Pre Norman Conquest Cornwall
Early Cornwall and Wales were not part of England. They were simply treated as being within England’s sphere of influence. It was the Saxon Athelstan who set the border between Cornwall and England at the Tamar.(1) His successor, Edmund, styled himself: King of the English, and ruler of this province of Britons.(2) Edmund’s successor Edgar styled himself: King of the English and ruler of the adjacent nations.(3) This was followed by Aethelred [978-1016] describing Cornwall not as an English shire, but as a province, or client territory.(4) At the time of the Norman Conquest, Cornwall was ruled by ‘Earl’ Cadoc: a survivor of the Cornish royal line.(5)
Post Norman Conquest Cornwall
After the Norman Conquest, the compilation known as: The Laws of William the Conqueror show the extent of West Saxon [English] law at the time of Conquest to include Devon, Somerset, Dorset and shires east, but not Cornwall.(6) In 1072 the Conqueror’s powerful half-brother and Companion at Arms, Robert of Mortain, acquired Cornwall not as a mere tenant in chief [as was the case with his holdings in England] but as de-facto Earl and Viceroy of Cornwall. In 1086, Domesday itself shows that the landholders and Barons of Cornwall [except for a small amount of land owned by the King and land owned by religious houses] held their land from Mortain with no superior Lord [i.e. the King] being mentioned. In 1235, Henry III of England described the territorial possessions of Richard, Earl of Cornwall as Terra de Cornubia [the land of Cornwall] at the same time as he described his own territorial possessions as Terra de Devonia etc.(7)
The emergence of the Duchy of Cornwall
The aforementioned legal and constitutional difference was carried up through the ages before being cemented into existing Constitutional Law with the March 17th 1337 1st duchy charter, the purpose of which was to clarify what constituted the former Earldom of Cornwall and also formally recognise, elevate and enshrine into law, Cornwall’s even higher constitutional position as a duchy.
The previous days Letters Patent stated that Parliament: willing more securely to establish the Royal sceptre as well as by the addition of new honours as by the restoration of old ones……have advanced our most dear first begotten son Edward, whom in the prerogative of honour we have we have caused to have precedence over others, to be Duke of Cornwall, over which a while ago Dukes for a long time successively presided as chief rulers.
The 1st charter then states that King Edward III is: anxiously concerned about how various events had left his kingdom: suffering deficiencies in titles, honours and dignity of rank. He then states that the purpose of making his son Duke of Cornwall [supported by sound counsel and upheld with the strength of the brave] is to ensure (1) notable places of the realm, and other lands subject to our dominion, may be more securely defended against the attempts of enemies and adversaries; and (2) dignify the chief places of our realm with their original ancient honours.(8) The terms original ancient honours in this charter, and chief rulers in the previous days Letters Patent, refer to the time when Cornwall was an independent kingdom. The charter makes it plain that the King and his Parliament wished to devolve maximum power to Cornwall. This course of action followed the 73 year reign over Cornwall of Richard and his son Edmund; two powerful earls who had been locked into virtual permanent dispute with the kings of England over who possessed jurisdiction in Cornwall.
Two additional duchy charters, dated March 18th 1337 and January 3rd 1338, both state: We have granted to the said Duke, for Us and Our heirs, that he and the first begotten son of him and his heirs kings of England, being Dukes of the same place and heirs apparent to the kingdom of England, do forever have the return of all writs of Us and Our heirs and of summons of the Exchequer ….in the said community of Cornwall; so that no sheriff bailiff or Minister of the kings shall enter therein to execute their writs or summons or other pleas or to do any office there; save in default of the Dukes, his bailiffs or ministers.
We now see formal confirmation that the king’s writ did not run in Cornwall. Moreover his Summons of Exchequer did not extend to Cornwall either. As neither the king’s writ nor Summons of Exchequer ran in Cornwall, Cornwall was, for all intents and purposes, a Crown dependency similar to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.