Cornish Celtic Identity

Categories People0 Comments
Celtic Cross

An academic article by Dr Samantha Rayne which focuses on the prominence of Henry Jenner and his life’s work in helping to shape the Celtic identity. Read below to discover more.

This article seeks to explore the influence of Henry Jenner as one of the most prominent figures of the Celtic Revival in Cornwall and in the wider Celtic community. Drawing on information in the collection of Jenner’s personal papers at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, further papers now held at the British Library in London, and the County Record Office in Truro, this article will offer a new perspective on Jenner as ‘writing back’ against a long and insidious discourse of discrimination against the Celtic people.

Through the examination of Jenner’s work, and that of other Celtic Revivalists in Cornwall, it is possible to attain an understanding of how the Celts went from being a maligned people to an ethnic group with recognisable and sought-after cultural traits of which it was, and is, desirable to be a member.

The existence of Cornish nationalism in the present cannot be explained without reference to the Cornish Celtic Revival, and, in his lifetime, Jenner was probably the most influential person in this movement.

It therefore concludes by appraising the influence of the ideas and beliefs of Henry Jenner on our contemporary vision of Cornwall, focusing on Jenner’s legacy and how the image of Cornwall he was so influential in creating endures in modern times in the symbols and ideas he revived and invented, specifically in the way the Cornish people choose to express their identity both through the symbols they use (such as the flag of St. Piran and the anthem ‘Trelawny’) and in the adoption of a positive Celtic identity.

Jenner came to be regarded as the principal authority on Cornwall and its history, becoming an iconic figure in the Cornish movement. Significantly, he compiled and published the Handbook of the Cornish Language (a living Celtic language was crucial to admission into the Celtic Congress) as well as presiding over the first Celtic Congress to be held in Cornwall in 1932.

Jenner also extended the idea of an independently identifiable Celtic Cornwall beyond the realms of that region, with Ann Trevenen Jenkin (first female Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorseth) claiming that he ‘had an essential part to play’ in getting Cornwall recognised at, and admitted to, the Celtic Congress in 1904,[1] an organisation of which he was made vice president of in 1917.[2]

He also became president of numerous societies including the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1916 and the Royal Institution of Cornwall in 1922. He was inaugural president of the first Old Cornwall Society in St. Ives in 1920 and was subsequently made lifelong president of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies in 1924.[3]

He resurrected the Cornish Gorseth in 1928 and was initiated as its first Grand Bard. Above all, he was dedicated to instilling in the Cornish people a sense of their own nationhood and identity.

It is fair to say that within the Cornish movement Jenner was a pioneer; Jenkin claiming that Jenner ‘helped to put Cornwall on the map, linguistically, idiosyncratically and culturally’.[4]

A Discourse of Prejudice Examined:

There is no shortage of evidence to argue that the Celts as a people were not only differentiated from the majority of the British nation, defined in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as ‘Anglo-Saxons’, but were subject to an oppressive discourse.

However, it is difficult to comprehend just how strong the division between the Saxons and the Celts was in this era and how inferior the Celts were thought to be, especially as so many people are now proud to identify themselves as Celts.

The negative connotations connected with being ‘Celtic’ that Henry Jenner and the other people involved in Cornwall’s Celtic Revival were battling against had been ingrained for centuries in British society. W. R. Jones uncovered ample evidence of the portrayal of the Celt as a savage barbarian in the late Middle Ages, employing the stereotypes of a lazy, poor, treacherous, depraved and cruel people who lived a primitive and brutish life isolated from civilization.[5] Laura O’Connor described the division between the two groups as ‘the best (Anglo-Saxons) and the rest (Celts)’.[6]

By the nineteenth century the image of the Celts had incorporated earlier stereotypes of this troublesome race and romanticised them in a way which proved detrimental to many of the people of the Celtic nations, allowing them to be portrayed as sub-human and therefore treated as such.

Simon Trezise stated that, ‘The full force of this racial stereotyping to distort the Victorian debate about the nature of the Celt should not be underestimated’.[7]

The Celtic character was summarised by Robert Knox in his best-selling work The Races of Men as being: ‘Furious fanaticism; a love of war and disorder; a hatred for order and patient industry; no accumulative habits; restless, treacherous, uncertain’.

As a result of this dangerous combination of immutable traits, the Celtic people were regarded as a serious threat to the political stability of England: ‘The really momentous question for England, as a nation, is the presence of three sections of the Celtic race still on her soil’.[8]

Knox concluded that only subjugation of the Celtic peoples would guarantee stability: ‘As a Saxon, I abhor all dynasties, monarchies, and bayonet governments, but this latter seems to be the only one suitable for the Celtic man’.[9]

Vincent Cheng claims that we cannot dismiss Knox’s ideas as those of a ‘racist madman’, as his books and ideas ‘were among the most respected and influential of the century, helping shape contemporary understandings of race’.[10]

Similarly Simon Trezise has warned against underestimating the impact of such racial stereotyping of the Celt in the Victorian age on the debate about their very nature: ‘race as an explanation, not just for ‘animal’ appearance but for ‘animal’ behaviour, meant that there was no need to explain Irish, Scots, Welsh or Cornish issues in terms of environmental problems such as poverty, dispossession of land and language, famine or English prejudices’.[11]And, although the Irish were arguably the most vilified of the Celtic peoples, the Cornish, both by association with their fellow Celts and due to prejudices specific to them, were also encumbered with a myth of inferiority.

