Is Cornwall a country? Is Cornwall part of England or Wales? Could Cornwall ever become independent? Here’s everything you need to know!

‘Cornwall was in existence 500 years before England was ever thought of.’

Cornish Campaign Group, Kernow Matters to Us. 

“This isn’t England,” I was told by Rob Tremaine, a die-hard Cornishman and town crier of Launceston, an ancient ‘capital’ of Cornwall that’s on the ‘border’ with Devon. “We’re British. But we’re Cornish, not English.”

Meeting with Tremaine, whilst researching the concept of a Celtic Cornish identity that was distinct from Anglo-Saxon England, this was the first time I’d truly appreciated the depth of feeling that many in Cornwall feel for their ‘nation’.

While often overlooked by the neighbouring English as just any other ‘English’ county, Cornwall is far, far removed from the rest of the country it’s supposedly a part of.

With a unique Celtic history that dates back to the Romano-Britons, the Cornish have lived on the island of Britain for far longer than the English. Despite oppression and vassalage to the English monarchy, the Cornish have somehow retained their Celtic language (Kernewek), they fly their own flag (the black and white flag of St Piran) and many in Cornwall still dream of devolution or even independence. 

But is Cornwall a country? The short answer is no; not officially. But that doesn’t mean that Cornwall doesn’t have all the trappings of a fledgling nation-state, it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t fail to meet the requirements of nationhood, and it’s far from certain what the future holds for the United Kingdom’s most southwesterly region.

In this article, I explore the idea that Cornwall could be a country, similar to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, as I answer the question, ‘Is Cornwall a country?’

Is Cornwall a country?

‘Many believe Cornwall is part of England. We, and many others, argue that it is not and that for convenience, it is administered as an English country whilst being far from such.’

Mike Tremayne, Kernow Matters To Us.
Flag of Cornwall.

Cornwall, located in the southwestern tip of the United Kingdom, is not a ‘country’ in the strict definition of things. Officially, it is one of the 48 ceremonial counties in England, but historically, Cornwall has a distinct cultural identity, separate from the rest of England, that’s largely due to its Celtic heritage.

The Cornish language, Kernewek, is recognized as a minority language by the UK government and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, for example, while in 2014, the Cornish people were themselves officially recognised as a ‘National Minority’ by the Council of Europe.  

As I’ve discovered myself on many trips over the River Tamar, the border which divides Cornwall from the neighbouring county of Devon, many in Cornwall feel that their ‘county’ should be recognised on the same level as the United Kingdom’s other constituent nations, which include Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

The reasons for this desire are not just steeped in history but found in present-day Cornwall. The ‘county’ has its own flag and patron saint, St Piran, celebrated annually on St Piran’s Day, March 5th. Many people in Cornwall identify strongly with a Cornish identity, and there are movements advocating for greater recognition of Cornish culture and autonomy.

However, politically and administratively, Cornwall remains a ‘county’ that’s part of England and the United Kingdom. It is governed locally by the Cornwall Council, which has some devolved powers but ultimately falls under the jurisdiction of UK law and governance. Therefore, while Cornwall has a unique cultural identity, it is not a separate country in the official sense. 

Mousehole, a Cornish fishing village

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A brief history of Cornwall 

‘The Cornish are the last of an ancient race, their moribund way of life slowly disappearing.’

Philip Payton, Cornwall: A History
Map of Cornwall within the United Kingdom

To understand the depth of feeling that many in Cornwall feel about their constitutional arrangement within the United Kingdom, it’s important to understand that Cornish history predates that of England by several hundred years. 

The earliest signs of human habitation in Cornwall date back to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. By the Neolithic period, the inhabitants had begun to establish a more settled lifestyle, which is evident from the numerous megalithic monuments, such as standing stones and dolmens, that still dot the Cornish landscape – particularly in West Penwith, which is home to one of the densest collections of ancient sites in Britain. The Bronze Age brought further advancements, including the creation of hill forts and the production of bronze tools and weapons from the region’s rich mineral deposits.

During the Iron Age, Cornwall became home to a Celtic tribe known as the Dumnonii. The Romans named the area ‘Cornubia’, derived from the Celtic ‘Kernow’, which is still the Cornish name for the region. The Romans had a minimal direct impact on Cornwall, with the area remaining largely autonomous despite expanding as far west as the River Tamar, where a Roman fort was discovered at Calstock in 2007. 

