteriorating climate necessitated a change to seasonal grazing and less intensive exploitation. Permanent settlement retreated to the moorland edges and the lowlands but clusters of moorland round houses were still used for seasonal grazing.

It is difficult to imagine what society must have been like but in the Early Bronze Age it seems certain that religion and ceremony were inseparably woven into the fabric of everyday life. The presence of an elite or aristocracy is very occasionally indicated by burials with prestigious grave goods of display and rank, such as daggers, and jewellery of amber and faience glass. Weaponry is present throughout, but the apparent disappearance of the bow (by c1500 BC) may reflect a greater emphasis on individual combat. Pottery styles are very conservative and change little throughout the period. Trevisker Ware is the dominant style between c 2000-1000 BC, and Beakers and Collared Urns are not common. Most of this material comes from burials and is recovered through excavation of the mounds. Houses, whether built in stone or wood, were round, and often have evidence of internal compartments and central hearths and bear the traces of indoor activities such as weaving. Wooden rafters supported thatched roofs. Many had an internal capacity as large or larger than a typical Cornish 19th century one up one down cottage.
Excavations of Bronze Age fields buried by sand at Gwithian showed evidence of scratch marks in the sub soil made by the hook-shaped ploughs as well as marks around the field edges made by spade digging in those areas the plough could not reach. The farming calendar and activities for most of the population in the Bronze Age cannot have been dramatically different to that known to the Cornish peasant farmer only 150 years ago. By the 1st millennium BC the megalithic ritual monuments (standing stones, stone rows, stone circles) had long since been abandoned, the uplands, now largely moorland, had been turned over to seasonal grazing. As yet the centuries from c1200-400 BC are very obscure because of the lack of obvious ritual monuments or defended sites but this is likely to have been an important formative period during which the lowlands were increasingly being opened up to permanent farming.

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800BC - AD43 Iron Age: Farmers and Fighters

Iron gradually replaced bronze for the weapons of fighting and tools for farming during the 7th century BC. It is possible that iron deposits found in Cornwall were exploited at this early date (Trevelgue). In Cornwall more significant cultural and social changes may have occurred both before and after the adoption of iron, which is not now thought to have been introduced by invaders; pottery styles changed completely in the Later Bronze Age, and hillforts and defended farmsteads were not widely constructed until the fourth century BC.

It is these defended sites which characterise the period, though unenclosed settlements of round houses and fields may always have been equally common; these however have been obliterated by 2000 years of continuing agricultural activity.

The hillforts were defended by substantial earth, rubble or stone ramparts topped by wooden palisades or stone walls and had deep, sometimes rock cut, ditches. Fortified gateways through the formidable defences gave access to well organised permanent settlements of round houses; evidence of metalworking is sometimes found. (Castle an Dinas, Castle Dore, Warbstow Bury, St Dennis, Helsbury). Similar sites known as cliff castles were sited on coastal promontories or headlands; these are often in very exposed locations and some may have been only temporary refuges. (Mayon, Treryn Dinas, Gurnard's Head, Rame Head, Trevelgue, The Rumps). Another variation of the hillfort is the 'multiple enclosure', with either an annexe or a series of widely spaced ramparts, thought to be for the corralling of cattle.

The strongly defended hillforts, cliff castles and multiple enclosures were economic and social centres (places for display, for trade and politics as well as defence and power) strongholds of the aristocracy or tribal chiefs who wielded considerable power over the surrounding countryside, their wealth perhaps expressed in cattle, their position bolstered by tribute from the surrounding farmers. Classical authors portray the Britons as dominated by a warrior aristocracy fond of fighting, feasting and boasting and incapable of concerted action. The sheer number of hillforts in Cornwall (over 80) seems to tell the same story.

Contrasting with these strongly defended sites are the 'rounds', farmsteads and hamlets defended by a single rampart and found not on hilltops but on hillslopes and spurs in generally favoured farmland. Many hundreds are known throughout Cornwall. Found at a few settlements in West Cornwall are the mysterious stone-built tunnels known as 'fogous' (Cornish for 'cave'; eg Carn Euny, Halliggye). Examples found in rounds (eg. Halliggye) may have an exit running out beneath the rampart. This lends credence to the theory that they were used as temporary refuges during brief onslaughts by raiding parties, but a case can also be made for use as cold stores (eg. for dairy products) or as structures used for religious purposes.

Burial was in cemeteries of pit-graves, sometimes lined with stone, with the dead placed on their side in a crouched position, and normally aligned north-south. Little is found with them, usually just the brooch that fastened their clothes.