Cornish Celts and the Discourse of Prejudice:

In his book about Cornwall and the its people The Land’s End (1908) the author and naturalist W. H. Hudson explicitly linked Cornwall and Ireland, claiming the Irish were ‘racially related’ to the Cornish, and resembled them in disposition.[12]

He described what he saw as the more primitive western regions of the county as ‘the Connemara of Cornwall’,[13] where the people were most comparable to the Irish in feature and expression, ‘an expression which even more than features makes him [the Cornishman] differ so greatly from the Anglo-Saxon’.[14] The county as a whole was described as one of England’s ‘backwards districts’.[15]

In his descriptions of the Cornish, Hudson characterised one farmer he met as ‘hardly like a human being’ at all, reminding him of ‘an orang-utan and at the same time of a wild Irishman of a very low type’, ‘swinging his […] monkey-like arms about’, ‘while pouring out a torrent of gibberish’.[16]

At Sennan Cove he found a further example, a man ‘chattering, screeching and gesticulating more like a frenzied monkey than a human being’.[17] He decided that the Cornish peasant was easier to understand than the English one ‘because he was nearer, mentally, to the child’,[18] as well as possessing the ‘natural happiness of the savage’.[19] He also concluded that the intelligence of the Cornish was ‘like that of the lower animals … non-progressive’[20] as, for him, the Cornish character ‘marked a lower stage in mental development’.[21]

This kind of racial stereotyping was extended to the Cornish well into the twentieth century with C. E. Vulliamy describing the ‘Cornish peasant’ as an ‘untainted aboriginal’, in possession of ‘a restful depth of ignorance’, whilst also having ‘a Mid-African simplicity’.[22]

Writing Back’: Establishing a New Cornish-Celtic Identity

The Celtic Revival can be seen as a reaction to the negative depiction of one group of people by another and the work of the Celtic Revivalists and particularly, in the case of Cornwall, Jenner, undoubtedly made a significant contribution to a re-characterising of the previously vilified Celtic nations, instilling people with a sense of pride in their origins by constructing a new and ennobled Celtic identity.

National consciousness was to Jenner the most important factor in nationality and although a language, race or religion could unite a community, it was only through history that a nation could come to define itself as such.[23]

To Jenner, Cornwall was ‘undoubtedly’ a nation, and its nationhood was inextricably linked to its Celtic heritage: ‘When Cornishmen cease to recognize the existence of their Celtic heritage then only will their Cornish and therefore Celtic nationality cease’.[24] Jenner, therefore, wholly accepted the idea of a separate Celtic racial identity and was keen for the Cornish to be seen within it as, for him, this identity was a positive asset.

Jenner helped establish this process with published works and speeches, and descent became the cornerstone of his claims for Celtic nationalism in Cornwall as expressed in The House of Damnonia[25], in which he asserted that because the Cornish were descended from the ancient Britons (or Celts) they have the right to proclaim their Celtic nationality in the present age.

That such feelings of nationalism today are based on descent above language, religion, class or any other indicators that Jenner himself found to be secondary is a testimony to the strength and resilience of his vision.

In a draft of his speech to the Pan-Celtic Congress at Carmarthen in 1904 entitled Is Cornwall a Celtic Nation?, Jenner not only constructed a strong enough case for Cornwall being a Celtic nation to grant the Cornish access to the Celtic Congress, he also determined that they should not be associated with Anglo-Saxons, considering this a terrible fate to befall a people like the Cornish: ‘are you willing to say to your sister nation, go away, don’t come here playing at being a Celt. Go and be – anglo-saxon [sic].’[26]

Furthermore Jenner noted that in the Middle Ages the ‘official expression’ – ‘in Anglia et Cornubia’ – in England and Cornwall, [was] used then as we would use ‘in England and Wales’ now’.[27]

Jenner’s interests, in relation to his activities in the Celtic Revival, can clearly be seen in our contemporary conception of Cornwall, and his vision of ‘Old Cornwall’ still has echoes in modern Cornish identity.

Tim Saunders claimed that although the concept of Celtic Cornwall was not originally formulated by Jenner (scholars such as Polwhele and Borlase had previously advanced such an idea)[28] what Jenner did was to ‘formulate a theory that, with one important qualification, is the basis of Cornish nationalism today’ (the one qualification being that of the doctrine of race).[29] Jenner and his associates succeeded in re-establishing and embedding the idea of a Celtic Cornwall.