After the departure of the Roman Legions from Britain in the 5th century AD, Cornwall retained its own Celtic kings and kingdoms. The Cornish peninsula remained separate from the expanding Kingdom of England, and in 936 AD, King Athelstan of Wessex decreed that the River Tamar would be the border between Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic Cornwall (making the River Tamar one of the oldest national boundaries in the world!). 

Over time, Cornwall was gradually absorbed by the English monarchy, although it retained a distinct cultural identity, largely due to its geographic isolation and the survival of the Cornish language. Cornwall’s rich mineral resources led to a period of considerable prosperity during the Middle Ages and early modern period, with the establishment of the Duchy of Cornwall – a hereditary title passed onto the eldest son of the monarch – which ruled independently of London. 

In the 15th and 16th centuries, a series of medieval rebellions spoke of the anger of the Cornish people as they suffered the loss of their language and culture while being taxed by the English monarchy. In 1549, Cornwall and Devon rose up in revolt together to fight the imposition of a new protestant prayer book. A summer of blood led to further oppression in the wake of the last great Cornish rebellion, and from that moment on, the Cornish language retreated further westwards.

In the 19th century, the Cornish mining industry reached its peak, attracting workers from across the country. This mining boom also led to significant technological innovations, including the development of high-pressure steam engines by inventors like Richard Trevithick. However, the latter part of the century saw a decline in the industry due to international competition, and the mass exodus of many Cornish to other parts of the world – including Australia, Mexico, and South Africa – in search of work. 

The 20th century brought new challenges and opportunities for Cornwall. The decline of traditional industries, including mining and fishing, led to economic hardship but also prompted a shift towards new sectors. Tourism grew significantly, with visitors drawn by Cornwall’s stunning coastal scenery, historic sites, and cultural heritage. Today, tourism is a vital part of Cornwall’s economy, although many residents feel tourism is contributing to the region’s housing problems. 

In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in Cornish identity, with a revival of the Cornish language and increased recognition of Cornwall’s distinct status within the UK leading to calls for further devolution from London. 

Cornish mining wheelhouse, Camborne

Read more: Smuggling, Sailing and Sustainability: A Tallship Journey Along the Cornish Coast

Is Cornwall in England? 

Technically, Cornwall is administered as part of England. However, I don’t recommend saying this when you’re in Cornwall!

The region has its own unique culture, heritage and heritage which gives Cornish people a fiercely distinct identity from that of England. Cornwall should – in my opinion – be given the status of a constituent nation of the United Kingdom, which would stop many English people from seeing it as just another county. 

Despite this cultural identity and history, politically and administratively, Cornwall is governed as part of England. It falls under English law and is represented in the UK Parliament. The administrative centre of Cornwall is Truro, which also houses its unitary authority, the Cornwall Council.

So, while Cornwall is distinctly Cornish, it remains – to the dismay of many Cornish nationalists – an administrative county of England.

The Cornish coastline

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Is Cornwall in Wales?

Cornwall is not in Wales. These are two distinct regions, each with its unique history, culture, and linguistic traditions, located in separate parts of the United Kingdom. Cornwall is in the far southwest of England, occupying the rugged peninsula that extends out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is well-known for its stunning coastlines, its rich history of tin mining, and its unique Cornish language and culture.

Wales, on the other hand, is a country in its own right within the United Kingdom, located to the west of England. It has its own language, Welsh, which is still spoken by a significant portion of the population, and a rich Celtic heritage. The regions are both Celtic nations and share certain cultural and historical similarities, but they are geographically and politically separate entities.

So while Cornwall and Wales share a Celtic heritage, each has its own distinct culture and language, and they are separate entities. Cornwall is a county of England, while Wales is a separate country within the United Kingdom.

Read more: Is Wales a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

What is the Duchy of Cornwall?

‘A private estate established in 1337 which funds the public, charitable and private activities of the Prince of Wales and his family.’

Duchy of Cornwall, official description. 

The Duchy of Cornwall is an unusual institution that has a long and storied history. It is an estate and title that is closely associated with the heir apparent to the British throne, and it’s one of the peculiar oddities of Cornish political history that sets it apart from England. 

Established in 1337 by the king of England, Edward III, the Duchy of Cornwall was created to provide income and lands for the eldest son of the reigning monarch. The primary purpose was to ensure financial stability for the heir to the throne, allowing them to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

The Duchy’s vast estate includes agricultural land, commercial properties, forests, and mineral rights across various parts of England, with a significant portion located in Cornwall. The income generated from these assets is used to this day to fund the activities and public duties of the Prince of Wales, who is also the Duke of Cornwall.

