A history of cornwall online - through its objects


Pasties, fairy tales and rebellion. What symbolises Cornwall?

  • Rashleigh's Mineral Collection

    Rashleigh's Mineral Collection

    Cornwall's rich and diverse mineral wealth attracted many mineral collectors. One of the most significant collections belonged to Philip Rashleigh of Menabilly near Fowey. He started to collect minerals in the 1760s and continued until his death in 1811.

    Visit Royal Cornwall Museum

  • Cork Model

    Cork Model

    St Michael's Mount is a Cornish icon. It has been an abbey, a fortress and, for 350 years, the family home of the St Aubyns. Henry Lee was the butler on St Michael's Mount for 49 years and made this model in the 1930s. It is carved from champagne corks and took almost 3 years to complete.

    Visit St Michaels Mount

  • Dolly Pentreath

    Dolly Pentreath

    This portrait shows Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole. Dolly was a Cornish fishwife who gained the reputation of being the last native Cornish speaker, though opinion is divided. It was painted in the 1770s by John Opie, a fashionable portrait painter from Cornwall.

    Visit St Michaels Mount

  • Floor Tile

    Floor Tile

    Richard, Earl of Cornwall from 1227 until 1272, was one of the most powerful men in Europe and the younger brother of King Henry III. Richard's Cornish base was at Launceston and this floor tile, from Launceston Priory, shows his coat of arms - the lion.

    Visit Lawrence House Museum, Launceston

  • Lanhydrock Atlas

    Lanhydrock Atlas

    Joel Gascoyne was one of the first people to accurately map Cornwall. The Lanhydrock Atlas dates from the mid 1690s and shows the land belonging to the wealthy Robartes family of Lanhydrock House. At that time, the family owned land in over half the parishes in Cornwall.

    Visit Lanhydrock

  • Flamank Coat of Arms

    Flamank Coat of Arms

    In 1497, outraged by tax increases, Thomas Flamank and Michael An Gof marched on London at the head of a Cornish rebel army. Defeated, they suffered the death of traitors - hung, drawn and quartered. This coat of arms comes from the old Flamank home near Bodmin.

    Visit Bodmin Town Museum

  • Fossil Fish

    Fossil Fish

    In the 1930s, the fossilized remains of a fish over three hundred million years old, were discovered near Bude and classified as a unique new species, Cornuboniscus Budensis. Bude's fossil fish is found nowehere else in the world.

    Visit Bude Castle Heritage Centre

  • Richard Carew

    Richard Carew

    Elizabethan gentleman Richard Carew was born at Antony House in 1555. His 1602 Survey describes in detail the Cornish landscape and the occupations and recreations of its inhabitants. This is the first and one of the most important studies of the history of Cornwall.

    Visit Antony House

  • Money Box

    Money Box

    When Cornish miners emigrated to work in newly-discovered mining areas around the world, they took with them elements of their Cornish culture. This pasty-shaped money box is from Mineral Point in Wisconsin, USA - a popular destination for Cornish miners in the 1840s.

    Visit King Edward Mine

There are some things, people and events that have shaped the character and perception of Cornwall and some are recognised the world over.

The Cornish Pasty is Cornwall’s favourite food, and its identity is protected under EU legislation. Cornish people felt so strongly about the pasty that they took to the streets in protest at the Chancellor’s so-called Pasty Tax in 2012.

The mere outline of St Michael's Mount, nestled in the bay that was named after it, evokes impressions of Cornwall’s enigmatic heritage, rich in antiquity, myth and folklore. The island and its castle is the archetypal fairy tale setting.

But the roots of Cornish distinctiveness are to be deep in geological time, 400 million years ago, when the peninsula’s granite backbone was formed. Rocks transforming over millennia produced a cornucopia of rare minerals, from Botallackite to Uranium. Our ancient coast was once home to an ancestor of the humble sardine. Cornuboniscus Budensis, a rare fish fossil, has only been found in an area near Bude.

Cornish scholars have done much to influence outside perceptions of Cornwall. Richard Carew (1555-1620) of Anthony was the father of Cornish history and wrote the first history of Cornwall and its people in 1602. Joel Gascoyne was a pioneering cartographer and the first to produce an accurate map Cornwall in 1699.

Historical personalities, whose stories are past down in folklore are probably the most enduring of our icons. Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall (1209-72) was one of the few English aristocrats who spoke English rather than French, and one of the richest men in Europe. He became Holy Roman Emperor in 1257.

The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 immortalised the names of Michael Joseph (An Gof), a blacksmith from St Keverne and Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer. They incited a 15-20,000 strong band of Cornish people in an armed revolt against King Henry VII. The rebellion failed, leaving many dead, and the two leaders were executed for treason.

Until at least the 10th century Cornish (Kernewek) speakers lived as far east as Exeter. By the end of the 18th century Cornish was limited to the more remote communities in the far west of Cornwall, and Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole (died 1777) claimed to be the last monoglot speaker of Cornish, but this is unlikely. She has nevertheless remained an icon of Cornish language and identity.