Thomas Cornish - On the Historical Value of Local Names in West Cornwall, 1885



IN 1880-1 I read, before two of our county (Cornwall) societies, papers suggesting that a careful investigation of the names of places, in the old West Cornish tongue, might in some localities help us to recover historical details now apparently lost.

I am now about to amplify my own suggestion in relation to a district around Hayle, in West Cornwall, and in doing this I must begin by calling attention to the fact that in ascertaining the meaning of a name, local pronunciation is usually of far more importance than the spelling of it in our maps.

And, with the greatest diffidence, I have, as I suppose, to correct an error into which all, so far as I know, our Cornish vocabularists of names of places have fallen.1 They constantly, I may say invariably, treat the prefix 'Res' as the equivalent of the prefix 'Ros.' Sometimes, by a corruption in the pronunciation, they may be correct; but this occurs so very rarely that at present I cannot call to mind any instance of it.

I wish therefore to call attention to the fact that 'Res' is an old Cornish word quite distinct from 'Ros.'

We know that 'Ros' means an open heath or moor, and this whether situate on a high level, on the side of a hill, or in a valley. It expresses a state of wild vegetation, which is exactly the reverse of 'Coos,' a wood.

But 'Res' is altogether a different thing. Williams2 gives 'res' and 'reys' as a noun-substantive, meaning 'need, necessity;' and 'resec' as a verb, meaning 'to run, to flow, to rush out, to slide away.'

Pryce3 gives 'resek' as a verb, meaning 'to flow;' and 'reys' or 'rez' as meaning 'necessity,' also 'needs must.'

Borlase4 gives 'res' for 'ros,' as Rescadghill, Restormel; 'Resek' as 'running;' and 'reys' as 'need, needs be.'

Polwhele5 gives 'reese,' 'to fleet away;' and 'reas,' 'gushed, flowed.'

These authorities (all trustworthy, indeed the best) concur that 'res' has the force of flight, and also of absolute necessity. I do not suppose that any people would willingly commemorate the flight from battle of their leaders, and I can conceive of nothing which more 'must needs be'—no greater necessity in fact—than death.

I therefore conclude that where I find the prefix 'res' in conjunction with the suffix of a proper name in West Cornwall, I have the record of the death, and of the locality of the death, of a man of note. For instance, 'Rescarretunus' (BANNISTER,6 p. 137) is much more satisfactory as the place where one Caraton or Caradon came to his 'must needs be,' or, in other words, died, than it is as the 'moor of Caradon.' Reskymer (BANNISTER, p. 137) is much better fitted as the place where Cymar fell than as the 'great dog marsh.'

Restormel fits better to the 'place where Turumel fell' than it does to 'a bellyful of money.' (BANNISTER, p. 138.) Resprin is better as 'the place where the king fell' than as 'the king's moor,' the only 'Resprin' of which I am aware being a wooded valley on the line of the Cornwall Railway.

Restronguet is better as 'the place where the wild, or savage, Sadron fell' than it is as 'the valley with the deep promontory' (which does not fit the place in any way); and Rescradock is certainly better as 'the place where Caradoc fell' than as 'Cradock's heath.' (BANNISTER, (pp. 137-139.)

Rescadinnick is given by Bannister (p. 137) as Cadonoc's heath or moor. I suggest it is 'the place where Cadonoc fell.' It is in a valley near Camborne.

Reskajeage puzzles Bannister, (p. 137.) But I find in the Camborne Tithe Apportionment, in which parish Reskajeage is situate, a tenement called Cogegoes, locally pronounced Jiggas. It is more than probable that the owners of this place took their name from it, and were called Cogego (the origin probably of our name of Jago; the Spanish 'lago,' found at Mousehole-in-Paul, a place in which a Spanish invasion settled itself about 300 years ago, produced, I take it, not Jago, but Jacka). Res-Cogego gives Reskajeage at once, 'the place where Cogego fell.'

Rescorla (POLWHELE'S History of Cornwall. "From Vorti-gern to Edward I." p. 39, note) suits better as the place where 'Scoria' or 'Corlan' fell, than as 'the valley of the burial place,' or as 'the sheepfolds,' to get at which meaning Polwhele has first to shift 'Res' for 'Ros.' So in the same note of Reseven, 'the place where Evan fell' he makes 'Roseyvan, the plentiful vale,' and so on.

