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Brief history of the Duchy of Cornwall
The official version of duchy history
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Suppression of Cornish identity
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We have seen elsewhere on this site how the duchy was formalised by Letters Patent, and by three charter of 1337 and 1338. In the recent past, the Attorney General to the Duchy of Cornwall observed that prior to this event, Earl Edmund had died: seized of the whole of Cornwall.(1) Edward III’s ‘Fordington Charter’ of 1343 ‘re-collected the rights’ of the Duchy of Cornwall by adding to the duke’s portfolio a number of estates lying outside of Cornwall. The charter twice deploys the term: ….. the Earldom of Cornwall, now called the Duchy of Cornwall…(2)

We have seen how, in 1354, Edward the Black Prince, first Duke of Cornwall, made the following address: Edward &c, to all the faithful men and subjects of our Duchy of Cornwall……….greetings. Know ye that we………(3) Those same state papers detail how a little earlier the Duke of Cornwall established a Commission to enquire into duchy property owned: in Cornwall and England. (4)

The 1337 Act of Parliament is still on the statute books and labelled by the UK government in Halsbury’s Laws as: Constitutional Law 10. A Charter of 1337 setting the Duchy of Cornwall upon the Kings eldest son, and prescribing its future devolution.

Acts of the Westminster Parliament from 1422, 1465 and 1539 affirmed that: ….the comutatis Cornubia [now county of Cornwall] should always remain as a Duchy….(5)

John Norden was the Official Surveyor to the Duchy of Cornwall. His 1600 Description of Cornwall never once refers to Cornwall as a shire or county. Always careful to describe Cornwall as a Dukedom, Duchy or Country of Britain, his accompanying map showing only Cornwall is entitled: The Duchy of Cornwall.

Sir John Doddridge is listed in UK Parliamentary records as being a lawyer, judge, MP and historian.(6) In 1603 Doddridge’s investigations into the British constitution, which were presented to the King himself, recorded that: The uttermost part of this island towards the west, stretching itself by a long extent into the ocean, is called Cornwall. This territory was anciently reputed a Dukedom . . . . until at a time it was a-new constituted a Duchy……. (7) It is clear that, up until this period, the official position was that the territory of Cornwall was co-terminus with the Duchy of Cornwall.

During ‘The Prince’s Case’ of 1606 [Constitutional Law], all the previous Acts of Parliament were held as valid by the highest court in the land and Lord Coke’s authoritative ruling stressed: all Cornwall is the Duchy of Cornwall.(8) At the time, Lord Coke was Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas – the third highest judicial post in England. This groundbreaking case is still quoted by constitutional experts, leading barristers, judges and the House of Lords Appeal Court today. (9)

Midway through the celebrated 1828 Rowe v Brenton Trial at Bar, the presiding judge, Lord Tenderten, Lord Chief Justice Kings Bench, affirmed that: the public has an interest in everything that is done in the duchy.(10) Even in 1828, case law revealed that the duchy was legally anything but a ‘private estate’.

During the 1855-58 ‘foreshore dispute’, the Attorney General to the Duchy of Cornwall stated in evidence to the arbitration panel: The Duchy in its creation was co-extensive with the now County.(11) This reveals that up until 1858, the duchy law officers themselves considered the Duchy of Cornwall to be co-extensive with the territory of Cornwall.

During the course of the dispute the Attorney General to the Duchy of Cornwall made the following statement: The presumed object of the officers of the Crown is to show that the Duchy possessions consisted merely of the particular manors and estates which are mentioned by name in the Duchy Charter, and did not comprise a territory such as Terra de Cornubia [the territory of Cornwall]. I intend to show how little ground there is for such a conclusion. (12) The perspective as adopted by the Duchy of Cornwall, and given in evidence during this high profile case of arbitration, utterly refutes any suggestion that the duchy is merely a private estate based on a collection of farms and other holdings.

In that dispute, the Attorney General to the Duchy of Cornwall’s May 1855 opening submission was summarised as: In conclusion, it is submitted that the facts and authorities before referred are sufficient to establish:-

1. That Cornwall, like Wales, was at the time of the Conquest, and was subsequently treated in many respects, as distinct from England.

2. That it was held by the Earls of Cornwall with the rights and prerogatives of a county palatine, as far as regarded the seigneury or territorial dominion.

3. That the Dukes of Cornwall have from the creation of the Duchy enjoyed the rights and prerogatives of a County Palatine, as far as regarded seignory or territorial dominion, and that to a greater extent than had been enjoyed by the Earls.

4. That when the earldom was augmented into a duchy, the circumstances attending to its creation, as well as the language of the Duchy Charter, not only support and confirm the natural presumption that the new and higher title was to be accompanied with at least as great dignity, power, and prerogative as the Earls enjoyed, but also afford evidence that the Duchy was to be invested with still more extensive rights and privileges.

And Lastly, That the Duchy Charters have always been construed and treated, not merely by the Courts of Judicature, but also by the Legislature of the Country, as having vested in the Dukes of Cornwall the whole territorial interest and dominion of the Crown in and over the entire County of Cornwall.

Although Charles Windsor might by the Prince of Wales, in Cornwall he is King, for among the many other evidential statements made by the Attorney General to the Duchy of Cornwall, the following are instructive:

So far as Royal Seignory is concerned, it will scarcely be contended but that the Duke of Cornwall was placed precisely in the position of King. He had all the Crown lands within Cornwall, was entitled to all those feudal services and incidents which attached to those lands, and to all prerogative rights and emoluments, as wardships, marriages, prima seizen, reliefs, escheats &c which belonged to the Crown as the ultimate and supreme lord of the Soil.(13)

It is, moreover, submitted that the three duchy charters are sufficient in themselves to vest in the duke’s of Cornwall not only the government of Cornwall, but the entire territorial dominion.(14)

Once again, suggestions that the Duchy of Cornwall is a mere 'private estate' based on a collection of farms are refuted by the Attorney General. In fact, the Attorney General forcefully asserts that the comutatis, or community, of Cornwall [later county] forms not only the co-terminus territory of the Duchy of Cornwall but also lies legally within the jurisdiction of the Government of the Duchy of Cornwall. This ties in with the 1st duchy charter stating that the duke possesses: the Shrievalty of Cornwall, with the appurtenances ….as hath hitherto been accustomed to be done, without the hindrance or impediment of us or our heirs forever. The Shrievalty is the Office of Sheriff and in the fourteenth century the office held many of the powers now vested in lord lieutenants, High Court Judges, magistrates, local authorities, coroners and even the Inland Revenue.(15) The phrase appurtenances refers to the administrative machinery that allows the Shrievalty to function.

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