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AD43 - AD410 Romano-British Period: Under New Management

We must imagine a rural society over large parts of lowland Cornwall, ruled over by a fractious aristocracy. For many decades before the Roman invasion Cornwall must have received its share of Gaulish refugees with tales of hardship under the Roman yoke but for some the arrival of the Romans may have been a godsend - chiefs who saw the chance to gain an advantage over other tribal groups, traders anxious to exploit the commercial opportunities of becoming part of an Empire that stretched to Egypt and beyond.

It appears that many of the larger hillforts were already abandoned by the time the Roman legions marched west. Following the subjugation of the southern tribes, the Second Augustan Legion marched west and built and occupied the fortress at Exeter (ISCA DUMNONIORUM) between AD55-75. Presumably up until then the Dumnonii had not posed any threat. Whatever caused the Romans to extend the frontier zone into Cornwall, the results were not as dramatic as elsewhere in Britain. So far only two forts, either side of Bodmin, at Nanstallon to the north and at Restormel to the south are certain. Nanstallon is sited close to the then navigable River Camel, whilst Restormel close to the Fowey, and both could therefore have access both to the sea and to the ridgeway along the high ground between the Camel and Fowey rivers - a routeway dominated in previous centuries by the enormous hillfort of Castle Canyke.

Cornwall was incorporated into the administrative area or 'civitas' centred on Exeter. It appears that many hillforts were forcibly abandoned during the military occupation but what is equally clear is that most important rounds were not; they were probably left in the hands of client or trusted chiefs. Large enclosures or rounds such as Carvossa in the Fal Valley and Carloggas, St Mawgan continued in occupation and excavation has produced a wide range of typical Roman artefacts, Gaulish Samian ware, glass and metalwork. Elsewhere rounds continued to be built although a sub-rectangular shape was often preferred and in some cases such as that excavated at Killigrew (Mitchell) evidence of an industrial function is indicated. Half a tin platter was found as well as evidence of metal working. Excavation has shown that during the Roman period the shape of houses changed from circular to oval or elongated, perhaps influenced by Roman building practice. However, the main agents for Romanisation are not found in Cornwall: there are no towns and only one or two villas. Rural life no doubt continued much as before and even though power had shifted decisively to the invader, it is likely that, apart from a few Roman administrators, Roman Cornwall was still ruled by the pre-invasion tribal leaders and their descendants.

A form of settlement not found elsewhere in Britain developed in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the 2nd century AD. Courtyard Houses consist of round and oval stone dwellings, sub rectangular byres and other farm buildings that look onto open, partially paved, farm yards (courtyard). The structures are confined within massive stone walls with substantial gates giving access to the yard. Each unit represents a self-contained farmhouse. Over thirty courtyard house settlements are known. They vary from substantial hamlets as at Chysauster to single units. Many developed from open settlements of round houses, and their fields, by then already many centuries old, continued to be used. By the end of the 5th century AD the area under cultivation along the north coast of Penwith cannot have been much different from the area cultivated only 150 years ago. The constant clearing of stones and the relentless movement of ploughsoil downhill during this period, and over the succeeding centuries, has ensured that the massively walled fields survive and today they are a vital part of this uniquely beautiful and ancient landscape. It is likely that the fields here have been in use since at least the Iron Age, over 2000 years ago. Tin became important after the 2nd century AD when the Empire's Iberian mines were in decline. Used in coins and pewter ware, tin was transported from the tin gravel extraction sites to the markets in ingot form. Many ingots of this date are known from Cornwall and it is likely that, as with other mineral producing areas, Cornish tin was worked under Imperial control.

By the time the last legions were withdrawn from Britain in AD410 for the defence of the Roman heartland, Cornish society had changed. There was a monetary economy where none had existed before, trading links had been extended, farming had undoubtedly expanded and finds of fine wares, coin hoards and expensive high status metalwork suggest that, though unsophisticated by Roman provincial standards, Cornwall was by no means impoverished. Some people had no doubt adopted Roman names, manners and accents but it was not long before society began to splinter; Cornwall was still, despite 350 years of Roman bureaucracy, essentially Celtic in character.

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AD410 - 1066 Early MediŠval Period: Cornish Kings and Celtic Saints 

From the 5th century, after Rome had abandoned its peripheral areas, Britain fragmented into a series of kingdoms, British in the west, Anglo-Saxon in the east. A handful of Dumnonian kings are known by name Constantine in the 6th century, Gereint in the 8th, Dumgarth in the 9th - but most are unrecorded or are lost in myth.

