This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

March 2001

The Concatenation of Celtic Titles

17 March 1337:   Edward III of England usurps the Duchy of Cornwall and makes his eldest son the pretender to the Cornish throne, in addition to the Welsh.

It is one of the classic strategies of imperialism. Rather than abolish a traditional office or institution of a conquered country and getting people upset, you instead leave it intact, and install one of your own people in it. It was a trick practiced as long ago as the Roman Empire, and it would serve the new British Empire just as well.

The first-born son of the reigning English monarch is in a sense a truly pan-Celtic sort of fellow. In addition to being titled the “Prince of Wales,” he is also “Lord of the Isles” (the Western Isles of Scotland, that is,) and the Duke of Cornwall to boot. This concatenation of Celtic titles is not the result of happy coincidence, but is rather a calculated state policy.

King Edward III’s grandfather Edward I started all this shortly after he defeated the last native Prince of Wales, Llywelyn II. Seeking a way to secure his political hold on a still restive Wales, he supposedly arranged to have his pregnant queen brought to his new Welsh stronghold at Caernarfon Castle. As the story goes, when his first son was born there on 25 April 1284 the king displayed the infant to a gathering of his men and local Welsh nobles and cooly announced to the crowd that here was a true Welsh prince who spoke no English. If the story is true, then the king was telling no lies — the baby after all was a prince, was born in Wales, and indeed spoke no English (or any other language for that matter.) Though some historians doubt that this incident really took place, the story was too cute to let go, and ever since that day the first-born son of the English monarch has been invested with the title “Prince of Wales.”

Edward’s Caernarfon baby grew up to become the luckless Edward II, who lost Scotland at the battle of Bannockburn and later lost his life in murky circumstances. His son, Edward III, was determined to pick up where his grandfather left off and resume the course of conquest. To help consolidate England’s power, Edward II was willing to repeat one of his grandfather’s tricks.

Though long conquered and annexed to England, Cornwall was still in many ways a distant and alien place to the English, and the Duke of Cornwall was a fellow who had the potential to make himself a royal pain in the neck. But rather than abolish the Duchy outright, Edward took the opportunity in 1337 of naming his first-born son the Duke of Cornwall. This would ensure that there wouldn’t be a top-ranking native nobleman disaffected Cornishmen could rally around, and would thus keep political control of Cornwall firmly in the King’s pocket.

As time went on, the London government would relegate the nation of Cornwall to the legal status of a mere English county. (The Duchy still exists, though its territory is not exactly the same as the “county” of Cornwall.) The issue recently came up in connection with a proposal to strike a special Cornish issue of the new one-pound coins. Special issues of this coin bearing national symbols and mottoes had been minted for Wales and Scotland, but when asked the English authorities blandly insisted they couldn’t strike a separate coin for a mere county. Ironically, the bearing by today’s Prince Charles of the title “Duke of Cornwall” is about the only recognition in English law of Cornwall’s distinct national identity.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are based on entries of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann whose dates appear on the Celtic League American Branch’s annual Celtic Calendar, now available.

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