The episode of local history which I am going to try to recover in this paper is the story of the expulsion of some Saxon conquerors through the estuary of Hayle, about the year A.D. 688.

The Saxons ('Sawsen,' equivalent in the mind of the West Briton to 'stranger, foreigner, invader,' and therefore even unto this day 'heave half a brick at him') undoubtedly did, in the year 500 A.D., so overrun Cornwall that they drove numbers of the Cornish people across to Brittany. And they retained their conquests in East Cornwall for about 100 years, when the men of East Cornwall, aided by the Danes, thrust them out.7 But West Cornwall, which apparently suffered from a contemporaneous Saxon invasion and conquest, was never aided by any Danes; indeed, in West Cornwall to this day, one cannot offer a greater insult to another than to say of him that he is a 'Red-headed Dane.'

The affinity between the Armoricans of Brittany and the people of Cornwall belonged apparently exclusively to the inhabitants of West Cornwall, by which territorial distinction I mean a district rich to excess in surface tin, found in its fertile valleys, well timbered (if constant local tradition can be trusted), and enjoying a large share of such maritime commerce as then existed. This district was cut off from the rest of the county by the creek known as Truro River, and by the high granite ranges extending from Carnmarth on the south, through Carnbrea to St. Agnes Beacon on the north, and on the eastern side of Truro River by the bleak granite ranges which exist between Truro and Bodmin. There is very little trace, if indeed any, of the existence of either commercial or military intercourse between the inhabitants of East Cornwall and West Cornwall; but between Armorica (or Brittany) and West Cornwall there is evidence of much intercourse and close affinities.

In the fourth and fifth centuries there existed much and constant intercourse between the Bretons (Armoricans) and the people of West Cornwall.8 From many sources9 we learn that there long continued an unusual degree of friendship between these two nationalities—an amity which was forwarded rather than retarded by an almost complete identity of language, and by the isolation of the Bretons from the Gauls, which existed and is indeed still noticeable.

These things being so, it need not surprise us to find the Bretons giving material aid to their kinsmen the West Britons in a crisis of their fate. Nor that the superior arms and armament and the better discipline of the Armoricans, ever trained to war, should have overcome the Saxons (emasculated, it may well be, by a residence of generations on shore as conquerors), when the Briton, unaided, would have utterly failed to do so.

And here I have to introduce some statements made by ancient chroniclers, and quoted without disapproval by modern writers of repute, and which taken altogether must, I suppose, be considered as representing the nearest approach to historical fact which can now be attained.

Polwhele, in his History of Cornwall (vol. i. "Civil and Military Transactions," book ii.), gives an account of how one Ivor, son of Alane, King of Bretagne about 688 A.D., landed in the west of Britain, and helped the inhabitants to beat off the Saxons. He writes: "Our chroniclers assert that under his (i.e. Ivor's) auspices the western people recovered their country from the Saxons. They mention three successful battles of the Britons—one at Heyl, another at Gardmailank, and a third at Pentun." And in a note he quotes Carew, as quoting Camden, for the account of a battle "at Gaffelford, which Hoveden assigneth to have been darrayned at Gavelford," and which Carew assumes to refer to Camelford."

From this statement three assertions are clear:

1st. That about 688 A.D. the West Britons, aided by Ivor and his Armorican troops, beat off the Saxons from West Cornwall.

2nd. That this was finally effected by three battles, fought respectively at Heyl, Gardmailank, and Pentun.

3rd. That by these battles the Britons "recovered their country," thus implying a longer, or less, period of superior occupation by the Saxon conquerors.