This obscure period saw considerable movement of peoples; as well as the migrations of the Anglo-Saxons, the Irish crossed to Scotland and Wales and their presence is attested in Cornwall by Irish names and the use of the ogham script on early Christian inscribed stones (eg. Lewannick). At the same time, a British migration to NW France was effected on such a scale that from the mid 6th century Armorica was known as Britannia or Brittany. The names of two Breton regions, Dumnonia and Cornouaille, point to the source of this migration, and continuing contact is shown in the traditions of the Cornish and Breton saints, and in a shared language, indistinguishable before the 8th century.

The sporadic conquest of the 'West Welsh' (Cornish) by the armies of the Kings of Wessex was under way by 710 when Gereint was obliged to cede territory in SE Cornwall, but this was followed in 722 by a Cornish victory. Egbert's campaigns in the 9th century, culminating in 838 in the defeat of a combined Cornish and Danish army at Hingston Down, left Cornwall a vassal kingdom. But only in the extreme SE and NE of Cornwall are there concentrations of English place-names, suggesting that actual English colonisation was on a small scale. Two Linear Earthworks, the Bolster Bank, St Agnes (still partly visible as a rampart between Trevaunance Cove and Chapel Coombe) and the Giant's Hedge (originally stretching between Lerryn and Looe, substantial sections of which are visible north of Lanreath), may have been territorial defences of the early part of this period.

The key archaeological site of this period is Tintagel, which is now thought to be a royal stronghold of the early 6th century. The occupation can be dated by large quantities of pottery, both storage vessels (amphorae) and fine wares, imported from the Mediterranean, an indication of western Britain's continuing cultural and economic links with Byzantium.

At the same time there is a little evidence for the reoccupation of Iron Age hillforts (Chûn Castle is the only good example), perhaps by the local aristocracy. Other important places are suggested by the place-name lis, 'hall' or Ĺcourt', eg. Liskeard, Lesnewth, Lizard, Lesingey.

By the time of the Norman conquest the Cornish countryside was quite thickly populated. This is clear not so much from Domesday Book as from the place-name evidence. Places with the elements 'tre' (estate, farm, or hamlet) or 'bod' (dwelling), indicative of settlements of pre-Norman origin, are found in profusion throughout Cornwall and many may originate in the 7th century or before. Many other settlements with Cornish place-names are likely to be equally ancient; the pattern of settlements found in mediæval Cornwall (and later) is almost entirely pre-Norman in origin. just how far back this pattern goes has yet to be established; there was an, as yet, unexplained change, sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries when the rounds were abandoned in favour of the undefended, open settlements which became the predominant type.

Very little is known from archaeological excavation about the character of these early settlements. Excavated sites of the 5th and 6th centuries are mostly of Romano-British origin, such as the round at Trethurgy with its oval houses. Most pre-Norman farms have continued in use to the present day but one settlement of the 10th and 11th centuries, buried beneath the sand at Mawgan Porth, was found on excavation to be a hamlet of rectangular houses, and is a forerunner of the typical later mediæval hamlets.

If most of Cornwall's farms are probably of pre-Norman origin the same is likely to be true of the lanes and tracks that link them, and many of our Cornish hedges may be on the line of early field boundaries. The general pattern of land use found in the mediæval period and later is also an early feature. In most cases each farm or hamlet would have had access to an area of rough grazing, usually on higher ground, but this pattern has mostly been obscured by the enclosures of the 19th century and earlier.

A major force for change, in the 5th and 6th centuries, was the introduction of Christianity from Wales, the Mediterranean and Gaul. The earliest religious communities (or monasteries) took the form of enclosed settlements not unlike the contemporary rounds. Known as lanns, these may have contained a chapel, perhaps a burial ground and even a few houses. The form of these enclosures can still be seen in the outline of many churchyards (eg. St Buryan). These communities were supported by endowments of land, which in some cases (eg. St Petroc's of Padstow and Bodmin) became very considerable. But by 1086 most had dwindled or disappeared as their estates were seized first by the English (Anglo-Saxons) and then by the Normans.

Inscribed stones, commemorating important individuals of the 5th to 7th centuries, were set up in some lanns but also beside boundaries, tracks and fords (eg: Lewannick, St Clement). The names on the stones reflect the mixed cultural influences of the time - Irish, British and Latin names all occur, some inter-mixed: the stone in St Kew church is inscribed IVSTI (Latin: 'the stone of Justus') but the name is repeated in Ogham, the Irish stroke alphabet. The earliest Cornish crosses, finely ornamented with interlace designs, date from the late 9th century and served both as memorials and as churchyard crosses. Fine examples can be seen at St Neot, Sancreed and Cardinham. The Doniert Stone was probably erected by Dumgarth, the last Cornish king to be recorded, who drowned in 875.

