The Duchy of Cornwall was created in 1337 by a Royal Charter of Edward III. The Charter confirmed the status of Cornwall as being extra-territorial to England. Today there is much controversy about the importance of the Duchy. Is it just a ‘quirk’ of ancient history that has no purpose other than the purely ceremonial or is it the constitutional and legal basis of a Cornwall independent of England?
What can be said to be true is that the status of the Duchy is a source of fierce debate amongst a small number of both ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Cornish nationalism antagonists. At the same time the subject elicits a range of sentiments from endearing nostalgia to complete apathy from the ‘average person on the street’. So what exactly does the Duchy do for
the good of Cornwall?
Amongst some Cornish nationalists it is thought that:
“The Duchy is the constitutional foundation of every conceivable argument over Cornish rights and legitimises our link to our history.”1
But is the Duchy really so vitally important for Cornish nationhood?
Cornwall is legally, constitutionally and culturally separate to England – this is a plain and simple fact.
Unfortunately, it is also a fact that has been incrementally ignored ever since a unified England was conceived and born in the Dark Ages.
If the Duchy is the link to a history that is ignored or, just as often, corrupted by people who want to deny that history, does it actually serve any good purpose at all?
The ‘official’ Duchy of Cornwall has been inherited by the Duke of Cornwall. Exactly what benefit does the Duchy, through the auspices of the Duke of Cornwall, provide for Cornwall?
A brief look at the official Duchy of Cornwall web site provides us with the information that “The Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate which funds the public, charitable and private activities of The Prince of Wales and his family.”2 Further examination of the web pages reveals a plethora of misleading, factually inaccurate and distorted historical ‘factoids’ which are presented to the browser in order to promote this despoiled version of the Duchy of Cornwall. We are presented with an institution ‘created’ simply to provide an income for the English monarch’s eldest son. All of this is taken as gospel truth because it is the ‘official’ site so it must be true mustn’t it?3
In reality, this is establishment propaganda at its most insidious. The ancient Duchy charters confirmed and restored the status of Cornwall as a crown dependency still distinct from England. Even from before the birth of the centralised English state in the ninth century, Cornwall was, and has always been since, a separate land and has never been incorporated within the territory of ‘England’.4
The Duchy charters (which, over the years, have been ‘disappeared’, ‘re-worked’ and ‘interpreted’5 to reflect the fiction presented by the Duchy officials) confirmed that Cornwall and the Cornish people formed a distinct nation with its own administrative system and ruler. The charters confirmed this and, with the force of statute, set out in a legally constitutional format that Cornwall was not part of England, that it had never been so and that it never should be.
Unfortunately all of this is denied by our illustrious Duke of Cornwall, our sovereign leader. Instead the Duke prefers to insist that he is simply responsible for managing a private estate which exists, not to lead Cornwall into the twenty first century, but to provide a colossal supplementary stream of income for the Windsor coffers. Whereas, in times past, the monarchy needed little excuse to extract money from the people of Cornwall, now the Duchy is dressed in the clothing of a private estate in an attempt to legitimise the exercise of privilege without responsibility. I think it would be fair to say that Cornwall isn’t best served by this incarnation of the Duchy.
Perhaps, given the wealth and power that the Duchy bestows on the Duke, Charles Windsor’s private estate cannot be expected to advance the cause of the Cornish nation. Mr Windsor’s Duchy, which seeks to maximise profit and to sell Cornish heritage to the highest bidder6, is not the best administration to steer Cornwall into a vibrant and confident future – but is the ‘other’ Duchy any more fit for purpose? The Duchy that pristinely shines from the nationalists’ pages of history as a beacon of hope and legitimacy for the Cornish nation – surely this must be a better vehicle to take Cornwall forward – even if its official sovereign has abdicated all responsibility and would like to sell the crown jewels.
The trouble with this is that, although it is absolutely and unequivocally true to say that the Duchy of Cornwall is extra-terrestrial to England, it turns out that the concept of the Duchy, for the ordinary person, does not shine quite so pristinely as for the Cornish nationalist. In fact the constant and deliberate muddying of the Duchy by the English state7 has led to it becoming a battle ground chosen by the establishment8, where the establishment holds the high ground9, where the establishment has superior firepower10 and where the establishment holds reserve forces which dwarf anything yet deployed for the Cornish nation.11
Fighting for the Duchy to be reinstated as the administrative government of Cornwall is a bit like the Captains of the West marching to the gates of Mordor and waging war with Sauron (apologies if you haven’t read the Lord of the Rings). In Tolkien’s trilogy this suicidal act at least provided a distraction from the accomplishment of the only truly possible method to end the tyranny of the evil overlord. In Cornwall any small victory gained would be pyrrhic and soon reversed as the full might of the establishment came crashing down on the erstwhile victors – unless there is another plan – a method to cast the one ring of power into the fires of the earth in order to destroy it for ever.
It is extremely difficult to inspire interest from the general public concerning the reasons and evidence as to why the Duchy of Cornwall is actually the true governmental body of Cornwall and why this means that Cornwall is not simply another county of England. This difficulty arises because of the nature of historical constitutional law which is almost universally considered to be unexciting and of no relevance to people today. If you mention historical charters and Victorian law cases people will almost certainly be more likely to want to go and watch the X Factor than take part in the discussion. For them the Duchy is purely an emblem of Cornish pride that distinguishes Cornwall from “any other English county” – even if it isn’t understood why.
