Finding remains that can be irrefutably linked with the Kings of Cornwall is difficult. It feels as if these men have almost completely disappeared into the mists of time. Forgotten by history and the population they once ruled over. Mythical kings , such as Arthur, have taken their place.
But these kings were real men. Men who fought real battles and ruled over a real Kingdom and the people of Cornwall. They lived, married, fathered princes and kings and of course died and were buried in Cornish dirt.
King Doniert was also known as Donyarth and Dungarth, Doniert is the Latin version of his name. He was the last of the Cornish Kings, or at least the last that we have any real knowledge of.
These two pieces of decorative pieces of granite stand beside a road on Bodmin Moor and put us in direct contact with this man. They are said to mark the place where he was laid to rest more than a thousand years ago. The writer E. C. Axford proposed that for the Cornish:
‘A visit to King Doniert’s Stone makes the Dark Ages seem less dark.’
Indeed there is something more tangible about these stones, something more human, than many other of the other sites associated with Cornish Kings that I have visited. Sites such as Castle Dore, Roche Rock and Tintagel are impressive but do little to bring us close to the real people somehow.
Accident or Murder?
Unfortunately the stone does mark a place of tragedy. In 875, or there abouts, King Doniert was drowned in the River Fowey.
Many believe the site of the drowning was the picturesque Golitha Falls, just a short distance from the stone. Tantalisingly there is also some suggestion that his death may not have been an accident. That perhaps King Doniert was murdered for collaborating with the Vikings against the Saxons.
In 838 the Cornish, in alliance with the Vikings, had been defeated at the Battle of Hingston Down. After the defeat King Egbert had invaded Cornwall. Then in 875 the Vikings had briefly occupied Exeter before being driven out by Alfred the Great. It is probable that King Doniert had been allowed to keep his Cornish throne as long as he paid tribute to the Saxons and didn’t step out of line.
English Heritage translates the King Doniert’s Stone’s inscription as:
Doniert rogavit pro anima – ‘Doniert has asked [for this to be made] for his soul[’s sake’].
These two fragments of stone are the only surviving examples of 9th-century crosses in Cornwall. The inscription bearing the name of the Cornish king is the only such cross to feature a character which is known also from documentary sources.
This written clue to Doniert’s identity lies in a passage in the early Welsh chronicle known as the Annales Cambriae. It names a king of Dumnonia called Dumgarth (or Dwingarth) and records him as having drowned in about AD 875.
The Other Half Stone
Like it’s near neighbours the Cheesewring and Trethevy Quoit this stone has been attracting visitors from the earliest times. We have a written record of Mr Hal’s visit in his Parochial History book published in 1750. Davies Gilbert also describes it in detail in 1838.
On the 6th August 1802 I went with a party of friends to see these natural and artificial curiosities. . . It is about a quarter of a mile from Redgate, eastwood, in a field next to the high road. We got into this field and seeing an erect stone went towards it, and found it to be the monument we sort. One moorstone stands erect and the other, with the inscription on it, lies in a pit close by. . . This monument formally went by the name of ‘the other half stone’.
The name ‘the other half stone’ comes from the King Doniert’s Stone’s taller companion being refered to as ‘the half stone’. (And sometimes the other way around!) But it is clear that from the earliest times both stones were broken. How this came about isn’t clear.
It is thought that both are decorative shafts for much taller crosses. Indeed, the Doniert stone has a square socket in the top, suggesting it was perhaps a pedestal.
The Subterranean Vault.
In his description Davies Gilbert refers to the stone as a lying in a pit. He goes on to explain that the hole was caused by treasure hunters who actually scared themselves by uncovering more than they had bargined for.
[They] accordingly went with pickaxes and shovels, and opened the earth round the monument to a depth of about six feet. When they discovered a spacious vault, walled about and arched over with stones. Having sides thereof two stones seats, not unlike those in a church . . . The sight of all which struck them with consternation or a kind of horror. They gave over their search with the utmost hurry and dread. Throwing earth and turf to fill up the pit they made. They departed having neither of them the courage to enter or to even inspect in to further circumstances of the place.
Davies Gilbert says that this description comes ‘from the mouths of some of the very fellows themselves’. Unfortunately all this digging caused the ground to subside and the King Doniert’s Stone fell into the hole, where it remained until 1849.
The Exeter Archaeological Society, along with people from the area, re-erected the stone to where it now stands. During the course of their work they did uncover a small subterranean cruciform vault. So although Davies Gilbert description may have been exaggerated, it was based in fact.
English Heritage, the present guardians of the site, also confirm that excavations revealed an underground rock-cut passage. According to their records it starts to the south-east of the crosses and terminates in a cross-shaped chamber beneath the two stones. They add that ‘the relationship between the underground chamber and the crosses has yet to be explained’.
When C Lewis Hind visited in 1906 it seems that the history of King Doniert’s Stone was already quite forgotten. The local people that he asked for directions either had no clue what he was talking about or sent him on a wild goose-chase. At one point after several hours cycling in circles on the moor he was about ready to give up when he met two young men. Fortunately they showed him to the stone.
Together we climbed the hill scrambled over a wall and in a meadow near a leafy hedge that borders the road known locally as the King’s Field, there were the two ancient monuments. There we remained for a quarter of an hour deciphering the inscription. The youths were silent when I said “this King so many centuries ago has left a message, he entreats you to pray for his soul”.
The only other detail that we know about this Cornish king is that he was meant to have been a particularly pious man. Christianity had arrived in Cornwall around 400 years before Doniert’s death and in choosing to erect this stone he was obviously a god-fearing man.
There were other Cornish Kings after Doniert – Ricatus, Hoel, Cynan – but we know almost nothing about them and by that time of course Cornwall was under the Saxons rule.