By the 10th and 11th centuries many more religious sites had been established. Important manors had their own chapels and every small group of hamlets would have had its own burial ground, such as at Mawgan Porth, or Merther Euny in Wendron, where an abandoned Romano-British round was re-used. As the parochial system developed some of these cemeteries acquired a parish church, but many others went out of use.

Old pagan beliefs may have been assimilated as well as ousted by the spread of Christianity. This is suggested by the large number of holy wells. Most have mediæval superstructures but their supposed supernatural powers may well have pre-Christian origins.

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AD1066 - 1540 MediŠval Period: Tin, fish and farming

The Norman Conquest saw the complete replacement of one ruling elite by another. By the time of Domesday Book (1086) only 67 poor manors were held by Anglo-Saxons (English) and these were held not directly but from Norman overlords. Robert of Mortain, the Conqueror's half brother, held 277 of the 350 Cornish manors; as well as displacing the English he dispossessed several of the ancient Cornish religious houses such as at St Neot and St Kew. Wealth and power resided in the holding of land; the Normans secured what they had taken with a series of formidable and intimidating castles. Robert had castles at Launceston and Trematon. Others belonged to his chief sub-tenants, as at Cardinham, Week St Mary and Restormel although these appeared perhaps a generation later.

The castles of the 11th and 12th centuries are either of motte and bailey type, as at Launceston Trematon near Saltash, Cardinham and Kilkhampton, or are Ĺringworks' where the principal stronghold is a simple bank and ditch that would have contained a building or two (Upton Castle, Bossiney Castle, Restormel Castle).

From the 13th century the major castles, Launceston, Trematon, Restormel  and Tintagel, now in the hands of the Earls and then the Dukes of Cornwall, were allowed to slide into decay; they were remote from the heartland of mediæval politics where the Earls and Dukes actually resided.

In the 13th and 14th centuries some of the leading Cornish families provided their residences with some form of defence. Little now survives of these sites; a broad, deep moat may still be seen at Binhamy, Stratton, the home of the Blanchminsters, though the buildings within are reduced to amorphous mounds. At Berry Court, Jacobstow, the layout of the moated manor has been revealed by excavation.

As in other parts of Britain the 11th to 14th centuries was a period of economic and population growth resulting in the development of Open Field systems, and the appearance of many small towns. In addition Cornwall had the basis for a very diverse economy with the development of trade, fishing, quarrying, the cloth industry and especially the tin industry.

By the early 14th century Cornwall would have been more densely populated than ever before. The county was already thickly covered with farms and hamlets at the time of the Norman Conquest and so the pressure on available land led to the colonisation of upland areas like Bodmin Moor as well as the growth and subdivision of existing hamlets.

After the Black Death of 1349 many of the hamlets on Bodmin Moor were abandoned as people took up holdings that had become available on better land off the moor; these deserted sites are our best evidence for the form of mediæval settlements. Most are hamlets, with from two to six farmhouses, though those in lowland Cornwall would have been rather larger.

In Cornwall mediæval houses very rarely survive in use and those that do tend to be the grander examples (eg. Cotehele). Typical peasants' houses are best known from excavation. These were normally 'long-houses', which provided accommodation for the family and for the wintering of stock under the same roof, but separated by a cross passage (eg. Lamlavery, Louden).

In the 13th and early 14th centuries most hamlets would have been surrounded by arable fields divided into strips - the local version of the open field system. These survive best on Bodmin Moor where the strips are divided by low banks of stone. As pressure on land was eased after the Black Death, holdings became amalgamated and blocks of strips were enclosed, sometimes preserving the strip-like pattern. A few open-field systems continued in use to the 19th century and one can still be seen at Boscastle - the Forrabury Stitches.

Although Cornwall was essentially rural in character, by the 14th century it was well served by a network of towns and markets. Only on the Lizard and on Bodmin Moor would country folk have had to travel more than six or seven miles to market. There has been virtually no archaeological excavation to examine the character of early Cornish towns, and only very rarely do mediæval buildings survive, but in most cases the original layout of the towns, the pattern of streets and house plots, can still be seen. Only Launceston was deemed important enough to have a town wall; the South Gate remains intact.