This phenomenon of a nostalgic pride and benign lack of understanding of the crucial importance of the Duchy in many Cornish people is what makes it such a perfect concept for the state to do battle with Cornish nationalists. Even to try and discuss the Duchy, this emblem of Cornish peculiarity, in political terms can get people annoyed. The state and the Duke control and manipulate the evidence. Duchy records are kept hidden away and kept inaccessible while other vital documentation is reinterpreted, misplaced or altered. Whenever there is a question to be asked the state prevents it being asked, using injunctions in the Westminster parliament to prevent the truth being heard12. In effect the establishment prevents truth being told and encourages anyone attempting to bring the truth into the open to be branded as fanatics and as extremists who are damaging the good name of the ceremonial and ritualistically traditional (which is, of course, actually just a well-run private estate) Duchy of Cornwall.
So what can be done? Is there a way to send the one ring of establishment power to the flames of the deep?
“Even today Cornwall retains, both superficially and hidden in the depths of her being, the marks of her distinct and separate origin. Cornwall is not just another English county but a Celtic country in its own right. Its people retain, often sub-consciously their own sense of nationality, their own attitude to life, and the foundations of their native culture.”13
Cornwall remains a ‘land apart’. That is why nationalism is as alive here, as it has never existed in counties of England. Cornwall is home to the nation of Cornwall, which now encompasses all the people of Cornwall who choose to identify with it regardless of their ethnicity. Cornwall must assert its Cornishness and be free to forge a modern and vibrant future rather than continue to be a leisure park for England and whose people consistently struggle to identify their own unique sense of worth.
To do this we need to set our own agenda which questions, rather than ignores, difficult constitutional questions.
The Duchy does Cornwall no practical good at all. It has been hijacked by an establishment seeking to protect a stream of income. Worse than this the Duchy has become a source of division between people who would see Cornwall stand on her own feet and meet the future under her own steam. The question of the importance of the status of the Duchy can cause as much antagonism between Cornish nationalists as it elicits blank stares from anyone else – and yet there remains the simple fact that: “The Duchy is the constitutional foundation of every conceivable argument over Cornish rights and legitimises our link to our history.”
Perhaps now the time has come to leave behind the past. Perhaps now the time has come to discuss the future and how to modernise the ancient constitutional bases of how Cornwall is governed. Perhaps now, the time has come to simply assert that Cornwall is a nation. The people who feel this know and understand why Cornwall is indeed a nation – but they need to pass on this knowledge in an inspirational and aspirational way. Cornwall has its own language, its own geographical area, its own ethnic group and its own culture and traditions but in order to get the ‘critical mass’ necessary to make an impact on the establishment there has to be a large scale popular reawakening and an increased assertive self-confidence to make the vision of Cornish nationhood come to fruition.
The establishment needs to be challenged to justify the existence of the Duchy. What is the purpose of this anachronistic institution that has far more privileges than those enjoyed by any normal ‘well-run private estate’? Why should a private estate have such disproportionate powers to extract money from the pockets of Cornish people? In these times of cut backs to vital public services why should Mr Windsor avoid paying tax?
The status of the Duchy and how it can be modernised (or replaced) to serve Cornwall better should be an issue thoroughly, officially and openly investigated.
At a time when the politicians of Westminster are treating Cornwall and its people as a political football, why shouldn’t Cornwall take back its future from the establishment that has done nothing to create the conditions needed to create prosperity and social justice for one and all?
While the Private Estate drains the life blood from Cornwall the London based political parties do nothing to protect Cornwall’s unique heritage and culture. Instead they prefer to devise new ways to assimilate Cornwall into England and relegate the Cornish nation to the status of a mere county, home to a money-making machine for the Duke and a holiday park for England.
Cornwall can grow and prosper – but in order to do this it needs to throw off the bonds that hold it down and it needs to look forward. The Duchy of Cornwall is one of the bonds that hold Cornwall back. For the people of Cornwall, the Duchy is both a source of economic loss and a cause of division. The exposure of the Duchy for what it really would be a bitter pill for some people to take but it is a pill that needs to be administered if Cornwall is to move forward as a vibrant and autonomous nation.
Stephen Richardson is a Mebyon Kernow councillor on Illogan Parish Council.
1 TGG, 12/7/2010 C24 forum http://www.cornwall24.co.uk
3 For an excellent illustration as to why this is a ridiculous assertion see “The Duchy of Cornwall – A very peculiar ‘Private estate’” by J. Kirkhope
4 See http://www.kernowtgg.co.uk/
5 “Our Future is History”, J. Angarrack, Independent Academic Press 2002
8 Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969 – 1973, Volume I, Report (Cmnd 5460) (The “Kilbrandon Report”)
9 In July 1997 Andrew George MP attempted to raise a question concerning the Duchy of Cornwall in the House of Commons but was prevented from doing so by an injunction that disallows MPs raising any questions in Parliament that are in any way related to the Duchy. The injunction prevents MPs asking questions regarding the “role, rights, powers and privileges” of the Dukes of Cornwall in Cornwall – reference Tamar Bridge Act 1998, s.41 and letter from the House of Commons Library to Andrew George MP, dated 16 July 1997
10 Under UK law it’s not a crime for a Government Minister to lie to Parliament, even when delivering a prepared written statement asserting knowingly false information in his or her capacity as an executive officer of the government. (See http://www.duchyofcornwall.eu/latest/?page_id=128)
11 ‘Things’ happen to prevent the ‘Cornish Question’ from being debated in English courts (see Scat t’Larrups? J. Angarrack Independent Academic Press 2008)
12 See note 9 above
13 “Cornwall the Hidden Land” – Richard and Ann Jenkin – West Country publications 1965