In fact, the 1337/8 Letters Patent, acts of Parliament and duchy charters had formally vested the Duke of Cornwall with not only full judicial and fiscal control over Cornwall, but also the shrievalty and appurtenances of Cornwall. In other words, the civil government of Cornwall. Cornwall was now in law the soil and territorial possession not of the King or Queen of England in right of the Crown, but the Duke of Cornwall in right of the Duchy of Cornwall. The territory of Cornwall, the government of Cornwall and the body politic of Cornwall was from henceforth legally vested within the Duchy of Cornwall, which by now only had tenuous legal links with England.
In other words, in recognition of Cornwall’s high status, the former Crown of England had been formally split into two pieces – England and Cornwall. Only when the offices of king and duke met did the Crown re-unify. However, when there was no duke, the duchy did not merge into the Crown, it merely rested against the Crown of England to make a temporarily unified Crown. A similar relationship exists today with Scotland and England.
State papers show the first Duke of Cornwall describing Cornwall as separate from England and the inhabitants of Cornwall as being his faithful subjects.(9) The 1337 Act of Parliament is still on the statute books and labelled by 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 Parliament in 1422, 1465 and 1539 affirmed that: ….Cornwall should always remain as a Duchy…. (10) Thus the ‘County of Cornwall’ is legally within the jurisdiction of the government of the Duchy of Cornwall.
During ‘The Prince’s Case’ of 1606, all the previous Acts of Parliament were held as valid by the highest court in the land. The legal position was re-confirmed in 1857 by Baron Cranworth, Lord High Chancellor of England.(11) Parliament accepted and acted upon that judgement via the Cornwall Submarine Mines Act 1858.
Mixed messages and changing perceptions during the early modern period.
During and after the violent turmoil of the Tudor period when an expansionist England sought to consolidate its hold on the peripheral regions of Britain, the Duchy of Cornwall’s survival instinct witnessed it begin to transform its image, identity and modus operandi. No longer welcome as a reminder of Cornish independence, the drive now was to retain the duke’s powers and privileges as head of state of Cornwall without undermining London’s effort to absorb this Crown dependency into a greater England.
Hence the emerging requirement to ensure that the duchy was placed firmly within England, the downgrading of the charters and the growth of duchy ‘rotten boroughs’. These gerrymandered parliamentary seats were created to maintain ducal powers and privileges through the exercise of parliamentary leverage - which in turn gave rise to early attempts at what was to later become an avalanche of so-called ‘Duchy of Cornwall Management Acts’. Acts that were themselves designed to lessen the duke’s reliance on troublesome, and constitutionally ‘dangerous’, duchy charters and oversee the beginnings of the slow transformation from Duchy of Cornwall constitutional entity to pseudo-‘private estate’.
During this period three contradictory perceptions of Cornwall emerged. One strain of opinion began to project Cornwall as a mere county of England [the emerging de-facto administrative position], another continued to reflect Cornwall’s separate constitutional/duchy status [the existing de jure position] while a third attempted to portray Cornwall as a duchy, but position it within England. The following accounts are written within 5 years of each other:
Cornwall as Duchy extra-territorial to England: In John Norden’s 100 page circa 1600 Description of Cornwall, the English topographer writes: His Highness, by his Honour, is privileged with sundry jurisdictions and Royalties [as have been former Dukes] who hath the return of all writs, customs, tolls, treasure trove, wardships, mineral rights, right of gold and silver the last two much abounding in the Duchy.
Norden lists some features of Government resting in Cornwall’s Duchy administration: Admiral of the Sea Coast, Customs, Comptroller, Excheator, Feodary, Auditor, Surveyor, powers to punish and pardon offences committed within the limits of the Dukedom and others as are in his Highness disposal. Norden never once refers to Cornwall as a shire or county, always careful to describe Cornwall as a Dukedom, Duchy or Country of Britain.
It was Norden who revealed that the unprecedented post 1497/1549 rise in Cornwall’s Westminster representation to equal that of Scotland [the rotten boroughs] is attributed to the duchy. Of the tiny Cornish hamlets [e.g. Mitchell] that begin sending MP’s to Parliament during the late Tudor period, Norden writes: though many of them are very mean, by the Princes permission they send Burgesses to Parliament. His observations must have pleased the ducal household, for in 1605 he was appointed Official Surveyor to the Duchy of Cornwall. Today, Anglo-centric historians often ignore, downplay or distort the content of Norden’s Description of Cornwall.
Cornwall as English Shire county: On the other hand, writing in 1602, Englishman Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall totally ignores Cornwall’s duchy status and extant constitutional position, preferring to open with the line: Cornwall, the farthest shire of England westwards…….
Carew used his travails around Cornwall to record Cornwall’s military positions, capacity, leaders and their potential allegiances. He registered the detail in his Survey and observed that, under present circumstances, Cornwall’s disproportionate military capacity was unlikely to be used against England. However, he warned his political masters that if the English launched campaigns in Normandy or Brittany, he was unsure which side the Cornish would align themselves with.
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