Most market towns were set up by local landowners as a profitable source of revenue. Some like Week St Mary or Mitchell were scarcely more than villages and would have provided local farms and hamlets with basic commodities and a market for their produce. Others like Bodmin or Lostwithiel would have had populations of a few thousand and a wide range of craft specialists. Some towns were located on spine roads and routeways (eg Mitchell, Grampound, Camelford and Wadebridge) but most had connections with the sea, as fishing ports, trading ports or both. In addition to coastal trade, Cornwall exported tin, fish, slate and cloth and imported salt, linen and canvas from Brittany, white fish, cloaks and wood from Ireland, wine from France, wine and fruit from Spain. Smuggling and piracy were traditional supplements to fair trading. Piracy, of course, could also be a grave threat, There are numerous records of fishermen from Cornwall being taken by barbary pirates.

MediŠval Cornwall was remarkable for its diverse economy, based on a wide range of industries which involved thousands of people. The tinners and fishermen were pre-eminent but wool cloth manufacture, quarrying and ship building also grew in importance. Quarries such as those at Pentewan, Polyphant and Cataclews provided building stone on a local basis, but roofing slates had a wider market and were quarried (eg. Tintagel and Delabole) and exported from the end of the 12th century, for example to Dover and Southampton.

The tin industry had its own laws and privileges and the Stannary Courts (Set up by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall in the late 13th century at the Great Hall in Lostwithiel) administered justice in the four stannaries or tin producing areas - Penwith/Kerrier; Tywarnhayle (St Agnes); Blackmore (St Austell); Foweymore (Bodmin Moor). At this date most of the tin would have been dug from the valley gravels, into which tin ore, weathered and eroded from the lodes or veins, had been redeposited. The earthworks resulting from the systematic digging over of these deposits can still be seen as streamworks in some of the valleys on Bodmin Moor. During the 13-16th centuries the centre of tin production shifted from the streamwork-dominated eastern stannaries to the west where opencast and shallow underground mining was more common. The ore was crushed in water-powered crazing and stamping mills and the tin smelted in blowing houses. Twice a year the ingots were taken to the 'Coinage Towns' (Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Truro and Helston) to be assayed. To check the purity, the corner of the ingot was removed; the term 'coinage' is derived from quoin, French for corner. Then it was taxed before sale to national and international markets, mostly for the manufacture of pewter. There developed, inevitably, a strong tradition of smuggling untaxed tin abroad.

It is difficult now to appreciate the importance of the Church in mediæval Cornwall and its central place in everyday life. For example, in 16th century Bodmin in addition to the priory, friary, parish church, five chapels, two hospitals and two leper hospitals, a large proportion of the forty guilds were religious or charitable associations. Throughout Cornwall there was a profusion of chapels (eg. Roche Rock, Madron), holy wells (eg. Dupath, St Cleer) and crosses (eg. St Cleer) and important places of pilgrimage (eg. St Michael's Mount).

On the other hand, Cornwall's religious houses were mostly on a small scale; there were no abbeys, for example. St Germans and St Michael's Mount are the most complete survivals of priory churches, but fragments can also be seen at St Thomas, Launceston and at Bodmin.

Many of the parish churches are on sites that have been in use for worship since the 5th or 6th centuries. Most were extensively rebuilt in the 15th century, though many retain traces of 12th and 13th century architecture; fine Norman fonts are often a feature of Cornish churches.

Very little survives of the 700 or so mediæval chapels. Some were of pre-Norman origin but most were private chapels attached to the houses of the gentry (eg. Cotehele or Trecarrell). Others served a more public function, standing by bridges or fords or acting as a lighthouse or daymark (St Ives and Rame Head). Perhaps best known of all is the chapel at Roche Rock, served by a hermit. A particular characteristic of Cornwall is its wealth of granite crosses. Most are wayside crosses, marking the path to church, but some were set up as churchyard crosses, including the more ornate 'lantern' crosses which depict biblical scenes on their heads (St Neot).

By the mid-16th century Cornwall was relatively prosperous, but still very much a county with a distinctive identity. Cornish was still spoken widely in the west and communications with the rest of England were by sea or along difficult and often dangerous roads. The period closes with the Reformation, and the suppression of very many religious houses. Cornwall was a major area of rebellion against the changes brought about by the split from Rome. At the same time it was moving to the centre of the stage regarding the defence of England against France and then Spain.

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supported by HLF and compiled by the Historic Environment service of Cornwall Council  
last updated: 07/04/2009