As to the localities of these three battlefields, that of 'Gardmailank' is given up as a hopeless matter. Carew, following some older authorities, acquiesced in the suggestion that Camelford was referred to; but Camelford is in the east of the county, altogether cut off, as we have seen, from West Cornwall, and a victory there (if ever by any possibility the Breton army, which landed in "the west of Britain," could have reached the place) would have had no practical bearing whatever on a series of routs which drove the Saxons out at Hayle, a name which identifies itself as that of one of the battlefields.10

Feeling the difficulty, not to say absurdity, of the position, Camden suggested 'Gaffelford' as the name of the battlefield of Gardmailank, and Hoveden, coining nearest to probabilities of the whole of them, suggested ('ff' interchanging for 'v,' and 'v' for 'u') Gauelford as the name of the site of "Gardmailank."

I am far from wishing to draw extravagant conclusions from this jangle of authority; but we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that 'Guilford' is a village at present existing about a mile south-east of the head of the eastern branch of Hayle estuary, and that between 'Gauelford' and 'Guilford' there is very little room for choice.

Of the locality of the third battle, at 'Pentun,' the name is said to be lost; but it must be remembered that in the seventh century and in West Cornwall, with its sparse native population, only the inhabited valleys and the more prominent hills11 would be likely to obtain permanent names, and that exceptional occurrences, such as a battle, would probably be referred to as having taken place at or near a place having some physical peculiarity to distinguish it.

Now at a place near Hayle, in a valley, from a pit in which were recently (I believe in 1879) found some forty to fifty bronze battle-axes of Saxon (Scandinavian) types, and near to which find I myself recovered a British stone battle-mace (now in our Natural History and Antiquarian Museum at Penzance), and around which place, as I hope in this paper to show, are accumulated many other traces of battle, there is a promontory jutting out into the valley, steep on three sides, and sloping away towards the west—a veritable "headland that is a hill" ('Pedn todn' words which any one acquainted with the softening tendencies of the old West Briton dialect would at once recognize as 'Pe'nto'n.'12). And here we have 'Pedn'='the headland;' 'todn'=that is, a hill or steep, yielding 'Pentun,' the lost name of the battle-field.

There is not now any place in the neighbourhood of the site to which I am alluding known as 'Pedntodn' or 'Pentun.' The nearest approach to the name is 'Penponds,' a place lying at the northern and eastern bases of the hill; but I trust to show that when the West Britons had recovered their freedom, they called the hill by a much more commemorative name, and that is 'Carsawsen'='the camp of the Saxons'.

I have now, I think, done much in the way of identifying the localities of the three battlefields on which the rout of the Saxons was perfected, all within a five-mile radius from Hayle, and all three battles being capable of easy accomplishment in one day.

I will turn next to the physical conformation of the district east of Hayle.

A marauding fleet coming down through St. George's Channel, and bound for no port in particular, would naturally first sight the wide white sands of the Hayle estuary in St. Ives Bay. To the westward they would see nothing but barren, inaccessible cliffs, extending so far as they could see anything at all. To the eastward they would see accessible beaches, whence fresh-water streams discharged themselves into the sea, and behind them, undulating hills, implying valleys, which their robber instinct told them would contain their prey.

Entering the estuary, they would find a land-locked harbour, having in its eastern arm a beach, sheltered towards the north by high sand-hills or towans, and forming an excellent place for the laying-up of their boats.

Going nearly due east from this place, they would come to a then nameless open plain, bounded on the south by hills, and on the north by the sea, and now known as Gwithian Sands; and deeming this a suitable place for an entrenched camp, they would build one on a site overlooking this little plain, and the remains of which are now known as 'Trevarnon Rounds.'13 And here our record of battle names begins. We first come to 'Reskajeage' (the place whore Cajego fell). 'Ella,'14 'Negosias' (pronounced locally 'Nicky's Ease,' spelt in the last (or parishes) edition of the old Ordnance Map, 'Natasias'15), the place where 'Ozeas' was stopped.16 At the northern base of the southern hills comes 'Menadarva'='Mennow,' 'the stones;' 'tus' (with the sibilant sunk, as it always is in West Cornwall, if possible17) ='men;' 'arva'=the 'battle'—giving together, 'the' (?'memorial') 'stones of the men of the battle.' Followng the little stream up the valley by its right bank, we see on the downs (I may say cliffs) above us, and in sight from the sea, three large barrows, now known as 'Reskajeage barrows;' and a little further on we come to 'Rescadinnick' ('Rescadanoc')='the place where Cadanoc fell.'