As the Cornish nationalist movement progressed towards politicisation, so the symbols that the Revivalists established as markers of Cornish identity further pervaded the national consciousness.

By the 1980s, Marcus Tanner was able to discern an awareness of Cornish nationalist sentiment throughout the county: ‘there is a shift of mood taking place in Cornwall’.[30] Whilst visiting the county he observed that St. Piran’s flag ‘flies now from church towers and town halls, as well as decorating the rear bumpers of many cars’.[31]

The symbols that Jenner and his associates helped to popularise have had an effect on Cornish identity:

In 2009, Deacon commented that Cornwall’s nationalist movement has sustained itself ‘culturally’ for ‘more than a century’, and ‘politically’ for ‘more than half a century’. It is argued that Cornwall’s political nationalism emerged from, and was a consequence of, its earlier cultural nationalism.[32]

It is further suggested that this cultural nationalism was shaped, to a considerable extent, by Henry Jenner’s personal vision of a Celtic Cornwall, and his tireless, determined and persistent efforts to promote the Cornish Nationalist identity as it is widely recognised today.


[1] Williams 14.

[2] Derek, R. Williams, Henry and Katherine Jenner: A Celebration of Cornwall’s Culture, Language and Identity (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2004) 32-34.

[3] Williams 32-34.

[4] Derek, R. Williams, Henry and Katherine Jenner: A Celebration of Cornwall’s Culture, Language and Identity (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2004) 14.

[5] See W. R. Jones, “England Against the Celtic Fringe: A Study in Cultural Stereotypes.” Journal of World History 13 (1971) 28 July 2011. <>

[6] Laura O’Connor, Haunted English: The Celtic Fringe, the British Empire and De-Anglicization (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006) xii.

[7] Simon Trezise, “The Celt, the Saxon and the Cornishman: Stereotypes and Counter Stereotypes of the Victorian Period.” Philip Payton, ed. Cornish Studies Eight (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000) 58.

[8] Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Fragment. 1850. (Montana: Kessinger, 2010)

[9] Knox 2010, 27.

[10] Vincent. J. Cheng, Joyce and Victorian Perceptions of the Irish. Cambridge University Press. 2002 Fathom Knowledge Network, Columbia University. 28 July 2011. <> Such thinking justified English treatment of the Irish.

[11] Trezise 58.

[12] W. Hudon handwrote letters to Jenner in December 1919. Their tone is friendly and casual. See Jenner Papers. Box 24, Packet 3, Bundle 2.

[13] W. H. Hudson, The Land’s End, 2nd ed, (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1911) 30.

[14] Hudson 156.

[15] Hudson 59.

[16] Hudson 103.

[17] Hudson 104.

[18] Hudson 192.

[19] Hudson 128.

[20] Hudson 139.

[21] Hudson 191. For further examples of negative depictions see John Robeson in John Vivian, Tales of the Cornish Wreckers (Truro: Tor Mark Press, 1969) 20, and “Ethnographic Survey of the United Kingdom, First Report of the Committee.” Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science :1893. London, 1894: 636 which describes the Cornish Celt as ‘… prolific and exceedingly prone to sexual irregularity’

[22] Quoted in James Vernon, “Border Crossings: Cornwall and the English (Imagi)nation.” Geoffrey Cubitt, ed. Imagining Nations, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998) 59.

[23] Jenner Papers Box 6, Packet 1 ‘Who are the Celts and what has Cornwall to do with them?’

[24] Henry Jenner, The Celts in Cornwall c.1916. (Penzance: Oakmagic Publications, 2001) 11.

[25] Henry Jenner The Royal House of Damnonia, 1918, (Penzance: Oakmagic Publications, 2001) Jenner established the superiority of the House of Damnonia (the people of the Celtic tribe of the South West of Britain) by observing that the persistence of Roman culture in that region, and the subsequent lack of intervention by Germanic invaders, resulted in that House being ‘more civilised than any of the other British Royal Families’

[26] Jenner Papers. Box 6, Packet 6.

[27] Jenner Papers. Box 6, Packet 6, Page 4.

[28] Richard Polwhele, History of Cornwall: Volumes I and II. 1803-1808 (Dorking: Kohler and Coombes Ltd, 1978) and William Borlase, Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall ,1769. (Walefield: E.P. Pulishing Ltd, 1793)

[29] Tim Saunders “‘The Answer is Simple’: Henry Jenner and the Cornish Language.” Williams 37.

[30] Marcus Tanner, The Last of the Celts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 246.

[31] Tanner 247.

[32] Bernard Deacon, “The Cornish Paradox.” <>

Dr Samantha Rayne has been associated with the ICS since commencing a MA in Cornish Studies in 2000. In 2013 she was awarded a PhD in 2013 for her study of the Celtic Revival in Cornwall with a particular focus on Henry Jenner.