Review: The Western Kingdom – The Birth of Cornwall by John Fletcher

western kingdom

“In the fifth century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Western Europe began remaking itself in the turmoil that followed. In south-west Britain, old tribal authorities and identities reasserted themselves and a ruling elite led a vibrant and outward looking kingdom with trade routes that stretched around the Atlantic coast of Europe and abroad to the Mediterranean. They and their descendants would forge their new kingdom into an identity and a culture that lasts into the modern age.

The Western Kingdom is the story of Cornwall, and of how its unique language, culture and heritage survived even after politically merging with England in the tenth century. It’s a tale of warfare, trade and survival – and defiance in the face of defeat.”

I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about Cornish history at school. The subject was never even touched upon and as a consequence I have always felt like I have been playing catch up. Scrambling to understand my heritage, to separate Cornwall’s past and identity from the all-encompassing grip of English history.

Fortunately in recent years this has started to change. A continued resurgence in and appreciation of Cornish culture means that more and more children, and adults, are being given the chance to find out about Cornwall’s heritage and are making that connection to their Cornish identity. Books like John Fletcher’s The Western Kingdom are essential to that journey.

The ongoing effects of the hundreds of years of suppression of our Cornish history will not be easily overcome but this book, and other projects that seem to have emerged in recent years, go some way towards redressing the balance. The Western Kingdom, which is the result of seventeen years of study, throws new light on a period of Cornwall’s history that was vitally important to the continuing survival of our separate identity but has rarely been examined in this much detail.

Fletcher brings together numerous historical sources and his own interpretation to create a fresh picture of Cornwall during the Dark Ages, recognising and reinstating its position as a self-governing nation during Post Roman and Early Medieval Britain.

“This outward looking focus, and close ties to the Continent, draw our attention to one of the key facts about Dumnonia which is too often ignored in both the traditional and revisionist histories of the Early Medieval period, Instead of a kingdom suddenly cut off and alone when the Saxons took control of south-east Briton, Dumnonia was instead a country, and the Dumnonii a people, who looked westward and south to the Mediterranean . . .”

Covering the period between the 5th and the 10th centuries the book explores the idea of Dumnonia as an important, wealthy, outward looking nation, the slow creep westwards of the Kingdom of Wessex, the complicated ebb and flow of the power held by the Cornish elite and our forgotten kings, the battles of Hehil and Hingston Down and finally discusses the effects of arrival of Athelstan and the Norman invasion.

This book reminds us that history is never as simple and straightforward as we would like to think it is, especially when it has been entirely written by the victors!

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a detailed, deep dive into Cornwall’s history. It is a fascinating read, full of incredible nuggets of information that breathe life into the text.

I spoke to John Fletcher, author of The Western Kingdom, about his reasons for writing this book.

Interview with the Author

  • So, can you tell me a bit about your background?

Unfortunately I can’t claim to be Cornish myself. My parents are from England and Pennsylvania originally, I spent my childhood in the States and then moved to the UK when I was fairly young. I eventually moved down to Plymouth for University and met my wife here so I’ve lived just over the Tamar for around 16 years now, just under half my life!

  • Where/when did your interest in Cornish history, heritage and culture begin?

I had gotten into historical re-enactment when I was still living with my parents. There’s something very appealing to an 18 year old boy about camping, drinking and (controlled) fighting at historical sites and I took to it immediately. When I came to Plymouth for University I thought it would be good to make a more local character to portray. I had a vague notion that Cornwall wasn’t the same as England and so started researching its Early Medieval history.  

  • What made you want to write this book?

In the process of the research I talked about I found bits and pieces of really fascinating stuff that was, bizarrely I felt, being either completely ignored or often wilfully misconstrued. There is a bad habit amongst some older English histories to completely gloss over Cornwall during this period and just handwave it into Wessex. The bizarre thing is, this isn’t the story that even the Saxons tell us in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. If the people at the time, or closer to the time, weren’t making these claims (and if anything we’d expect them to be exaggerating for their own benefit) then why were people now? 