High on the hillside, overlooking (from the north) all these places, is 'Carlean' ('Caer-Lean')='the camp of the British chieftain "Lean,"' a well-known name extant to this day. Had it been the camp of the 'Leans,' it would have been 'Carlennow;' but whichever it was, it was disregarded by the invader, whose tide of battle swept past it from west to east, until he came to 'Roskear' ('Ros-caer')='the moorland that is the camp,' a heath sloping down to this little river I have been speaking of, at the bottom of it; and close by this camp we come upon the camp of the Scandinavian chieftain himself, 'Caer-an-Bjorn' 'Camborne;'18 and there for the present he must remain.

Going back to Gwithian Sands, we find another small stream coming from the south, and joining the one already mentioned; and following up its valley, we come to 'Polstrong'—a place on its right bank. The word 'Strong,' with its congeners 'Sorn,' 'Sowden,' &c., is, whenever it occurs, understood to represent the proper name 'Sadwrn,' or 'Sadron;' and whether the name of this place is read 'Polstrong,' 'the pool of Sadron,' or 'Bolstrong,' 'the hill of Sadron,' is immaterial. It fits either way, and over against it we find 'Carsawsen' ='the camp of the Saxon'—a large entrenched camp, situated on the top ot the hill, which I have ventured to identify as 'Pe'nto'n.' This camp affords some evidence of having been abandoned in a hurry, because about fifty years ago one Michell, a farmer of an "improving" turn of mind, found buried in it a pot of coins, about "the size of farthings, and green;"19 and also because in the valley between it and Polstrong, on the farm-place of Mrs. Miriam Eva, was found the pitful of bronze celts and the stone battle-mace to which I have already made allusion. Here for the present we will leave the Scandinavian chieftain Sadwrn and his followers.

Going back to Hayle estuary, and from its eastern extremity going south up the stream which flows down through the valley of Angarrack, we come to Nanpuska, the place where four valleys ('Nance-peskwar') meet; and going up the easternmost of these valleys, we find ourselves at a place of which the modern name is 'Carnhell,' and having this peculiarity, that the name is never pronounced as it is spelt. It is always sounded 'Car-nèll,' without any 'h' in it at all, and with a peculiar accent on the second syllable. And this being so, we will leave the Scandinavian chief Njal in camp there for some time.

We have now placed three chieftains with Scandinavian names at Camborne, Carsawsen (or Polstrong), and Carnhell—places whose greatest distance from each other would be under two and a half miles, and from Hayle under five miles. How long they remained in these positions it is impossible to say, but that they were there for a considerable period, and that they ravaged the country south of them, is pretty clear from the cromlechs, the menhirion, and the stone barrows which they have left behind them there; for I do not believe the ancient Briton was much of a stone-monument builder until he had learnt the art from others, it may be from these very Scandinavians.

It is to be remarked of this very invasion, that although the Britons named the places where their chieftains fell, they did not raise any memorial stones to them, even after the invaders were driven out.

Now if my idea is worth anything at all, it must stand the next strain.

"Ivor, son of Alane, king of Bretagne about 688 A.D., landed in the West of Britain, and helped the inhabitants to beat off the Saxons… . Under his auspices the Western people recovered their country." So writes Polwhele.20

We have seen why the Bretons should be willing to help the West Britons against their common enemy, the devastating Saxon; and we have seen the probability, amounting to almost a certainty, that the Bretons were better armed and trained than the men of West Cornwall.

Ivor landed in "the West of Britain," and probably in the Helford river;21 and from thence, converging on Camborne, we find a series of places into the names of which the word "camp" enters in one or other of its many forms in composition; as 'caer,' 'car,' 'gear,' 'c,' and 'ca' (the 'c' hard always), and others, and occasionally indeed as a hard 'g.'

Taking the old Ordnance Map in half-mile parallel lines running east and west through Helston, and thence to a line on the westward drawn from the eastern end of the eastern branch of the Hayle estuary to Trewavas Head,22 and going north, we find:

In the fifth parallel, 'Creva'='Caer-Eva,' or 'the camp of Eva;' 'Kenegy'='Caer-an-egy, the camp of (?) Eggy.'

