At one time the area now known as Goonhilly Downs, and indeed most of the Lizard, was called the Meneage. How exactly the area came by this name is the subject of some debate.
Folliott-Stokes writes in 1928:
In olden days it [the Lizard] was called Meneage from the Cornish word ‘maenic’ (rocky) though certain antiquaries, who see an oriental origin in many Cornish words, derive it from a Persian word meaning a heath from which brooms are made. Certainly this latter derivation more accurately describes the surface of this great upland. Other parts of the Duchy are equally rocky. In fact, the neighbouring Lands End district is far more plentifully strewn with boulders, whereas no other part of the county produces such uninterrupted expenses of heath and heather as Goonhilly.
Like most of Cornwall, the Lizard has its fair share of saints. St Keverne, St Mawgan, St Anthony, St Constantine, to name but a few. And T. F. G. Dexter and Craig Weatherhill have Meneage meaning ‘monastic land‘ and ‘monkish place‘. Burton, a man who writes passionately about the area, certainly agrees saying that:
The saints have set their seal on it.
However, as Christian Boulton points out in his book Five Million Tides, it could be argued that the area, especially around Goonhilly, is rather lacking in religious monuments to warrant such a title.
So could it be that the name Meneage comes from completely different root?
Stone of an Ancient Chief?
The parish of Mawgan in Meneage is bounded on all sides by parishes with equally strange names. Gunwalloe, Wendron, Cury, Ruan Major.
It was also once the home of three of Cornwall’s most distinguished and ancient families. The Carminow’s, the Reskymer’s and the Vyvyan’s. Although these days only the estate of Vyvyan’s of Trelowarren remains, close to the village of Mawgan.
And in that village stands a mysterious stone, known as the Mawgan Cross.
This large granite stone is located on a crossroads and, so I understand, also on an ancient ecclesiastical boundary. It is an imposing stone, standing roughly 7ft (2m) high. And its setting could not be more picturesque, surrounded as it is by old whitewashed and thatch cottages in a small triangular green.
You would be forgiven for assuming that this stone was of prehistoric origin, a Bronze Age relic perhaps, like it’s near neighbour the Dry Tree Menhir on Goonhilly Downs.
Its shape and size alone give that impression.
Perhaps as a consequence of this another theory was once proposed for the origin of the name Meneage. This time suggesting that it relates to an powerful, ancient Cornish chieftain (named Cneg) who ruled the area. And that the stone (‘men’ in Cornish) was erected in his honour. The two words combine, ‘men‘ and ‘cneg‘, and become Meneage.
Early Christian Memorial Stone
But this stone has a couple of secrets not clear on first glance, that may (or may not) disprove that theory. You see, the stone bears an ancient inscription, in Latin.
‘Cnegumi fili Genaius’ – Cnegumus, son of Genaius
And it also has a socket cut into the top, probably added later in the stone’s life, thought once to have held a cross head, (now missing).
The inscription is barely visible these days and so historians rely on scholars of the past for their transcriptions and translations. These interpretations tell a different story than the one of an ancient Cornish chieftain.
The stone is now universally considered by experts to be an early Christian memorial stone to a man called Cnegumus who was from the family of Genaius.
The inscription on the Mawgan Cross is not only indistinct it is also considered to be in ‘poor’ Latin. And as well as the names on the stone there are also three letters inscribed. The Greek Alpha and Omega, used to represent Christ and between them an M, perhaps for Mary or Maria.
A Rare Monument
Memorial or burial stones such as the Mawgan Cross are almost entirely confined to the south-west of England. Of the 56 recorded, 37 are found in Cornwall. There is particularly fine one at Hayle known as the Cunaide Stone.
Memorial stones date from the early medieval period ( c.400 – 1100AD) and record some of the names of the earliest Christians of the British Isles. The names which run the length of the Mawgan Cross are thought to have been carved around 1000 years ago.
That Cnegumus was a chieftain on the Lizard is of course a matter of complete conjecture. Who the people that this stone commemorates were, they lives they led and exactly when they lived will probably always remain a mystery.
But it is wonderful that this memorial to them still exists beside a quiet country road in the depths of deepest, darkest Cornwall. And that their lives in Cornwall, however distant from our own, are still remembered.