Arguments have raged for years as to whether Cornwall is a mere county of England, or continues to stand apart from its greatly larger neighbour. Certainly, and since 1889, Cornwall has been administered as though it were a county of England but it has to be stressed that in 1973, the Royal Commission on the Constitution (Kilbrandon Report) highlighted the doubtful legality of this, and recommended that Cornwall not be referred to as a county, but as a Duchy. So what is Cornwall’s real constitutional status?
Wales, recognised by all today as a nation in its own right, was actually formally annexed to England for several centuries, but not so Cornwall. There is not a scrap of legal documentary evidence to show that the Duchy ever underwent a lawful or formal annexation. Still the most powerful evidence of its true constitutional position is the successful legal submission of the Duchy’s Attorney-General, Thomas Pemberton-Leigh, to the Duchy v Crown Foreshore Dispute of 1855-59, recently confirmed by expert legal researchers.
The true status of Cornwall today, and for centuries past, is that of a Crown Dependency, much like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Like Cornwall, neither are lawfully parts of the United Kingdom. The Channel Islands, Cornwall’s closest equivalent, are not ruled by a monarch but by the Duke of Normandy (even though Elizabeth II currently claims that title). Similarly, Cornwall’s quasi-sovereign is not the monarch, but the Duke of Cornwall.
Cornwall, for centuries a kingdom in its own right was, from the Norman administration, ruled by Earls appointed by the King, and who derived their income from their south-western realm. The earliest of these Earls, Counts Brian and Alan, were carefully chosen from Celtic-speaking Bretons whose language was then almost identical with Cornish, as though the new Norman administration recognised that Cornwall was not England, and a place where social bridges should be built. Robert, Count of Mortain, with a Breton mother, might also have been fluent in that language. From 1337 onwards, and to the present day, Cornwall’s rulers have been Dukes, similarly deriving their income from Cornwall and other possessions that fell into their hands. Their right, privileges and powers were carefully defined in a trio of unassailable Charters.
This situation changes only when there is no Duke, who can only be the eldest son of the reigning English monarch. The Duchy then reverts to the Crown, which holds it in trust, and rules in proxy to the Duke (not in the Crown’s own right) until such time that the next Duke is born. The Crown is the absolute owner of the soil throughout the whole of Britain – except in Cornwall, where this absolute owner is the Duke who enjoys the rights, powers and privileges which, elsewhere in Britain, are held by the Crown.
“Duke of Cornwall” is, in fact, a superior title to the holder’s other status as “Prince of Wales”, the latter being merely a ceremonial title with no attached powers. As “Duke of Cornwall”, the holder is the absolute owner, the “Lord Paramount”, of this small Celtic Duchy and not the English monarch. The territory of the Duchy of Cornwall includes the bed and waters of the River Tamar, so the legal and constitutional border is the river’s east bank, and not where the Ordnance Survey and Boundary Commission show it to be (for the most part, in the centre of the river).
Cornwall even has its own government (as distinct from a parliament), and this – the Duchy Council – is completely unelected. Current law also allows Cornwall to have its own elected Parliament, the Stannary, this having wide-ranging legislative powers including the right of veto over Laws, Acts and Statutes made by the Westminster Parliament; a power granted by Henry VII in 1509.
It took Westminster only 41 years to trample over those rights with Archbishop Cranmer’s Act of Uniformity 1549, which forcibly imposed the new Protestant English State Religion, and English as a State language, onto the people, including the Cornish, many of whom still spoke only Cornish. This led to a 2-month war and the horrific slaughter of over 10% of the Cornish population. It was at this time when rampant English supremacism saw the end of the common specification of “Anglia et Cornubia” on State documents, the suspension of Cornwall being named on maps as an entity distinct from England, and even saw the “British Sea” becoming the “English Channel”.
In spite of these events, the rights and powers of this Stannary Parliament (including the right of veto over Westminster) were confirmed as still being fully extant at law by the Westminster Parliament’s Attorney-General, Lord Elwyn Jones, as recently as 1977, in answer to a question raised in the House by Plaid Cymru.
Traditionally, the Stannary Parliament is convened by the Duke, as Lord Paramount, but no Duke of Cornwall has seen fit to do so since 1752. One can only conclude that the failure of successive Dukes to exercise this responsibility is in arrangement with the Crown and Westminster, to whom the unique constitutional position of Cornwall is a major inconvenience. As the Duke is constitutionally immune from prosecution, this is a situation which cannot be resolved through the courts.
Nonetheless, the Duchy Council continues to ensure the retention of its right to convene a Cornish Parliament at any time it chooses to do so, by always having a duly appointed Lord Warden of the Stannaries to fulfil that responsibility at the Duke’s instruction.
A typical Crown Dependency government would consist of a Governor-General (in Cornwall, this would be the Lord Warden); an Attorney-General and a Receiver-General. Usually unelected, these would provide links with the Head of State (in Cornwall, the Duke). Then would come a parliament of elected representatives, in Cornwall, the Stannary and, below that, elected parish councils. Cornwall does also have a High Sheriff, appointed by the Duke and not, as elsewhere in the UK, by the reigning monarch.
What has happened is that this compact and autonomous structure, which has stood the test of time in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, has, in Cornwall, been deliberately fractured to the point where we are forced to send our elected representation to the institutions of a different state. The true legal status of Cornwall is an inconvenience to Westminster, and the present situation has been applied gradually over several centuries, but without any due legal process. To provide a veneer of justification, it was also convenient to misrepresent the Duchy as merely a collection of private estates, a myth recently exposed by the Guardian newspaper, and even more recently by the Mail (although it was hardly news to Cornish people).
This fractured system of governance is unique to Cornwall, quite unlike anything else in the whole of Britain. It also means that, under this system, the Cornish people are deprived of meaningful democratic rights. Whatever Westminster wishes to impose upon Cornwall is achieved only with the sanction of its unelected government: the Duchy Council. It is then acted upon by a “democratic” Cornwall Council which acts according to rules laid down by London, and which only exists by way of an Act of 1889, the dubious legality of which was even remarked upon by the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1973. This same Commission also recommended that Cornwall be correctly referred to as a Duchy, and not as “County”.
Mere county of England? Hardly. Unique? Certainly.