In the seventh parallel, 'Cudno'='Caer-udno, the camp of Uthnoe' (or 'the narrow, "edno," camp'); 'Crankum'='Caer-an-cwm,' or coombe, 'the camp in the valley;' 'Caer-leon'='Caer Lean, the camp of Lean.'

In the eighth parallel, 'Cudno' over again. (Uthnoe was evidently marching northwards.)

In the ninth parallel, 'Crawle'='Caer-awla, the camp on the high place,' or it may be 'the camp of Awla.' There is a 'Re-awla,' 'the place, beyond all places, of Awla,' in the parish of Gwinear, near by.

In the tenth parallel, 'Gwedna'='Caer-edna, the narrow camp;' 'Gurlyn'='Caer Arlyn, the camp of Arlyn.'

In the eleventh parallel, 'Crenvor'='Caer-Envor, the camp of Envor;' or it may be, and this is significant, 'Caer-an-Ivor, the camp of Ivor.'

In the twelfth parallel, 'Clowance'='Caer-Lewarnes, the camp of the Lewarnes;' 'Carsise'='Caer-sise, the camp in the Wheat23 or Corn-field;' 'Gear'='the camp.' 'Cuskeys' may be Cooskeys, 'the wood of someone,' or Caer-uskeys, ' the camp of someone.'

In the fourteenth parallel, 'Cayle'='Caer Hayle, the camp of Hayle,' a small earthwork still remaining, and which, being on the immediate left flank of Njal's march from Carnhell to Hayle, probably played an important part in the battle of Guilford.

In the fifteenth parallel, 'Gurnick'='Caer-an-ick, the camp by the water;' 'Cattebedron'='Caer-ti-Bedron, the camp by the house of Bedron;' 'Gear'='the camp.'

In the sixteenth parallel, now closing in on the assumed battle-field of Pe'nto'n, we have only Carnhell on the west; but between that place and Camborne, in rear of and covered by 'Bareppa,' the hill at the head of the valley, over against Polstrong and Carsawsen, and where I take it 'Eppa,'24 the British commander, was stationed, we have 'Carwynnen'='Caer-wynnen, the white camp,' as it is usually given, but more probably 'the camp of the Winnans,' a well-known family to this day; 'Carminnowe'='Caer-mennow, the camp of stones;' 'Tregear'='the homestead that is a camp,' and others; whilst interposed in a military sense, and on the rear of the left flank of Sadron's position, and of the right flank of Bjorn's, unless he should retreat by the way by which he came, the Ennors25 held camp at 'Caer-Ennor,' or 'Conner.' The British held another camp at 'Croon'=Caer-oon, 'the camp on the downs;' and another at 'Caer-ane,' or 'Crane,' a little to the west of Camborne Town.

I have now, by means of names alone, concentrated many encamped men upon Bareppa; and I have placed three Scandinavian chieftains, originally in communication with each other, but as I last left them separated, so far as Bjorn and Sadwrn were concerned, by a threatened rear and flank attack in case of their moving to join each other; and as to Njal, threatened by Cayle camp in his rear, as he stood, and on his left flank if he attempted to retire upon Hayle and his ships.

Of course, I am aware that I am dealing with a long period of years. The original chiefs of invasion must have died, and their ships must have rotted on the beach long before 688 A.D.;26 and whether Sadwrn and Njal and Bjorn were the names of the earliest or of the latest Saxon chieftains is a matter for mere conjecture. Whether the flood of camps which rolled from the Lizard country to concentrate at Camborne, as we have seen, was a contemporaneous business, or a matter scattered over very many years, is again merely conjectural, backed in favour of my idea a little perhaps by the facts that a people would be likely to rise simultaneously to assist an ally, and that there is no other part of West Cornwall which can produce anything approaching the number of camping stations which I have adduced in the short (nine miles by four) district to which I have directed attention.

Yet assuming—and again it is assumption only, but based on probability—that the positions in which I have approximately placed the Saxons and the Britons in the year "about 688 A.D." are contemporaneous, we find Bjorn able to retreat on Hayle, but, thanks to the Envors and others, unable to join Sadwrn; we find Sadwrn fronting an accumulating British force, and Njal apparently, thanks to the fortified British camp at Cayle, having his hands full of looking after his own retreat in safety.

