Where did the name Cornwall and the surname Curnow come from?

It is important to note from the outset that the history of ancient Cornwall is often overlayed with legend and speculation. In a similar way the studies of epistemology (words), hagiography (saints) can hardy be called an exacting science and neither can this short historical summary, but hopefully it may provide a helpful overview.

3rd - 4th Century Migration. (201- 300 AD---301- 400 AD)

Even before the Roman occupation of Great Britain (43 AD) the Ancient Britons and Celts were a distinct community occupying Cornwall and Wales. In the south west of Ireland there was a Gaelic tribe of warriors called the Kerns. The Kerns were light-infantry warriors who were described as “the hags of hell.” (referring to their fierce fighting style.) (Barnaby Rich 1542-1619) Another description says, “They were more a movement of nature than professional soldiers.”

As early as the 3rd - 4th century the Kerns began sailing from Ireland to the Cornish coast where they established a community on the south west tip of Cornwall. (St Just/Lands End.) (This is possibly the first source of the name Kernow) Epistemologist, the late Richard Blewett says, “Evidence points to a continuous Irish settlement taking place on the Peninsula during the 5th century.” At the same time many of the native Celtic Brythons migrated and escaped across the English Channel to Brittany.

5th  - 6th Century Happenings.(401-500 AD--- 501-600 AD).
This period was a very eventful time in Cornish history.
(1) Migration continued across the Celtic sea to Cornwall and the English Channel to Brittany.
(2) The Romans had a presence in Cornwall but the Cornish were never conquered or dominated by Rome. Following the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Brittany (410 AD) Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement took place pushing the native and Celtic culture to the extreme fringes.
 (3) It was in this period that the disciples of St Patrick were travelling from Ireland and Wales to the Cornish Peninsula to share the Christian faith. (some missionary saints may have brought soldiers for personal protection?)
(4) Not long after 577 AD the earliest Christian Church on the mainland of  Great Britain opened as St Piran’s Oratory and the early saints, Piran/ Gwinear, systematically converted the Cornish to Christianity. This was before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon people of England.  
 (5) It was the time of the warlord ARTHUR (not King) who became a champion of the native Britons and ‘Christian’ Celts. Arthur united the resistance against the heathen Saxon invaders.
At the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, in the south there were two ancient Briton/Celtic tribes:
(a) The Cornovii tribe in Cornwall---meaning dwellers of the headland, promontory or Horn, the plural of Horn was thought to be Kern. (The Phoenician traders who visited Cornwall for tin also had a word ‘Coran’ meaning Horn with a similar plural ending. It is difficult to know if the plural came from the ancient Briton or the Phoenicians) (This is the second possible source of the place name Kernow
(b) The Romans called the Dumnonii tribe in Devon---Dumnonia and made no distinction between Cornwall, Devon and Wales. They all spoke the same Bythonic language. This tribe dominated the south west of Devon, and to the Romans Dumnonia covered the whole area.

490- 510 AD Battle of Mons Badonics
The Romano-Briton /Celts combined to defeat an invading Anglo-Saxon army.

537-542 AD Battle of Camlann (perhaps) near the river Camel Cornwall.
It was the final battle where Arthur died or was wounded. His enemy being, Mordred who also died.

By this time the Kerns occupied an area that stretched from Land’s End to Truro and it became known as “the land of Kerno” or “many Kerns.” So out of the Bythonic-Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia the Kingdom of Kernow emerged. ( It was not until the time of the Norman conquest that the Tamar River separated and marked Cornwall as a distinct ethic community.)

The late G. Pawley White and Richard Blewett, both Cornish Bards, held the view that the name KERN found its way into Cornish vocabulary. It was given to the descendents of the Irish Kern and the place where they settled in West Cornwall. In August 2003, American Bard, William (Bill) Curnow wrote, “It would not surprise me that a nation of people who thought of themselves as adept warriors would choose to call themselves KERNOW, a nation of warriors. They seemed to have assumed it as one of their defining characteristics.” However, without suggesting an answer, Bill also thoughtfully raised the question as to why the native Cornish Bythonic language remained common to Cornwall rather than the Irish Gaelic.

577 AD Battle of Deorham Downs near Bristol.
By this time the advance of the Saxons had destroyed the remains of the Roman civilisation. This battle resulted in the separation of the Cornish from Wales.

It was about this time in the early medieval period that the Saxon tribal term for foreigner was WEALAS (Welsh- foreigner-stranger) The Britons of Wales were the Northern Wealas and the Cornish were the Western Wealas. Over time this Anglo-Saxon way of describing the ancient Briton tribes in the West became CORN (WEALAS) and the Cornish adopted it to as a way of distinguishing themselves.

So from the word Cornovii (or Kern)--meaning Horn/Headland, compounded with the word Wealas--- meaning foreigner-stranger, the Cornish became known as the “The foreigners/strangers of the Horn or headland.”

In a shift from the native Cornish language to the Anglo-Saxon English, the original K was dropped and changed to C probably when the Cornish language and culture was suppressed during the 16th-17th century.
Many surnames ending in O or OW then indicated an ancient plural ending, eg PASCO (Easter children) Clemmow/Clemmo (Clements children) thus Kern (the Irish Celtic tribe), + OW--- meant, “the sons/descendants of.” The Kern became CURN – OW. So today “Cornwall” is thought to be an Anglo-Saxon/English, misinterpretation of the original Kernow.

664 AD Synod of Whitby
The Celtic church in Dumnonia (West Wealas) was not part of the decision of the Synod. The Cornish church remained monastic rather than following Rome.