John Fletcher wearing his re-enactment kit

The research for my Cornish kit eventually left me with a huge pile of articles, books and the like – the quality of which was getting better every year as lots of other people looked at the same things I did I came to similar conclusions. When I first started out there weren’t the number of books available that there are now and eventually I got to thinking maybe I should try to bring all these sources together and tell this very focussed story about the Early Medieval period in Cornwall and the SW.  

The other reason is that a lot of books focus on Cornwall either being separate from England, or try to push it together with England. I thought there was some nuance missing in that the Cornish are very much not English, but they had maintained that unique outlook and their own culture, language and identity while also becoming politically part of the English state. The incredible balancing act that must have taken, and the success it had, was fascinating to me. 

  • Why do you think that there has been resurgence in interest in Cornish culture and identity in recent years?

The world is, unfortunately, a much more unsettled place today than it has been for probably decades, certainly since the end of the Cold War. People want to feel a part of something, to group together for safety, and this has recently meant a resurgence of local identities rather than Geo-Political ones. This can manifest in harmful ways, it’s not hard to find examples of Nationalism in the world that run counter to what many people, and particularly Cornish people in my experience, would find acceptable. 

Specifically to Cornwall I think there’s also a growing realisation that so much of the history and culture of the local population may be genuinely under threat. The reality is that communities in Cornwall are taking hits from multiple sides; changes to agriculture and fisheries markets, the explosion of second homes and the increased price tag of ‘desirability’ it feels like major decisions are being taken by people who don’t know or really care about Cornwall and the South West. I think in the face of that a desire to, though I loathe to share slogans with certain politicians, ‘take back control’ is understandable. 

However I think there can be real positives to taking intense pride in one’s heritage and where they live. Knowing who we are and where we came from can help drive us forward, being proud of a country or a landscape makes us more likely to want to protect it against the big changes now facing all of us. Also, as I mentioned, I do think the SW as a whole and Cornwall in particular has sometimes been at the losing end of decisions made in Westminster…just like many regions in the UK have been. 

I think Seamus Carey did a really interesting take on this in The Reason Why Podcast. Nationalism doesn’t need to be a bad thing if it drives positive change. I may not agree with every policy of the SNP or Plaid Cymru for example but no one can deny they are helping give their local constituents a voice; and the work that Plaid have done in particular in preserving and strengthening the Welsh language is something I hope Cornwall can learn and benefit from as people work to revive Cornish as a spoken language.

  • The depth and breadth of the research is really impressive, can you tell me a little about how the book came together? Seventeen years is a long time, did you start out thinking you would write a book?

I definitely didn’t think I would write a historical text like this. As I say, it sort of grew organically from doing research as a hobby until I felt like there was a story that was worth sharing. 

Before that I’d certainly had ‘be a published author’ on my bucket list for a long time. I had dabbled with writing Historical Fiction and had even been a Games Journalist for a little while but generally I didn’t believe many people would want to hear what I had to say. so it’s been a really crazy journey in the time since and particularly when the book was really coming together and people who I respected a lot and who proof read it for me were giving positive feedback. 

  • This feels like an important book to me. I feel like you are teasing the real truth, the real people and events from beneath the blur created by hundreds of years of suppression of our history. Is that a fair statement?

Thank you! I’d certainly like to think that’s true! 

I can’t take credit for completely discovering any of this of course, there have been other researchers all working on similar goals otherwise I would have had nothing to reference! Craig Weatherhill was, of course, a very vocal proponent for Cornish history and identity as is Bernard Deacon. I also pulled a lot of interesting research by reading Charles Insley who is a professor from the University of Manchester and has written some really interesting papers around Cornwall in this period. 

As for the suppression I would say that is fair, from around the 1500s onwards the English state really felt that English and England were the nationalities that should be used and you can see this in Cornwall, Wales and attempted in Scotland as well. While the Welsh and Scots would eventually return to devolved states of their own the same has never happened for Cornwall and today it’s not uncommon to hear the idea of Cornwall as a nationality or even a national minority somewhat mocked in England. 

I think a lot of this stems just from ignorance, the information isn’t really out there so hopefully the book does help in that regard!

Buy The Western Kingdom

If you would like a copy of this book you can order from a bookshop HERE or from Amazon HERE

Note: I was not paid for this review and all opinions are my own. I was gifted a copy of the book.

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