The Duchy operates as a private estate, but it is subject to the laws of the land and pays taxes like any other business entity. It also has a responsibility to act as a steward of the land, promoting sustainable practices and supporting local communities.

While the Duchy of Cornwall has played an essential role in providing financial stability to the heir to the throne, many in Cornwall will argue that it’s a continuing form of colonialism. Rather than money being kept in Cornwall, where it could have developed the region, much of the profits from Cornish industry has been siphoned off over centuries to the monarchy.

Even in recent years, the Duchy of Cornwall has faced criticism from tenets and leaseholders who live on the land owned by the heir to the throne of England, most notably including backlash on the Isles of Scilly against massive rent hikes in 2020. The current Duke of Cornwall is Prince William, who inherited the title when his father was crowned king in 2023. 

Lands End, where Cornwall begins and ends

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Could Cornwall become independent?

The topic of Cornish independence is complex and multi-faceted, and the idea of Cornish independence is not new. The movement for Cornish independence is driven by a strong sense of regional identity rooted in the area’s unique cultural heritage and history. Advocates for independence argue that Cornwall, with its distinct Celtic culture, language, and historical status, deserves the right to self-determination. 

Some nationalist groups, such as Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall), call for greater autonomy rather than full independence, including the establishment of a Cornish Assembly similar to those in Wales and Scotland. They have the widest support amongst nationalist groups, with several elected councillors holding positions within Cornwall Council. 

In 2014, the UK government officially recognized the Cornish people as a national minority, acknowledging their unique culture, history, and language. This was a significant step, but it did not confer any additional legal status or autonomy to Cornwall.

I was told by Mike Tremayne, a spokesperson for the Cornish campaign group Kernow Matters to Us, that Cornwall could easily function as an independent nation, especially given the fact that many smaller nations already exist in Europe.

Calls for Cornish independence increased in recent years, thanks to similar calls in Scotland and Wales. However, as in the other Celtic nations, sentiment is divided, and in April 2023, Cornwall Council even turned down a landmark proposal to confer more devolution on the county

Ultimately, the question of Cornish independence involves complex constitutional, legal, and political considerations. As of now, Cornwall remains an integral part of the United Kingdom, albeit with a unique cultural identity that continues to be celebrated and cherished.

Political decisions regarding autonomy or independence would need to consider various factors, such as economic viability, political will, both locally and nationally, and the potential consequences for the wider UK.

The continued preservation and promotion of Cornish culture and language are seen by many as being as important as political autonomy. As Cornwall’s identity continues to thrive, discussions surrounding its status are likely to continue, shaping the future of this unique region within the complex makeup of the United Kingdom.

Kynance Cove, The Lizard, where great rebellions began in 16th-century Cornwall

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What is Cornish devolution?

Cornish devolution refers to the movement for greater political autonomy for Cornwall, within the framework of the United Kingdom. While Cornwall is currently governed as part of England, there has been an ongoing debate about providing it with devolved powers similar to those held by Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Advocates of Cornish devolution argue that Cornwall’s unique cultural heritage and distinct identity, rooted in its Celtic history, warrant a greater degree of self-governance. They believe that decisions affecting Cornwall should be made closer to home, rather than in Westminster. Devolution, they argue, could allow for more localized decision-making, particularly in areas such as education, healthcare, and economic development.

The movement for Cornish devolution has gained some traction in recent years. The political party Mebyon Kernow, also known as the Party for Cornwall, is one of the primary advocates for the creation of a Cornish Assembly. The party argues that a devolved assembly could better address the specific needs and challenges of Cornwall, including issues related to regional development, housing, and the environment.

In 2015, the government announced some devolved powers to Cornwall, marking a significant step towards greater local autonomy. These powers, governed by the Cornwall Council, include greater control over local bus services and some aspects of healthcare and social services. However, this falls short of the kind of devolution seen in other parts of the UK.

The question of further devolution for Cornwall remains a subject of ongoing debate, with implications for the region’s cultural identity, political representation, and economic future.

Kresen Kernow, the Cornish ‘national’ archives

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What is the Cornish language?

‘Here lived Dolly Pentreath, one of the last speakers of the Cornish language, as her native tongue died December 1777.’

A plaque on the wall in Mousehole, Cornwall

Cornish, or Kernewek as it is known to its speakers, is a Celtic language native to Cornwall in the southwest of England. It is closely related to Welsh and Breton, reflecting the historic connections between these Celtic regions.