But even to the Saxons the battle was not yet lost, nor did they think it was until on a height without any special name behind the hill of Eppa, and commanding in a military sense all the surrounding country, there appeared a force of soldiers, well armed and well disciplined. These were the Armorican troops of Ivor, and to the hill which they occupied was accorded the name (still remaining) of Pedn-tus-arves='Pe'nt'arves,'27 or Pendarves='the hill of the armed men,' strangers alike to the Britons and the Saxons.

The rest is soon told. Bjorn retreated on his ships behind the shelter of the Gwithian hills; Sadwrn was driven out of Carsawsen down through the valley, so far as the place where 'Urragh' fell ('Res-Urragh' now called, or rather spelt, 'Roseworthy,' nobody knows why, for 'Resurra' is the universal popular pronunciation of the name of the place; and if it should mean 'Rosworthy,' or 'the upper valley or moor,' there is no 'Ros-woollas' or 'lower moor' to correspond to it). On the flank of the hill over which Sadwrn's disastrous flight must have taken place there are signs of a circular British battle burial-place, which has not, so far as I know, ever yet been explored.28

Of Njal's movements, the names of places in his neighbourhood give no record, but it is probable that, looking at the position of the fortified camp at Cayle on his left flank, he also attempted a retreat upon his ships at Hayle, but by a route a little north of his best line, and was brought to battle and defeated near Guilford, near to which place is 'Hal-an-Kean,' 'the moor, or heath, or open space of (?) kean or cean'=misery or anguish (perhaps of overwhelming defeat and massacre).29

Of the three clans of Saxons we have now by the names of places (unnamed until the time of their defeat) disposed of the clan of Bjorn retreating to his ships; of Sadwrn driven in disaster by the West Cornishmen and their Breton allies back upon his ships; and Njal driven, after defeat, upon his ships. And having thus disposed of the Saxons at the battles of Pe'n-tu'n and Gauelford, we have only to dispose of the battle of Hayle. We have seen that probably the ships of the Saxons originally, and of their successors afterwards, were beached under the Sandhills, or Towans, sheltering the eastern branch of the Hayle estuary, and we may therefore suppose that the retreat of all the Saxons would be on this point, and that the victorious armies of the allied Armoricans and West Britons would follow them there.

Taking then the course which the allies would naturally have followed, we first, on the shore of the estuary, come to Lethleans, a place on the northern bank of the eastern end of the eastern estuary of Hayle. This gives a meaning30 which is obscure, but is probably connected with 'ladh' or 'latha'=slaughter, or 'lathe'=a violent death, and may be 'len'=full, or may be 'latha' or 'lethe lean'=the slaughter that was plentiful, or which Lean made. And next to it, on the same bank, we arrive at a place called now Roviere, with the accent in pronunciation always on the second syllable, thus Ro-víere.31 Now Harro-veor unquestionably means the 'great battle.' Ro-veor is an easy corruption of this word, and thus we get from the existing names of places alone traces of battles fought on the same day at 'Pe'nto'n' (Carsawsen) 'Gauelford' (Guilford) and 'Hayle,' by the result of which the inhabitants of the west of Britain beat off the Saxons. It may help my argument to state that close over the cliff at Roviere there were found, during some land improvements recently carried out by the late rector, several skeletons buried indiscriminately battle fashion, and not with any attempt to arrange them "according to Christian usage," facing east. The present rector (Rev. F. Hockin) tells me that in one instance three skulls were found, together with the remains of the skeletons stretching out from them like the three legs in the crest of the Isle of Man. The same authority tells me of the finding, during this improvement, of a bronze axe of some sort, and of a tradition that once 'Julius Caesar'32 landed there, and was killed in a battle in which there was great slaughter.

Apologising for the feebleness which an attempt of this sort must carry with it, I yet hope that I have shown that a careful investigation of the old West Cornwall names of places may in some localities help us to recover historical details now apparently lost.

Extracted from the Report and Transactions of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1885-86, pp188-200.