682 AD Saxon King of Wessex, who entered Cornwall in the parish of Calstock on the Cornwall-Devon border, “drove the Britons of the West at swords point as far as the sea.” This resulted in the West Saxons colonisation of the North East of Cornwall. The Saxons often changed the old names of the towns they conquered and this enables entomologists today to trace their geographical advance. The Old name Haefen became Crackington Haven, the old name Wid became Widemouth (located South of Bude), the old name Worthig became Canworthy, (located between Bostcastle and Launceston)

710 AD King Centwine of Wessex attempted to destroy Dumnonia but this did not happen quickly. Over the next 50 years many battles took place. Dumnonia covering Devon survived into the 8th century (701 AD+)
but Cornwall survived for another century.

814 AD Saxon Egbert of Wessex ravaged Cornwall but it was not a complete conquest. Egbert was not successful in subduing all of the people.

838 AD The Cornish allied with a “ship-army” of Vikings (Danes) that sailed up the Tamar to Calstock and a creek called Danescombe Valley. The combined army was defeated by the Saxons at Hingston Down. Hingston Down is east of Kit Hill near Callington. This is said to be the last recorded battle between the Cornish and West Saxons. Cornish military power was destroyed and Cornish independence was lost.  Some say the last real King of Cornwall was Dungarth died in 875 AD but he was thought to be an under-king to the Saxons of Wessex.

936 AD King Athelston of Wessex made a treaty with Cornish King Hywel saing that Cornwall would have a boundary line at the high water mark on the Devon side of the Tamar—“in perpetuity”, which has lasted until today.

“The Last Onslaught of the Saxons in West Cornwall”
An unpublished paper with this title by Richard R. Blewett suggests another final battle took place on the slopes of Trencrom Hill Cornwall. After living together for three centuries the forces of the remaining Cornish Britons and the local Kerns united against a strong Saxon invasion.

The Kerns regarded themselves as better warriors and bore the brunt of the action, while another local Celtic tribe, who were thought to also have Irish origins, the Cornish Haervi (Harvey) formed a second front or reserved force. (According to Morton Nance the name means ‘battle worthy’ or ‘battle honoured.’)

To confront the Saxon invasion via the sea, the Kern-Irish troops were posted at the headwaters of both the Fal and Helford estuaries. Both areas have been identified as places where indigenous Curnow’s lived. The Saxons are said to have come ashore on the Lizard at Porthsawsen without opposition (a name meaning ‘Saxon landing place’.) Blewett followed the progress of the invasion by tracing Saxon place-name-endings. The (Kerns) Curnow’s of Mawgan in Meneage were positioned to defend Henlis (Helston). Henlis (hen=old; lis=court) Henlis was captured. The Saxons usually accepted the Celtic place names and added a suffix. eg. TON= farm, town. Thus Henlis became Helston. The Saxons moved south to what is now the parish of Gunwalloe and attacked Wynyan (Winnianton). Pushing the Kerns back in retreat the Saxons then turned into Northern West Penwith for a final awesome struggle at Trencrom Hill-fortress. Here the Cornish Kerns were forced down the western slopes to where today the parishes of Towednack and Ludgvan exist. Many of the Cornish escaped to Armorica (Brittany), France, where three centuries earlier the Bythonic Cornish had fled and found refuge. The Saxons then had to contend with the Haerviu (Harvey) who stationed themselves on the heights of what is now Paul Parish, the highest point being at Penolver. The Harveys were defeated not long after 900 AD and the Saxons reached Land’s End completing their military conquest.

Curnow Locations Today
 Saxon power came to an end four generations after with the landing of William, Duke of Normandy, on the coast of south-east England 1066.  

With this background Blewett claims there were three groups of indigenous Curnows. (a) One group near the headwaters and along the Fal Estuary. (b) A second group in the Lizard Peninsula spreading from Probus and Mawgan in Meneage parishes at the head of the Helford Estuary. (c) A third group in the parish of Towednack and Lugvan at the base of the Iron-Age fortress, Trencrom Hill. In these latter areas the Curnows are said to have resided for over 10 centuries. It is claimed that the Curnows of Towednack kept largely to themselves until the 18th century when they began moving into Penzance and St Ives.

•    G, Pawley White, A Handbook of Cornish Names, Helston Printers, 1972.
•    Richard R.Blewett, The Last onslaught of the Saxons in West Cornwall, Un published paper,Cornish Records Office 1968.
•    www.Wikipedia, Cornish Names, also Timeline of Cornish history, the free encyclopedia. See also, Battle of Hingston Down.
•    William (Bill) Curnow, Email: Re [CON] CORNEW=CURNOW?, 8th August 2003.
•    Charles Whynne-Hammond, English Place Names Explained, Countryside Books.
•    The Cornish were known as the ‘West Barbarians’ in the 18th century. The image of Cornwall as a wild and uncivilised periphery has     a long pedigree. (determined non-conformist, smugglers, wreckers etc.)
•    “In 1506, a Venetian diplomat, Vincento Quirini, his ship holed up in the Fal estuary by stormy weather, wrote back to his masters in Italy saying that he was in a very wild place which no human being ever visits, in the midst of a most barbarous race.” The Cornish Family, p183.
•    Fortesque Hitchens, History of Cornwall from the earliest Records and Traditions, Vol.1&2. p 8-9, 1842.
•    Curnows known today from area (b) include Mr Lionel Curnow and Ms Greta Curnow, Porthlevan, Cornwall. Prof. Robert Curnow, Reading, U.K. Rev Ted Curnow, Australia. Mr Jim Curnow, Suffolk, U.K. Area (c) Mr Howard Curnow St Hilary Cornwall, Mr William (Bill) Curnow, U.S.A, Rev Matthew Curnow, Australia.

 E. A. (Ted) Curnow September 2016.