The history of the Cornish language is a tale of resilience and revival. In the Middle Ages, Cornish was spoken widely across Cornwall. However, with the expansion of the English language and cultural changes, the use of Cornish began to decline from the 14th century onward. By the late 18th century, it was almost extinct, with very few fluent speakers remaining.

The 20th century, however, witnessed a determined effort to revive the Cornish language. Linguists and enthusiasts began reconstructing the language based on surviving texts and launched initiatives to promote its learning and usage. Today, the Cornish language is taught in some schools, and it is possible to find books, music, and public signage in Cornish.

In 2002, the UK government formally recognized Cornish under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Since then, Cornish has slowly but surely rebounded, and now the Cornish Language Office estimates there to be around 400 advanced speakers and 2000 conversational speakers. This represents an increase on pre-covid numbers. While researching an article for BBC Travel, I was told that numbers have increased, partly due to people having more time during the lockdowns!

Examples of the Cornish language:

Dydh Da = Helllo

Pinta Korev, Mar Pleg = A pint of beer, please!

The grave of Dolly Pentreath, the ‘last Cornish speaker’

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Where is the border with Devon? 

The border between Cornwall and Devon, two counties in the southwestern part of England, is deeply significant in terms of regional identity.

Geographically, the border follows the River Tamar for much of its length. The Tamar, with its wide valley, serves as a natural boundary between the two counties and has done so for over a thousand years. The river rises within four miles of the north coast, flows southward, and empties into the English Channel, creating a near-perfect geographical divider.

Historically, the River Tamar was recognised as the boundary in 936 AD when King Athelstan of England issued a decree marking the east bank of the river as the edge of Cornwall. This was part of an effort by the English to curtail the influence of the Celtic Cornish, establishing the river as the limit of their territorial rights.

This demarcation between Devon and Cornwall has remained consistent throughout history, preserving not only county lines but also distinct cultural identities. To this day, the residents of Cornwall, with their unique Celtic heritage, consider the Tamar as more than a physical divide; it represents the border between the English and Cornish cultural and historical landscapes.

Interestingly, there are few crossings over the river, particularly in its middle and upper reaches, reinforcing the separation. The Royal Albert Bridge, a railway bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1859, is perhaps the most famous of these crossings, symbolically linking Cornwall with the rest of England.

The Cornwall-Devon border, defined by the River Tamar, is not just a geographical divide but a significant cultural boundary, distinguishing two regions with different histories and identities.

Calstock Viaduct, spanning the River Tamar

Read more: How Many Counties in Wales? Everything You Need to Know.

So, is Cornwall a country?

Is Cornwall a country? Technically, it’s not. Cornwall isn’t independent of the United Kingdom, and neither does it have devolution from the English government. 

But should Cornwall be recognised as a country? That’s a different question, and the answer, after extensive travels through Cornwall, interviews with politicians and nationalists, and much writing on the topic, is that yes, Cornwall should be considered a country in the same way that Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland are. 

This doesn’t mean that Cornwall would become independent, but rather, that it would have more recognition within the existing framework of the United Kingdom. Only time will tell if this becomes a reality in the future!

Read more: How Many Counties in Northern Ireland? Everything You Need to Know.

FAQ: Is Cornwall a Country?

Here’s an FAQ for the question: Is Cornwall a country?

Q1: Is Cornwall a country? 

A: No, Cornwall is not technically a country. It is one of the 48 ceremonial counties in England.

Q2: What is Cornwall? 

A: Cornwall is a county located in the far southwestern tip of England. It is renowned for its scenic coastline, rich cultural history, and distinct regional identity.

Q3: Does Cornwall have its own language? 

A: Yes, Cornwall has its own language, known as Cornish or Kernewek. Although not widely spoken today, it is recognized as a minority language by the UK government.

Q4: Is Cornwall part of England or the United Kingdom? 

A: Cornwall is part of both England and the United Kingdom. England is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, alongside Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Q5: Does Cornwall have its own government?

A: Cornwall has a local governing body, the Cornwall Council, which has some devolved powers for matters like education and transport. However, it falls under the jurisdiction of UK law and governance.

Q6: Does Cornwall have its own flag?

A: Yes, Cornwall has its own flag. It is a white cross on a black background, representing St. Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall.

Q7: How is Cornwall different from the rest of England?

A: Cornwall has a unique cultural identity, stemming from its Celtic heritage. This distinct regional culture, along with its unique geographical features, such as its coastline and moorland landscapes, sets it apart from much of England.